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This school once had a reputation for violence. Here’s how that changed.

Graduation at Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo. (Hinkley High School)

How does a school change its violent culture? What kind of work must adults and students do for it to become a place where students feel safe and can learn?

This post tells the story of a school that found a way to dramatically remake its culture. It is William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo., which is a winner in the latest round of the Schools of Opportunity project, which recognizes public high schools that work to close opportunity gaps by creating learning environments that reach every student.

Hinkley High used “restorative justice,” a concept that has developed over the past 35 years as an alternative to traditional disciplinary and criminal justice systems in and out of school. While its critics say it is simply a way to be easy on offenders, it is far more than that.

The Centre for Justice & Reconciliation formally defines restorative justice this way:

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.

In practice, it means that the harm done is repaired and the perpetrator takes responsibility, and that the best way to repair the harm is for all stakeholders to be involved. According to the center:

Restorative justice views crime as more than breaking the law – it also causes harm to people, relationships, and the community. So a just response must address those harms as well as the wrongdoing. If the parties are willing, the best way to do this is to help them meet to discuss those harms and how to [bring about] resolution.  Other approaches are available if they are unable or unwilling to meet. Sometimes those meetings lead to transformational changes in their lives.

Lives have been changed at Hinkley High, as explained in this post.

The Schools of Opportunity project started in 2014 as a pilot in New York and Colorado and went national in 2015-2016. Several dozen schools have been honored in the program, which assesses a variety of factors (see graphic below), including how well the adults in a school building provide health and psychological support for students, as well as judicious and fair discipline policies and a broad and enriched curriculum.

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The following piece profiling Hinkley High School was co-written by Kevin Welner, a co-director of the Schools of Opportunity project who is director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado and a professor specializing in educational policy and law. The other co-writer is Linda Molner Kelley, a co-director of Schools of Opportunity and a former assistant dean of teacher education and partnerships, and director for outreach and engagement at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

This blog is profiling all the winning schools in the 2017 Schools of Opportunity cycle — six gold and two silver. The gold winners are Broome Street Academy Charter High School in New York, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, Lincoln High School in Nebraska, Denver’s South High School, Health Sciences High & Middle College in San Diego and Seaside High School in California. The two silver Schools of Opportunity for 2017 are Hammond High School in Columbia, Md., and William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colo.

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William C. Hinkley High School

Aurora, Colo.

Principal: Matthew Willis

Superintendent: Rico Munn

Enrollment: 2,108

Economically Disadvantaged: 80

By Kevin Welner and Linda Molner Kelley

Located in one of the Denver metro area’s lowest resource neighborhoods, William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado, once had a reputation as a violent school with gang conflicts. Since 2011, all of that has changed. A robust “culture of care” drives policies and practices that create a healthy, positive learning environment for students, teachers and staff.

The school’s committed teachers, staff, and leadership systematically worked on improving the school’s culture by replacing ineffective push-out discipline policies with restorative justice (RJ) principles. Suspensions and expulsions are sometimes appropriate and even necessary, but when these discipline policies are overused, they needlessly deprive students of learning opportunities, and they leave the underlying problems in place.

Hinkley High School recognized its problematic practices and took action. It adopted an RJ model in 2011, and over the next four years saw a 43 percent decline in aggressive behaviors and a 47 percent decline in total disciplinary referrals (446 to 236). Five-year graduation rates have also increased 11.3 percent (to 80.9 percent) over the same period.

At Hinkley, everyone participates in RJ practices. Students, teachers, staff and parents learn how to resolve conflicts with an eye toward changing (rather than just punishing) bad behavior choices, talking through conflicts, and repairing harm while improving communication.

Our National Education Policy Center team noted how broadly and deeply the entire school community embraced RJ. When questioned about bullying, students regularly responded, “That doesn’t happen here.”

When we asked students what they might do if they saw someone bullied, they resoundingly answered, “RJ.” And when conflicts emerge among administrators, teachers and staff, we were told that they, too, use restorative approaches to resolve those disputes.

For Eyni Ali, an 18-year-old student from Somalia, RJ practices have improved his academic involvement and interpersonal relationships.

“Restorative justice helped me personally because I was bullied in middle school and I was able to understand why students might make certain decisions (like they were bullied or had family problems),” she said. “I was also able to help students who speak the same language as me (Somali). They weren’t understanding the circumstances they might face if they fight with students or students who weren’t able to speak for themselves.”

Eyni said she also appreciates the tools she now has to navigate school and the world.

“I have become very open-minded and I am able to understand students beyond their behavior in school," she said. "For instance, in my sophomore year I had my own prejudice toward certain students, but when I was practicing restorative justice and students were talking about very personal topics, I got to know what they were going through. This helped me have empathy and be more understanding of what students might be going through.”

Another student, Erisha James, told us that the new approach to discipline has changed her life. “RJ has helped me in becoming a more loving, nicer, and calmer mother, friend, and student,” she said.

“When I came to Hinkley High School and learned about Restorative Justice and began participating in the process (even as a peer counselor), I learned to control my emotions, and I was able to speak to those who I didn’t get along with in a more respectful way," she said.

