Monday, April 30, 2018

Valerie Samn's Answers to Common Questions

I am running for the New Rochelle Board of Education in 2018.

This year is an especially challenging time with many crucial decisions to be made. How will we improve school safety? What are our next steps with our contract with the Superintendent? How can we ensure educational excellence while being fiscally responsible while taxes are skyrocketing. 

Here are my answers to questions about my background and general approach to work in education. 

What is your background?

I am a life-long educator. As an undergraduate, I was heavily involved in the MIT Educational Studies Program, in which I was (miraculously) allowed to found and run a residential program for high school students.

I decided make a career of education, and I spent four years in a doctoral program in Cognition and Learning at Teachers College. From there, I joined the NYC Department of Education, first as a high school math teacher and staff developer. Now I have been with the DOE Central in the Office of School Performance for over five years. I am certified in NYS as a School Building Leader (SBL) and School District Leader (SDL).

How will you help New Rochelle achieve educational excellence?

I believe that the key to educational excellence is to allow practitioners as much freedom as possible to apply their expertise towards implementing the district's vision, while holding them accountable through concrete processes that establish open dialogue, monitoring of outcomes, and continuous improvement. 

My vision is that CSDNR will be able to create sustainable systems to ensure the following for all schools:
  • Academic Rigor and Social-Emotional Growth
  • Equity and social justice
  • Data-driven and research-based practices
  • School accountability, including effective communication

What experience do you have with school budgets? 

My experience with school budgets comes from my training and internship to become certified as a school principal and district leader. I am confident that this introductory experience,  combined with my strong analytical skills, and willingness to learn from experts, will allow me to hit the ground running as a board member.

What do you feel are the most pressing needs in our school district?

There is a concern that the district has been letting things slip for too long. This is either the result of a lack of internal accountability, poor communication or a combination of both.

The BOE needs to establish systems of accountability to ensure that strategies are implemented, and when they are, that they meet the district’s objectives. This includes:
  • Coming to a common understanding of what “Success” looks like in every area,
  • Monitoring and measuring outcomes, and
  • Being reflective and continually improving processes
There also needs to be an improved dialogue between the district and the community. The district needs to improve communications with parents, both about one-off incidents, as well as responding to larger concerns. More thinking needs to be done around how we can best leverage social media and other tools to more efficiently disseminate accurate information on a timely basis, and allow more voices to be heard. As a community, we need to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue, and make an effort to tap into the wealth of knowledge and expertise in New Rochelle. Great ideas can come from anywhere.

What would you bring to the BOE?

I am a relentless problem-solver with a diverse array of experiences in the field of education. I strive to meet as many needs as possible, as efficiently as possible, and at times with out-of-the-box solutions. I seek truth and research-based best practices. I do my best to remain open-minded because, to find the best solutions, one must be willing give up one’s own ideas for those that better fulfill the mission and vision of the New Rochelle Schools.

What do you think of Restorative Practices/Restorative Justice?

I support high-quality implementations of Restorative Practices because it is a research-based, coherent framework that can address several issues at once: a positive school culture, social-emotional growth, and school discipline. Lessons learned through Restorative Practices  also support classroom discussion, so it can have direct academic benefits as well.

I tend to prefer coherent strategies that serve multiple purposes. While they can take significant effort at first, they ultimately take less of a toll on staff and administration. Once capacity is built, a coherent strategy ultimately reduces expenses in the future.

What are your thoughts on school safety?

I support strategies that include a strong  component of social-emotional learning and that promote a positive school environment. Strategies in the area of school safety are prone to risk the worsening of the school-to-prison pipeline and racial discrimination, so I would want to ensure that these issues are considered when implementing a strategy, and they are closely monitored to ensure equity and efficacy.

Will you be able to convince the board of your ideas, such as Restorative Practices?

