This is the fourth in a series of articles by Kerra L. Bolton, on her experiences with restorative practices in the city of Detroit.
by Kerra L. Bolton
Dr. Ronald Williams, superintendent of Hope Academy Charter School in Detroit, is a self-described “old school educator,” who spent most of his 30 years as a strict disciplinarian.
“Before, when students had problems, we suspended them and sent them home,” he said. “But that’s not really a punishment, because they wind up watching TV and playing video games, while their parents are working.”
The continued prevalence and impact of the disproportionate rate at which black students are suspended and expelled from school are well-documented. Black students, as early as pre-school, are almost four times as likely to be suspended and are twice as likely to be expelled as white students—which lowers student achievement, and increases school dropout rates and criminal justice involvement.
I uncovered dozens of personal stories behind the statistics in my former work as an education policy journalist, a strategic communications consultant and lobbyist for a statewide school choice organization, and as the executive director of a nonprofit that helped transformational black educators and community leaders develop and maintain charter schools.
Hope Academy in Detroit was like many of the schools I advised in recent years. It was founded in 1998, in part to counteract these trends and stem the tide of academic and social disparities black children in Detroit experienced. The school is family oriented, and much of its staff has been employed at the school since its inception.
While the school has enjoyed academic success and broad community support, school leaders turned to learning about and then implementing restorative practices to change the culture of its classrooms and maybe even the surrounding community. Integrating restorative practices in its school culture was the next practical step in evolving a healthy, classroom climate that put the children’s needs first.
Hope Academy Takes a Restorative Approach
I interviewed Dr. Williams, Principal Patricia Davis, and Keisha Allen, Hope Academy’s program director and one of the best licensed restorative practice trainers in the country, in a bright, sun-drenched room at Hope Academy.
The room, Allen told me, symbolized the school’s ongoing commitment to implementing restorative practices. Perched on a rug is a group of chairs pre-arranged in a large, open circle. A desk for a teacher or school administrator is nestled in the corner. But the real action seems to happen in the circle—in the held space where issues are discussed, trust is earned, and wounds have the potential to be healed.
“This room was designed and created by the young people,” Allen said. “We wanted the young people to have a voice in how this space looked and would be used.”
Hope Academy school leaders have adopted a restorative approach—one in which the students, teachers, and staff are happier and more likely to make positive changes when authority figures do things with them, rather than to them or for them—in nearly every aspect of the school’s operations.
Student suspensions plummeted from 113 to 7 between the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. School administrators credit asking students the five restorative questions when responding to challenging behavior and the regular use of proactive and reactive restorative circles.
Restorative questions include:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- What have you thought about since?
- Who has been affected by what you have done and in what way?
- What do you think you need to do to make things right?
As Ted Wachtel, founder of the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) describes in his book Restorative Circles in Schools: Building Community and Enhancing Learning: “These questions separate people’s behavior from their intrinsic worth as a person, allowing them to admit their mistakes, right their wrongs and be reintegrated into a community.”
Restorative circles, Wachtel states, “enable students and a teacher or other school leader meet to discuss, answer questions, solve problems, play a game or offer feedback. Circles have structure, purpose, and focus, and can be personal, academic, or work-related.”
Principal Davis called restorative circles the “noise killer” because it gives teachers clear, actionable feedback.
A restorative circle was convened at Hope Academy, for example, when a teacher didn’t understand why she wasn’t getting expected results from students despite her best efforts. Students said they liked the teacher, but she didn’t allow them to express themselves. Consequently, the teacher learned that before she could educate her students, she must first build relationships with them.
“Integrating restorative practices in an educational setting is a process,” said Davis. “People have to be willing to be changed, to have an open mind and an open heart.”
Changing Classrooms, Changing Communities
One of the hurdles of implementing restorative practices in a school setting is mitigating the conflicting messages students receive at home and in their communities.
A parent might instruct their child, “If someone hits you, hit them back,” or chastise a child, who doesn’t respond to aggression with aggression, as weak. Restorative practices enable children to hear a different message from responsible adults, who encourage compromise and working together.
When two boys were fighting in the hallway, for example, Dr. Williams said he pulled the boys aside, took them to his office, and did a restorative circle with them. The boys were friends again by the time they left his office, and planned to repair the harm to others that their fight had caused.
Through restorative practices, the approach to conflict at Hope Academy has changed from punishing to promising.
“Restorative practices helped me to look at myself and learn to be less punitive, listen more, and exercise patience,” Dr. Williams said. “Going forward, when I make decisions, they will be in the best interests of the students, and they will be restorative.”
Interviewing school administrators at Hope Academy gave me hope, because I watched ordinary people work to examine themselves and their actions with courage, intelligence, and humility. Through the use of restorative practices, students are gaining opportunities to be co-creators of their own classrooms. Teachers are striving to develop an educational environment that works for the students as much as it works for them. And an old-school educator like Dr. Williams can become reborn in his beloved profession.