The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


Earlier this week, the San Diego Unified Board voted unanimously to adopt a School Climate Bill of Rights. The document, put forth by City Heights group the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, provides a grassroots-driven framework for the district’s restorative practices, an alternative form of conflict resolution in schools to discipline through suspension and expulsion.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, dozens of students, staff and community members lined up to support the initiative, but several people raised questions about the limited financial resources being dedicated to the shift in the district’s disciplinary practices.

The Learning Curve

“The first conversation needs to talk about money,” said Francine Maxwell, a parent. “How much money are we going to put behind something or are we just going to have another program where people are meeting and coming up with different resolutions, but we’re not funding that particular resolution?”

The district began shifting to so-called restorative school discipline practices a few years ago after a 2014 Harvard study included recommendations to help address the racial disparities in discipline policies that disproportionately harm black and Latino students and students with disabilities.

At the time, VOSD reported that black students in the district made up 10 percent of the student body, but 25 percent of suspensions and 21 percent of expulsions. Latinos students made up 46 percent of enrollment, but 55 percent of suspensions and 60 percent of expulsions. Students with special needs made up only 10 percent of the student body, but 34 percent of suspensions.

Restorative programs represent a fundamental cultural shift in the way schools view behavioral issues and discipline.

“I want to understand the restorative department,” said a community member from southeastern San Diego, Tasha Williamson at a June board meeting. “A restorative department that has one employee and no budget … where does the funding go that was allocated towards restorative?”

The district’s Race and Human Relations office, which had been doing much of the work to implement restorative practices was dismantled in budget cuts. According to the district, prior to June 30, the San Diego Unified School District employed seven pupil advocates, who worked on drop-out prevention and race relations. As of July 1, there are three pupil advocates – the four other positions were eliminated.

San Diego Unified has a newly created Department of Restorative Practices, whose sole staff member on paper is its program manager Felicia Singleton – that’s the issue Williamson brought up.

Trustee John Lee Evans also expressed concerns on Tuesday about how the School Climate Bill of Rights would play out in practice, given financial realities.

“We don’t want this to just be a feel-good resolution that doesn’t have any teeth behind it,” he said. Four of the six points in the resolution would ostensibly cost money, and the district’s budget for the coming year has already been approved.

Superintendent Cindy Marten laid out the resources going toward restorative justice in next year’s budget: Singleton’s position, a counselor/resource teacher, funds for a contract with National Conflict Resolution Center staff to work with district schools on restorative practices and some professional development funds.

“We have to plan in ways that are sustainable for the long term,” Marten said.

The one measureable the district could give was that in 2016-2017, more than 500 adults working in the district participated in restorative training.

Restorative justice in schools come into play when a student is being disruptive or otherwise behaving badly. In practice, it often plays out through “conferences” where students who were part of altercations or other conflicts are brought together with staff and parents to help them apologize and come up with an action plan to address their wrongdoing without keeping them out of school.

On a VOSD podcast last year, Ciria Brewer, Hoover High School’s dean of students, described a restorative justice student conference with three students who had been part of an altercation, and their parents. “Everybody had a chance to talk about their perspective, what the impact on them has been and what they need to be able to feel safe and move forward,” she said.

Restorative justice also includes an aspect of community-building to try to prevent as many conflicts or disruptions from occurring. It often happens in the forms of “circles,” where students, staff and teachers come together to discuss issues and increase their understanding and empathy toward one another.

Anthony Ceja, senior manager in the Student Support Services Department at the San Diego County Office of Education who helps train SDCOE schools and other districts in restorative practices, said encouraging students and faculty to humanize one another from the get-go should be 90 percent of a restorative program’s focus.

“Many conflicts are happening because people haven’t developed that respect and trust for each other,” Ceja said. “They realize they share a lot of experiences and values and then the stereotypes that have been building up melt away.”

The district’s shift toward positive behavior interventions and restorative strategies as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions coincided with a larger shift at the state level, spurred by a 2014 state bill that eliminated so-called willful defiance as a justifiable reason to expel students, and limited its use as a justification for suspensions. “Willful defiance” was used as a catch-all explanation for punishing students for pretty much anything that disrupted class.

Restorative practices so far have been concentrated in high schools in City Heights and southeastern San Diego – that’s been one of the longstanding criticisms of the program at the district, despite its successes.

District suspension data from the three high schools where restorative practices are concentrated – Crawford, Hoover and Lincoln – show sharp declines in suspension rates from 2011-2012 among black students, English-learners and students with disabilities, though the suspension rates for black and disabled students remain higher than the schools’ average suspension rates.


You can see a full list of district schools and their suspension rates over time here.

But the issue of funding and resources to scale restorative practices persists.

“The best practice is to have everybody trained in the model and then the school moves forward in implementation together,” said Ceja. “Before the problems even come about, they’re proactively building relationships, so it’s really just implemented and integrated in your school curriculum. If you do it that way, you have a very high chance of success.”

Ceja said he thinks San Diego Unified has done quite a bit of work on the restorative side, but the district’s size has been its biggest hindrance.

“The larger you are, the bigger your bureaucracy becomes,” he said. “It is more challenging.”

Local Ed News

KPBS is keeping us updated as the Scripps Ranch AP test saga continues. San Diego Unified filed a lawsuit last Friday against the College Board and Educational Testing Services, contesting its ruling to invalidate several hundred Advanced Placement exams taken at Scripps Ranch High School in May.

A judge is set to hear the district motion Friday, and retests are set to begin next week, reports KPBS’s Megan Burks.

• VOSD’s Scott Lewis’ wrote a scathing review of San Diego Unified leadership, listing the problems our reporting has unveiled over the past couple of years. Lewis implored district leadership to own up to its shortcomings, rather than pretend they don’t exist.

Ed News Roundup

• Vista High School is poised to become a high-profile national test run of whether personalized learning can succeed in a large public school, writes the Hechinger Report. Also on the personalized learning front, the RAND Corporation studied 40 schools nationwide that are implementing the model.

• Staffing at the U.S. Department of Education has plummeted 36 percent over the past three decades. (Education Week)

• Bullying costs California school districts $276 million annually. (Sacramento Bee)

• Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s teacher tenure bill isn’t going to happen this year. (Capital Public Radio)

• The new California state budget includes $5 million to help with the state’s shortage of bilingual teachers. (EdSource)

• The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research – which has quite the name – has an interesting explainer that looks at media reports of teacher shortages and parts of the narrative they’re often missing.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.