I do not intend to try to “convince” the board or anyone else about any specific strategy in any school. This is because principals and    district administrators are the ones with deep knowledge of the needs of the students in their own schools. They must be the ones to select and implement strategies aligned to the district’s goals and vision established in the Strategic Roadmap.

Instead, the BOE needs to establish systems of accountability to ensure that what the district chooses to implement are demonstrably achieving the vision outlined in the Strategic Roadmap. To achieve effective accountability, a healthy dialogue must be established between the BOE, district/schools, parents, and the community.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

FAQ: Restorative Practices in New Rochelle

Earlier this year, I hosted a series of workshops for parents to learn more about Restorative Practices and what a successful implementation looks like.

These workshops stemmed from online conversations surrounding the unfortunate events at New Rochelle High School earlier this year. Parents and teachers felt that a systemic lack of discipline and consequences led to these violent incidents. The prevailing theory was that the lack of discipline was due to the implementation of Restorative Practices, laid out in CSDNR's code of conduct.

As an educator in New York City, I had heard great things from colleagues about Restorative Practices, so this didn't sound right to me. I did some digging to find out more about it, and through this research, I was fortunate to be able to connect with Counseling in Schools, who generously offered their time and wisdom at the first two of our three workshops.

At all three workshops, there were questions pertaining to feasibility and logistics that we didn't have time to discuss, and I wanted to address those here. Please note that I am answering these questions based on what I currently understand about Restorative Practices, and based on my experience with implementing other complex initiatives in schools. I am also confident that Restorative Practices can work in New Rochelle, and wanted to share some of my thoughts on why I believe it is possible.

Question: What are Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice?

When we punish our children, our goal is to get them to learn a lesson. So when we give a consequence, we also teach better behaviors: "You're in a time-out because you grabbed the toy out of your sister's hand... next time wait your turn or find a different toy." Then, when the punishment is over, everything is back to normal: the kids are playing nicely least until the next time something happens. While our children may dislike the punishment, they learn from it because they know it is temporary, and they will have another chance to do the right thing. They know that their parents still love and accept them.

Punishment works when there is an explicit lesson, and when the child is secure in his/her place in the family. But what if punishment were given, but the child does not receive guidance on how to behave, and also feels like he is no longer accepted or loved?

This is, in my mind, the difference between the mindset of Restorative Justice and traditional in-school consequences. Restorative Justice seeks to teach a lesson about how to live peacefully in society--which may or may not involve a punishment or consequence--then seeks to re-integrate the child into the community when the punishment is over.  On the other hand, traditional consequences in school are based on the Criminal Justice mindset, which seeks to give a punishment to atone for the misbehavior. Often, there is little guidance towards more acceptable behaviors, and no attempts to help the child become re-integrated into the community after demonstratively being told that he/she is not welcome through exclusionary punishments.

Here is a good description of Restorative Practices.

Question: I don’t see how this can work with high school kids. They said that when schools implement RP, kids begin to ask to use Restorative Circles to solve their problems. I don't see our kids at NRHS who are being bullied asking to have a Restorative Circle with his/her bully.

When Counseling In Schools presented, I learned something really important. I had been focusing on Restorative Justice as an alternative technique for school discipline, perhaps a "thing to do" instead of suspending kids, in isolation of other aspects of school culture.

Terrence emphasized that the big idea behind Restorative Practices is that the school needs to establish a school culture in which every individual believes--through experience--that he/she is regarded as important, who deserves to speak, and deserves to be heard and accepted. It is only then that Restorative Justice will work as intended.

When there is conflict, this equal footing has been disrupted: the bully has established power over the bullied, the disruptive kid in class has usurped power from the teacher, etc. The goal of Restorative Justice is to restore the balance of power and relationships within the community.

