City kids: How proactive restorative practices benefit all

While national education leaders try to repair the wrongs of public education, plotting their post No Child Left Behind moves, here in Detroit, some folks tout that school reform might better begin with developing and nurturing relationships among students, between students and teachers, and between schools and community.

Enter a concept called Restorative Practices, a process used in schools (and elsewhere) to proactively build community and social coherence. When fully implemented, it involves everyone who spends their days within the school walls: students, food service staff, teachers, social workers, and principals. Together, they create a healthier environment for learning.

At Plymouth Educational Center in Detroit, a charter school district made up of a K-8 school, a 9th grade academy, and a 10th to 12th grade high school, Restorative Practices are being fully implemented to help students and teachers get along, set boundaries, and find support.

Here’s how it works.

According to the center’s Interim Superintendent Dr. Christopher Plum, opening "circles" start the morning; circles give students a platform to check in with their classmates and teachers, talk about what’s on their mind, and share how they are feeling.  The small amount of time spent on creating tighter relationships has benefits; students not only celebrate personal achievements with their peers, but also talk openly about struggles at home or elsewhere with support from their classmates and teacher.

The idea is this: with distractions aired and out of the way, students can better focus on learning. Teachers know what’s going on with their students, and, that alone, can lead to a different outcome for troubled students. In a traditional setting, a student who is troubled might be kicked out of class for being aloof or disruptive. With Restorative Practices, that student may have already dumped some of their emotional baggage during the circle, and if she’s still feeling upset, the teacher has that background and can offer additional support. Support and nurturing are a big part of Restorative Practices.

So is limit-setting and expectations, notes Henry McClendon, program officer at the Skillman Foundation, and an expert on Restorative Practices, having regionally represented the International Institute for Restorative Practices and having trained a number of Detroit school personnel on the process. He has a book bag full of great stories about how Restorative Practices have turned individual lives, classrooms, and whole schools around.

In Highland Park, for example, a teacher who was trained in Restorative Practices, but who was initially skeptical, had a class that was quickly spiraling out of control. She decided to try the process, creating a circle and sharing how the students’ behavior made her feel. She asked the students to answer a series of restorative questions, the last asking what needed to happen to make things better. The students came up with their own classroom guidelines. By using a fair process, and engaging students in the decisions, her discipline issues were done from that point forward.

McClendon also says an Osborn Academy teacher trained in Restorative Practices used the methodology to foster higher expectations. When grades came out, she called a circle and asked students what happened, how they felt about their grades, who was impacted by the grades and how, and what needed to be done to improve on their grades by the end of the next semester.

The students answered the questions and then created their own individual plans for improvement. She went from chasing kids down to complete their work to students chasing her down for extra work.

McClendon says that while many schools have some staff members trained in Restorative Practices, Plymouth Educational Center is the only Detroit district where the practices are being used fully.

Since implementing the system three years ago, students at Plymouth have become more proactive, rather than reactive, with problems that arise. Before, says Plum, "The dean of students wouldn’t know there was a problem until somebody’s nose got broken. This way, students are empowered to stay ahead of that stuff."

Circles are used to address issues at hand, and troubles are put on the table before they escalate. While the process has not been easy, it’s been rewarding.

"The framework for doing this work is not for the faint of heart and is not always clean and easy," says Plum. "It's not as easy as handing out a ditto every week saying: this week we’re talking about respect. But it really gets into relationship building and laying groundwork for long-term change through relationships."

Students at Plymouth Educational Center have embraced the process and understand that they are accountable for how they are feeling and how they contribute to the school environment. Plum says that creates "currency" for when students hit rough spots. Kids occasionally form circles on their own and resolve issues together, without adult guidance or direction. "They do it with each other, not to or for each other … and they come out and the problem is, as they like to say, squashed."

That is one of the fundamental concepts of Restorative Practices in schools: that kids will be more happy, willing, and productive when teachers and administrators let them find their own conclusions, doing things with them, rather than to them or for them.

As McClendon aptly notes, "It creates a process, and the beauty of this is when kids get a hold of it, they will own it."

Melinda Clynes is a regular contributor to Model D and statewide project editor for a series of stories that address children at risk. Her last piece was on an 'emerging leaders' program for girls. 

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.