URBANA — Five months after unveiling a controversial new policy that led to an exodus of teachers and dominated debates at school board meetings, Urbana is set to put its new student discipline structure into action.
School starts in eight days — with two newly-appointed principals, no deans at the middle and high schools, and what the district believes is a well-trained team of staffers that has bought into the new system.
"From what I've seen, I think the staff will be ready when school starts," Superintendent Don Owen said. "I think we will be ready."
The public backlash over Urbana's new way of solving student problems — one that focuses on restorative practices, not suspensions or expulsions — has simmered down since March. Back then, critics said, eliminating the dean positions at the middle and high schools unfairly targeted those responsible for doling out discipline as the reason for racial disparity in the severity of punishment.
Owen painted a different picture, saying the deans themselves were not believed to be the cause of the disparity but were taken out of the schools in an effort to accelerate an ongoing transition to a "completely different" discipline system.
"If you don't actually flip the switch and say 'Now's the time where we're going to make a major change,' then you're only going to be making incremental changes and thereby only seeing incremental results," Owen said. "The incremental changes that we've been making have been really good for overall numbers going down, but really bad for our outcomes for our students of color.
"Therefore, we need to do something completely different."
Not everyone supported the change — then or now. By the time the school year ended, 40 of the 50 faculty members who left did so by resigning, not retiring. Six administrators also took jobs elsewhere — including principals Scott Woods at UMS and Matt Stark at UHS.
Owen acknowledged the number of departures was higher than the previous year but "not completely out of whack" with turnover historically. And a few of the resignations were from employees already on leave for unrelated reasons.
But he still has some parents to win over.
The new system "feels experimental," said UMS mom Laura Lyon. "Like, 'Here, OK, we've got to do this.'
"I think it's just going to kind of let everyone kind of just do what they want. It's going to be a culture of impunity, and the school is more chaotic than it is now, is the concern."
Consultant called in
What might in March have seemed like a sudden change was actually the result of a gradual, three-year shift away from traditional public school discipline, Owen says.
A memorandum of agreement indicates the district began working with restorative practice specialists Elaine Shpungin and her husband, Mikhail Lyubansky, in August 2015.
"When we first got in touch with them, they were at the U of I in the psych department," Owen said. "They were known in the region as some of the experts on restorative practices in the area."
Now the director and founder of the consulting service Conflict 180, Shpungin has been training Urbana staffers and students on the ins-and-outs of restorative practices for nearly three years, serving as the district's primary point person and coordinator on the subject.
The district has paid her $75,000 to date, Owen said, and renewed her consulting agreement for the 2018-19 school year.
"There wasn't anything that we had in our mind that there would be an end date," Owen said. "Every year, we reevaluate the direction where we're going. It's one of those things that keep both the consultant and the district engaged in the process."
One of the keys to successfully executing a restorative practice-based system is communication, Shpungin said, be it informal (such as a lunch shared between a teacher and student to repair a relationship) or formal (such as the "circles" students can request, where an adult facilitates a discussion between two feuding students).
"One of the mind shifts we encourage in a traditional justice project is we ask: Who broke what rule and how do we punish them?" she said. "In a restorative process, we ask who was harmed, what kind of harm, how do we repair that harm and make it right? Those are really different."
Shpungin explained the difference in an anecdote about a student who could have been suspended in prior years for bringing a lighter to school, but wasn't after having a conversation with staff members.
"A lighter in the old system could have been considered a weapon," Shpungin said. "In this case, the young person had a short circle and what they discovered is that the kid is great, but he smokes. He was never in trouble, no history of anything.
"We ask, 'Who was harmed?' His lungs. No one else. His mother was involved and we asked him to never bring it to school again."
Based on research and evidence from districts in other states, Urbana officials believe such a system will create more conversations like the one above and produce fewer behavioral issues overall. That, in turn, will keep students in the classroom, they say, which wasn't the case enough as recently as this past spring.
