St. Paul students huddle in a restorative practices circle
By Sabrina Holcomb
Twelve-year-old “John Smith” used to vent his frustration by blustering through school hallways, slamming lockers, and cursing fate. A seventh grader dealing with emotional upheaval, John’s behavior consigned him to one classroom and curtailed his dream of playing basketball for his middle school team.
Barely a year later, John’s behavior has improved so much he’s joined his fellow students in mainstream classes and on the basketball court.
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“We introduced restorative practices and it’s not only transformed our school climate, it’s transforming students’ and educators’ lives,” says Shawn Davenport, one of two restorative practices coordinators at Farnsworth Aerospace Upper Campus in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Farnsworth, with a student population that’s over 90 percent students of color, the majority of those Asian-American, is one of nine pilot schools in a Restorative Practices program that’s a joint collaboration between the school district and local union affiliate.
“The question for us as a union was how to address school safety in a way that could be transformational and culture changing for the entire school community,” says Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. “So we brought Restorative Practices to the bargaining table and included specific requirements in our contract language, including 800 hours of professional development for school staff.”
The RP program—which emphasizes shared problem solving, relationship building among the entire school community, and solutions that keep students in the classroom—was launched in the fall of 2016 in response to a statewide call for increased training and resources for educators and students dealing with escalating tensions, serious discipline problems, and high suspension levels, even in elementary schools.
“Before we started Restorative Practices, the hallways were loud and the teachers were quiet,” says Davenport. “The year we began, you could see a difference almost immediately: clear hallways from the top floor to the bottom and a peaceful feel to the building.”
“Restorative practices have given a voice to everyone in the building, not just disruptive students but shy, quiet students who are easily overlooked.” explains Jim Yang, Farnsworth’s second RP coordinator. “When students feel like they belong to a community, they’re less likely to cause harm to that community.”
RP has also given voice to educators left out of the feedback loop when a student is pulled out of class for misbehavior. “What we were doing before wasn’t working,” confides Nikki Stabb, a Farnsworth science teacher who’s embraced RP wholeheartedly. “Secondary teachers are under pressure to follow standards and teaching guides to get ready for the big tests. It’s easy to forget that students need a sense of safety and security to get through all that content.”
Stabb uses RP circles to build that security in her classroom. Circles—yes, students actually gather in a circle—are a versatile practice that can be used proactively, to develop relationships and build community, or reactively, to respond to conflicts and problems.
Stabb takes 10 minutes every Monday, and as needed throughout the week, for “students to get problems off their chest, so they can get focused and grounded and ready to learn.”
Since using the circles, Stabb has had fewer disturbances in her classroom and has been able to move through content faster. “The circles are powerful. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath because the students have so much going on in their lives.”
Farnsworth is not the only pilot school with encouraging early results. Educators and students at the other sites report high levels of enthusiasm and engagement in the new program. They, too, have seen remarkable changes in their school climate.
The secret to success is not forcing restorative practices on schools, says Rebecca McCammon, Coordinator of St. Paul’s Restorative Practices program. Schools are invited, not required, to be part of the program and are encouraged to implement RP in innovative ways that makes sense for their building and community.
Before schools apply to become RP sites, teams come together to take the temperature of the school community. Eligibility for the program requires 75 percent buy-in by the staff, evidence of community engagement, and a plan that prepares all stakeholders to become part of the process.
An NEA Great Public Schools grant helps support program implementation, but with more schools applying for the program than there are spaces available, SPFT is in negotiation with the district for full funding to make restorative practices available to any school that’s ready.
The program is in demand because people understand the urgency of interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline and creating safe spaces of high achievement for all learners, says McCammon. “Our educators are in constant relationships with our young people and other adults in a way that is unparalleled.”
Farnsworth RP coordinator Jim Yang can attest to that. “Sometimes it feels like I have 650 kids,” he confides. “RP has transformed me to be not just a better educator, but peer, brother, son, and friend—just a better human being.”
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