How that can translate into Real Life, in my mind is this:
·       Restorative Circles are used to establish the culture, in which students, faculty, and staff regularly practice speaking, listening, and acceptance of one another
·       Students are never forced to participate. They experience the acceptance (including the acceptance of their silence) and when they are ready, they choose to participate
·       Once students are convinced that they are accepted by the community through repeated positive experiences with Restorative Circles and interactions with adults, the use of Circles in resolving conflict becomes more palatable. Again, this isn’t forced, but offered as a choice. And what is said in the circle is also not forced—the mediator asks questions but would not require an apology, for instance. When Restorative Practices are implemented well, students feel safe and heard, and begin to choose it as a means to repair relationships.
·       When students believe that they are in a safe community and hear from other students that RJ really helps, they will seek RJ instead of acting on anger or a desire for revenge. 

Question: How can this work in a school with 3400+ students? We do not have enough staff in the high school and even with the budget increase, we are still at a disadvantage.

While a full-on implementation, complete with outside support, training, and additional staff members is probably most efficient (and comparatively more expensive), there are many strategies a school can take to begin to implement Restorative Practices with the resources and staff they already have.

This is possible because the adoption of Restorative Practices is more of a shift in mindset around how the school approaches the building of school/classroom community, providing social-emotional supports, and handle disciplinary issues. All three of these are necessary for a healthy school community and should be done regardless of whether RP is implemented. However, Restorative Practices provides a coherent framework that allows these three aspects to be addressed using the same overall approach. From what I’ve seen this makes schools much more effective in all three areas.

Of course, staffing, safety, resource, and organizational issues also need to be addressed, but this can be done in parallel to embracing effective strategies for building school culture. Schools can start small--perhaps a small team of teachers who are interested can take the lead in learning about Restorative Practices, and given time and resources to do so.

Question: Isn’t it too late for them to learn this in high school?

A positive school culture needs to be proactively established any time students from different schools come together in a new school. If the school does not establish a positive culture, then the culture is left to itself to develop--and that doesn’t often lead to desired outcomes. This is true regardless of whether the school chooses to implement Restorative Practices or some other strategy, or collection of strategies.

I am optimistic that Restorative Practices will work because there are many examples of schools introducing Restorative Practices at the high school level, including IIRP, who developed these practices with an alternative high school serving students struggling with academics and a history of disciplinary issues. As they say in this video, if it works for them, it should work for anyone.

Question: How does this work if parents do not buy in, or if students do not have a strong family foundation? How do we resolve issues when things at home are so bad that it affects how they act in school? Or for students whose parents are not in their lives?

There are many instances in which Restorative Practices work well for students who do not have a supportive home environment and other challenges. In many ways, RP can provide supports that they aren't getting at home. As an example of what this might look like, Restorative Circles can be used first thing in the day (or in class, depending on what the teacher feels works well) to have a quick “how’s it going?” circle. If a student is upset/anxious about something, this is an opportunity to talk about it. Assuming that a supportive culture has been established, this can reduce the anxiety just by being able to express it and feel supported by peers. That could help the student focus more on the classroom activities.

The alternative (and common practice) would be to ignore it, let the student’s anxiety/anger fester, and when he can’t take it anymore, he acts out, he is sent to the office, and punished. Not only has this student’s needs not been met, but it is disruptive to the class, and now the student feels ignored AND angry about the punishment. I suspect that this compounding anger would lead to continued bad behavior; usually when I’m angry, my instinct is to lash out, not behave. If kids are just punished and not taught how manage their anger, then the pattern continues.

Restorative Practices are strategies for helping students learn to deal with issues productively, leading to a more peaceful school culture overall. What is encouraging is that once students get used to the culture and teachers/staff have internalized the process, it is easier for teachers/staff to help de-escalate situations in class, spending less time with disciplinary issues than they would have otherwise. 

Question: How would classes integrate Restorative Circles into their classrooms? They have so much material to cover, especially the more advanced classes where there are seldom disciplinary issues.