In the old Urbana system, when a teacher wrote a referral, a student was sent to the dean's office. From there, he or she could either be suspended, punished another way or sent back to class after a conversation.
Although the overall number of suspensions and expulsions has trended downward as Urbana's restorative practice efforts moved forward, the disparity ratio between students of color and whites increased, which Owen said prompted bigger changes to the district's discipline policy.
Critics of the decision to remove deans pointed to an uptick in physical violence at the middle school as one possible indicator of the failures of restorative practices to effectively manage student behavior.
Lyon said she and her husband considered pulling their sixth-grade son out of the district after he told stories about fights he witnessed and how he'd learned to keep to himself in class to avoid other students' loud behavior.
"My short-term worry is that Patrick's going to have a horrible year next year," she said. "And my worry long-term is that the district is going to get further segregated because no parent is going to send their kid to a situation that's not safe."
Even district officials admit that the 2017-18 academic year at Urbana Middle School was a difficult one, marked by more physical altercations than usual.
But, they contend, that's less a reflection of the restorative system and more the result of too few appropriately-trained staff at both the middle and high schools.
In June, school board members approved the hiring of an assistant principal, three student-engagement advocates, a social worker and two clinical professionals at UMS.
They'll join the ongoing efforts of restorative practices facilitator Tracy Welsh, who's been working with UMS students and teachers since 2015.
One day, she might organize a circle with students and teachers. The next, the circle might include students, teachers and parents, who are coached on how to resolve conflict without her.
There isn't always data to measure success but there are ways to tell, she said.
When students resolve their own issues without her but with civility, "that's how I know if it's succeeded," she said.
Not always the answer
MaKalyn Teague, who's about to start her freshman year at Urbana, has seen restorative circles that went well and others that backfired.
"A lot of kids, if you bring friends with you (in a circle), especially if you instigated the problem, you have to lie because they're there," she said. "That's why I stopped bringing my friends.
"Sometimes, my friends would walk out of a circle because they want to look like they have an issue, when you really just want to fix it."
Formal restorative circles are voluntary — while they can be requested by a teacher, student or parent, all parties have to agree to them.
They're also not the answer for every conflict.
To Robyn DiPietro-Wells, who said her daughter was mocked about a disability by other sixth-grade girls, putting her child in a circle wouldn't have been appropriate.
And Scott and Melissa Dowds took an altogether different route after their son was assaulted in a school bathroom twice by students he said he didn't know. The Dowdses chose to file a police report. A restorative circle was the last thing on their mind.
To accurately gauge how successful the district has been in using restorative practices appropriately — what's referred to as measuring "fidelity" — requires those practices to have been in place anywhere from five to seven years, according to Shpungin.
That's why memorandums of agreement between Shpungin and the district frequently reference the phrase "over the long term."
Those words come before four different ways the new system will be measured:
— "Reduced numbers of certain kinds of referrals and disciplinary actions."
— "Reduced numbers of fights and days out of class, and out of school."
— "Increases in staff and student self-reports of school climate."
— "Increases in family, student and staff involvement."
Extra support staff at both the middle and high schools should translate into better climates than existed last year, Urbana officials say.
But how the system fares will rest in part on how it's embraced by students, said Samuel Byndom, the district's assistant superintendent of student learning.
"It's about setting high expectations for students and making sure those expectations are implemented," he said. "I would say there are other factors than restorative practices that could explain the slight increase in physical altercations (last year).
"That goes back to the culture and climate piece of: How does a school feel when you walk in? I'm confident we will see a fairly significant change pretty quickly in this year."
Byndom and Owen both believe that the enthusiasm they witnessed during a summer transition-to-middle-school program is indicative of what they'll see starting next week — both at the middle and high school levels.
"It speaks to the enthusiasm where you have students excited about being in summer school," an optimistic Byndom said. "I think in many ways, that can be an indication of the year to come.
"I would use that as a baseline of years to come."