The Power of Restorative Justice in the Classroom US News & World Report

A public charter school in an impoverished New Orleans district has transformed education by changing its approach to student discipline.
By Beth Hawkins | Contributor

In a sunny room on the 10th-grade wing of Sci Academy, language arts teacher Lynsay Fabio is performing an instructional tightrope act. She’s posed a tough question to the class and announced she’s going to cold call – pick students who might or might not be ready – for the answer.

The girl she calls on looks away and mumbles.

The public charter school is located in the impoverished New Orleans East district, where Hurricane Katrina all but completed devastation wrought by decades of blight. A large number of Sci Academy’s students are trauma survivors; many show up for high school years behind.

Despite such formidable challenges, 98 percent are accepted into college before they graduate. To accomplish this feat, Sci Academy’s staff have thought long and hard about discipline and culture.

Fabio asks again and gets another, more irritable mumble accompanied by a defiant slouch. Every member of the class is watching, rapt: Is it going to blow up?

“I know you can do it,” Fabio says, “and I’m going to stay with you until you get it.”

As U.S. schools grapple with the grossly disproportionate rate at which students of color and students with disabilities are exposed to harsh and punitive discipline, educators increasingly are talking about bringing restorative justice practices into the classroom. And there is impressive evidence to suggest the approach can revolutionize school discipline.

But like so much in education, how the practices are implemented dictates their success or failure. Without a sea change in school culture, advocates of the approach say, restorative justice could end up on the slag heap of silver bullets that failed to “fix” urban education.

“This is really about changing the way human beings relate to one another,” says Hailly Korman, an expert on school discipline and juvenile justice with Bellwether Education Partners. “It’s incredibly hard work and we are asking adults who maybe didn’t sign up for this to do this with perhaps hundreds of kids a day.”

Fabio’s interaction with her defensive student lasted less than five minutes, but unpacking what took place is instructional. In many classrooms, the moment would be a tipping point – particularly when, like in Fabio’s classroom, the teacher is white and the student black.

Rather than lose face, the humiliated student would dig in and her refusal would be perceived as willful defiance. The teacher’s unpleasant choice then would be whether to push a teen who is already defensive, or let her off the hook.

Letting a student off the hook sets up a pernicious cycle that just guarantees more confrontations. But pushing the student in public frequently ends with a verbal explosion that results in the student being sent out of the classroom. Data shows these behavioral referrals are often the start of a negative spiral that leads to suspension or expulsion.

The vast majority of suspensions – some studies put the number as high as 95 percent –are for minor, nonviolent infractions. And a student who has been excluded from the classroom three or more times by ninth grade has little chance of graduating.

Nonwhite students, students with disabilities and LGBT youth are sent out of the classroom in wildly disproportionate numbers. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black children are suspended three times as often as white children. In many places they are suspended five or more times as often.

Over the last two years federal officials and civil rights groups have pushed school systems with the most egregious discipline problems to end practices that push students out of school. And meanwhile, a parallel debate has unfolded about public charter schools that rely on strict discipline.

Almost never do the headlines unpack the sundry small practices that go into creating a school culture where the choices aren’t either/or. And success or failure of the solution most advocated at the moment – bringing restorative justice into schools – lives or dies in moments like the one in Fabio’s language arts class.

Question still pending, Fabio asks her students to discuss with their neighbors for a moment. While they do, she squats next to the student who couldn’t answer.

The girl is clearly embarrassed. “Why do you have to cold call?” she says, her voice tight and a little raised.

Fabio explains that she does it to make sure everyone participates, not just the students whose hands shoot up. Not having an answer is alright but not participating isn’t.

She brings the class back together with a raised hand and a count of 10. When there’s silence, she calls on another student, who delivers a precise answer.

Fabio then turns to the first student and asks her to expand on what her classmate said. While the girl works through her thoughts out loud, teacher and students alike wiggle the fingers on both hands – a gesture everyone at Sci Academy knows is meant to send “magic” to someone who is struggling or being brave.

The magic has some other benefits. By creating a task for those who know the answer, it gives kids an alternative to blurting out. And it reinforces the growth mindset prized by the school’s culture: Intelligence is not fixed, it’s a muscle developed by effort.

Sci Academy has been called the crown jewel of New Orleans’ charter school system. Its test scores are the highest of the open-enrollment schools – those that admit all comers regardless of academic performance or ability.

Two years ago the leaders of the three-school network to which the school belongs, Collegiate Academies, confronted the discipline issue head on. The schools had a suspension rate of 56 percent, unacceptable to everyone.

Like a number of public charters throughout the country that are very successful academically, the schools were highly structured. Among other expectations, students were asked to walk on lines on the floors of the narrow hallways in the temporary trailers where Sci was then located.

“We were sending conflicting messages in some ways,” says Principal Rhonda Dale. “We want you to be here but we are going to send you away.”

