In one local school where OSI helped integrate restorative practices, suspensions have dropped by nearly 80%.
“IN THE BEGINNING I COULD NOT UNDERSTAND WHY STUDENTS IN MY CLASSES WOULD NOT RESPOND TO OPEN ENDED QUESTIONS OR ENGAGE IN CLASSROOM DISCUSSIONS.”
That was the take-away Karen Webber, director of OSI-Baltimore’s Youth and Education Development program, had when, after a long career in non-profit and public sector work, she started teaching English in a Baltimore City high school. “I couldn’t wait to introduce stimulating topics, inspire rich and exciting classroom discussions and sharpen critical thinking skills,” she says. “To my dismay, my efforts were met with blank stares by students at best and disruptive jesting, outlandish comments or other inappropriate behaviors at worst.”
After her first year as a classroom teacher, Webber attended an abbreviated training on restorative circles, a practice in which participants sit in a circle with a trained facilitator to discuss topics of interest or to resolve conflicts and was determined to blendthis approach with classroom instruction. The results were phenomenal. While some students were initially reticent to speak in circles, students quickly saw the process as a means to have their voices heard. Through the circle discussions and the relationships Webber formed with her students, she learned first-hand of the adversities her students faced and the resulting trauma they experienced.
Research indicates that people affected by trauma may exhibit anxiety, depression, impulsivity, and disruptive or aggressive behavior, which in the case of students, adds another barrier to learning. Despite this knowledge, teachers and administrators are not provided with tools to offset the symptoms of trauma.Rather than provide avenues for student expression, many of our schools rely on instructional practices that require students of all ages to sit still and quiet for the entire school day.
Schools that incorporate student voice into the learning process through restorative and other practices have seen improved school climates, drops in suspensions, increased enrollment, and improved academic outcomes. In an effort to improve school climate in Baltimore, OSI funded the Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP), and in 2006, it began implementing restorative practices in three city schools, City Springs, Collington Square, and Hampstead Hill. Rhonda Richetta, principal of City Springs, said the implementation was “transformational.” Initially, some staff worried that the circles took away from instructional time, but it soon became clear that not only was the practice having a positive impact, but the time spent in circles was less than the time lost to behavioral disruptions. In the year before restorative practices began, 86 students were suspended. One year later, that number dropped to 10. And those suspension numbers remain low despite the fact that City Springs has nearly tripled in size over the years.
Richetta is confident that if restorative practices can transform City Springs—one of the poorest in the city—it can happen anywhere. And the district agrees. The results at these schools and others have been so impressive that City Schools’ CEO Sonja Santelises has pledged to work with OSI to make Baltimore City Schools a “restorative district.” OSI in partnership with City Schools has created a restorative practices plan that will help guide restorative practices implementation efforts for all Baltimore City schools and programs over the next five years, beginning in the 2017-18 school year.