Like Eyni, Erisha now benefits from RJ’s lessons. “I now have the tools to talk things out before acting upon my anger," she said. "I have learned that not everything has to be settled with a physical disagreement. Words are more powerful than anything else, once you sit down and let everything out. I have watched my life change just by sitting and fixing the harm and restoring the love that was broken.”

Student and peer counselor Tatieana Delgado added: “RJ defused a lot of conflict [and] avoided fighting. It also taught me to use my communication skills."

Students of color make up more than 90 percent of Hinkley’s enrollment, and they find a supportive environment. For instance, empowerment groups for black students connect students with community mentors, and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program assists parents and students with information and support. In conversations with students while on our site visit, we also saw widespread support for LGBTQ students.

Students lead LGBTQ projects and events, and the school was the first in the Aurora district to lobby to change the name of record for a student who transitioned. Students participate in “A Day Without Hate” and “A Day of Silence.” HERO (Helping Educate Regarding Orientation) Club students have presented to other Hinkley students and faculty on issues of concern to them (to teachers, this included how to support and provide a safe place for LGBTQ students).

The school has a 20 percent mobility rate, but new arrivals are carefully brought within the supportive culture.

Sixty-seven percent of Hinkley’s families speak languages other than English, and almost one third of its students are enrolled in the English Language Development program.

The school offers intensive English courses for emergent bilinguals and offers the same pathways and programming — including IB courses — to its intermediate bilinguals. All teachers in the district are required to have Linguistically Diverse Educator certificates and engage in professional development to improve literacy development for all students.

The school’s curriculum targets rigorous learning by offering a strong selection of advanced courses. Hinkley’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program was identified in 2016 as one of the five most diverse IB programs in the country; within tenths of a percentage point, each racial group is represented and the free or reduced-price lunch rate exceeds the school as a whole for IB classes. Because the ethnic diversity of Hinkley’s IB program closely matches the ethnic diversity of the school, IB North America chose the school for research.

The school also offers robust concurrent enrollment opportunities with postsecondary partners. The “Accelerating Students through Concurrent ENrollmenT” (ASCENT) program encourages Hinkley students to attend classes free of charge at local community, technical and four-year colleges as a fifth year of high school.

Students receive academic support to help them succeed in the school’s challenging classes. In addition to co-taught classes in math and English, which serve special education and emergent bilingual (English learner) students, math enrichment classes are offered concurrently with college-preparation courses such as integrated algebra in two-period blocks.

“Zero hour” (before-school) English classes support 11th- and 12th-graders enrolled in higher-level English courses. To make the curriculum relevant to students, the English Department in particular has incorporated texts and assignments reflecting a range of cultures and a diversity of authors’ voices.

Hinkley has also explored new ways to provide meaningful, rigorous academic opportunities to its emergent bilingual students. Last year, Hinkley conducted a case study with 95 intermediate-level bilinguals enrolled in either IB or college credit classes to investigate the effectiveness of a different instructional model. Students did not receive pull-out English language services but rather were placed in classrooms with teachers trained in methodologies to support the students in both content and language learning.

The inclusive, integrated model produced encouraging results: only six students earned below a “C” grade in their advanced courses. The district approved the program’s continuation.

Attention to culture is foundational to Hinkley’s efforts to meet not only student needs, but also those of its staff.

By forming Professional Learning Teams (PLT’s) organized by grade and content areas, the school empowers its teachers to make decisions while fostering collaboration and planning focused on student learning. Team activities are embedded in teachers’ biweekly common planning time, and include creating and analyzing classroom assessments, sharing lesson plans, making content decisions, and developing co-teaching strategies for special education and English Language Learning teachers team teaching with mathematics and English teachers in support classes.

Our visit to a ninth-grade English PLT demonstrated how powerful and effective this kind of professional development is for teachers and, ultimately, for their students.

Four teachers ranging from novices to experienced teachers taught two versions of “English 1”: a regular class, and a co-taught class. Teachers were analyzing results of a recent writing assignment, determining their book selections for the next unit, and sharing lesson delivery ideas for both classes. The first-year teacher in the PLT told us how beneficial the team support was for her. The more experienced English teacher teaming with a special-education teacher said he much preferred that model to solo teaching, believing it to be better for teachers and for all students (not just those with special needs). A member of our visiting team confirmed this, noting the “seamless instruction” she witnessed while observing a co-taught English class.

The PLT model, coupled with a school-wide culture of care, results in strong support for new teachers at Hinkley. That support includes building coaches and district-assigned induction program mentors. Attending to the needs of novice teachers, Principal Matthew Willis said, is particularly important at a high-poverty school such as Hinkley, where new teachers usually face more challenges and higher turnover.

As two parents told us, Hinkley provides all stakeholders — students, teachers, and parents — the resources and support needed in a culture that believes that students are “supposed to stay, and supposed to go on.”

For its unwavering commitments to the well-being and growth of the entire school community while continuing to create equitable learning opportunities for students, Hinkley has earned its recognition as a School of Opportunity.

For more information on restorative justice practices, see the following media links to the Denver Post and PBS NewsHour reports of Hinkley’s program:

(Correction: Earlier version of this post identified Eyni Ali incorrectly. All references are now correct.)