In the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014, a number of New Orleans schools came under community pressure to find a balance between the high suspension rates and the culture of high expectations. A team of Collegiate staff, including teachers, took on the work of researching positive discipline practices and visiting programs where it was working.

They got a grant from a nonprofit dedicated to improving school quality to pilot a homegrown system, as well as assistance from The Micah Project, a faith-based local effort to staunch violence and the incarceration of the city’s youth.

Results were dramatic and quick. In 2015, the suspension rate dropped to 12 percent. System-wide, GPAs rose from 2.08 to 2.33 and attendance from 87 percent to 92 percent. Most impressive, the GPAs of Sci Academy students suspended at least once rose from 1.64 to 2.14.

That’s after one year. School systems that have had time to refine the practices suggest greater gains are possible. Denver Public Schools, nationally recognized as a leader in restorative justice, has reduced suspensions by a third since 2010.

The Oakland Unified School District has had restorative justice in some schools for a decade. Absenteeism in middle schools with the programs is down 24 percent, ninth grade reading proficiency has doubled, high school dropout rates are down 56 percent and graduation up 60 percent.

Part of the formula is not letting discipline interrupt learning. When a Sci Academy student has disrupted the classroom or had conflict with another student, the first stop is now the Positive Redirection Center, a space always staffed by two adults.

After students fill out a questionnaire with sections labeled, “Own it,” “Fix it” and “Learn from it,” they get help framing and rehearsing a conversation with the school community member they harmed.

When Sci Academy students stay in the center for more than a couple of hours, they continue their work on a bank of computers that classroom teachers keep current. Center staff can administer exams. Nor does a referral to the center mean a student has to sit out sports and other extracurricular activities, like it does in most places.

One student who was a frequent visitor in the fall started the winter quarter with a 4.0 GPA and kept his place on a team roster. “He gets to still feel like he can be the all-star member of the basketball team,” says Dukes. “He’s not on the outside because he struggles.”

If the process ended there – and many schools don’t go that far with their restorative justice – it wouldn’t be nearly as effective, says Cornelius Dukes, Sci’s dean of positive redirection. The adult who initiated the redirection has 24 hours to close the loop by seeking the student out and asking what he could do differently.

“One of the most important reflection questions we ask is, ‘What help do you need from me to prevent this from happening again?’” says Dukes. “It puts pressure on us to figure out what to do to support students.”

It’s huge, agrees Korman. “That’s a really powerful moment with a kid, too, when you self-reflect with them,” she says. “There’s almost always a conversation about what can we do differently next time or what can we put in place for this kid to try to avoid reaching this punitive level.”

Katie Wills teaches at another Collegiate program, Carver Collegiate. “It’s not an option to send a kid out and not deal with them,” she says. “The kids who struggle the most have the strongest relationships with teachers because every time they struggle they have a conversation with an adult.”

Data is tracked closely. Teachers who send students out of the classroom must note the move in an online system, as well as their effort to close the loop. If a student shows up in the center multiple times or discloses an emotional struggle to staff there, he is referred to one of four licensed mental health professionals on campus.

A girl who was prone to fighting made multiple visits to the center last year. Each time she was able to identify and articulate something new about herself, realizing that she read a lot into social interactions.

“So if girls are talking and looking at her, she knew with 100 percent certainty they were talking about her,” says Kelley Hubbell, Collegiate’s director of mental health services. In addition to realizing this wasn’t necessarily the case, the student learned to pause.

“Right then was not the time to deal with it because she was already triggered emotionally,” says Hubbell, who reports the girl hasn’t had a single fight this year.

In addition to flagging students who need behavioral or emotional support, the data component of the system also helps school leaders identify patterns that suggest a teacher needs coaching or a part of the school day needs to be restructured.

It’s one thing to do this in a network of schools that are new and growing like Collegiate Academies and that can hire teachers who share its philosophies. But what about a large district?

“We in education have a terrible habit of taking things that work and pulling out the 10 steps or practices and putting those into place when those aren’t the heart of it,” says Korman. “One of the complicated pieces about doing racial justice work in places like schools is how to find a way to talk about this that teachers are prepared to hear.

“That remains a problem in the implementation that we are seeing in many of these restorative justice practices in schools,” she continues. “This is civil rights work and civil rights work is supposed to be uncomfortable.”

But it’s also work that pays itself forward. Thanks to Fabio’s small moment of grace, her class continued undisrupted and a student who was behind caught up a little. There was no cataclysm, which likely strengthened the trust between teacher and student.

In the fall, Sci Academy moved from the trailers where the school spent its first seven years. There are no lines on the floors in the new building. Instead, during each passing period the entire grade steps into the hall. A teacher leads a chant or passes along a snippet of inspiration. When students move to their next class, it’s orderly but relaxed.

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