I can imagine Restorative Practices used in classrooms in a variety of ways, depending on needs and the makeup of the class. Some classrooms may benefit from a brief, daily “how’s it going?” discussion, as described above. Sometimes something happens in the school community that causes anxiety to the school as a whole, in which a Restorative Circle discussion can allow students to express their thoughts and concerns. A school that has integrated Restorative Circles as part of their community norms will be able to more easily use it in times of crisis.

Other classrooms might use a circle to share ideas about a topic they are covering (although it is not a “debate” scenario as much as sharing of viewpoints). In a Mathematics Education class that I took once, we watched a video of an AP Calculus class that put their desks in mini-circles to discuss the problems. In this application, the culture produced by Restorative Practices would allow students to speak and listen respectfully to each other’s ideas and to help each other understand the material. Group discussion fosters deep understanding and retention in all academic areas, so from my point of view, it’s a win-win.

Some other references

Center for Restorative Process:
Research Review:

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Tip Before the Election: Avoid Dumbbell Theories

A Dumbbell Theory pits two seemingly opposite ideas against each other, without considering that both can exist. This is also known as a false dichotomy or either-or fallacy.

We have a bunch of those in the field of education:

The problem with this type of thinking is that it prevents us from considering a combination of approaches that may turn out to be a better solution than just focusing on one. In reality, many of these seemingly competing strategies can co-exist. In fact, not only do they co-exist, but they also enhance each other.

Academic Curriculum versus Social-Emotional Curriculum

There is often the valid concern that dedicating too much classroom to social-emotional will detract from time spent on academics. But, not surprisingly, school climate is associated with academic performance. If students are not distracted by anxiety, frustration, hunger, conflict, etc., then they are less able to concentrate on learning. I believe that if students' other needs are addressed, then academic instruction will be more efficiently received by students. Of course, there needs to be a balance, and attention needs to be paid simultaneously to both.

Restorative Practices versus Consequences

These also can co-exist, although sometimes they overlap. What this can look like is this (based on my current understanding of Restorative Practices):
  • Student does something seriously wrong
  • Student gets suspended
  • Upon return, student may participate in a Restorative Circle to be offered an opportunity to make amends. Those affected also have an opportunity to share their viewpoints as well. The way I think of it is that a student who has been suspended may feel unwanted upon return and have trouble re-integrating into the community, leading to additional hostility. They then have less of a "stake" in contributing positively to a community that has rejected them. This can lead to more bad behavior, and more suspensions, until the student self-extracts him/herself from the community. Restorative Practices give the student an opportunity to restore the relationship that was injured so that he/she (and all involved) can continue without additional hostility. 
This could also look like this:
  • Student does something to hurt the feelings of another child
  • The student has a conversation with the other child so that both sides can discuss what can be done to repair the relationship. This allows for more opportunities to recognize the real-life consequences of their behavior as well as developing empathy for others.
Here is a video created by the group that developed Restorative Practices:

Common Core versus Academic Rigor

This is a huge can of worms. There are, indeed, many mechanisms by which the Common Core initiative can lead to lack of academic rigor:
  • Teaching to the test instead of teaching critical thinking
  • Too much time dedicated to test prep (in one school I worked at, they spent 40% of classroom time on test prep rather than teaching)
  • Teacher evaluations based solely on test scores, and other incentives to teaching to the test
  • Not understanding the big picture or vision of the CCLS
  • Overly-rigid implementation of the CCLS, without paying attention to learning outcomes
But it doesn't have to be this way. The Common Core Learning Standards--while not perfect--are a the latest attempt at naming the skills and behaviors needed to become good problem solvers and critical thinkers.

One has to interpret them with the end result in mind (i.e. problem solving and critical thinking), along with research-based best practices. This understanding helps shape the way we implement the CCLS. It makes the difference between running through the list of topics in a perfunctory manner and recognizing how the topics interconnect and support student development.

Valerie Samn's Answers to Common Questions

I am running for the New Rochelle Board of Education in 2018. This year is an especially challenging time with many crucial decisions to...