As a recipient of the Anika Foundation Scholarship, Sam Kourakis came to North America for five weeks to study restorative practices with the IIRP and a number of schools implementing restorative practices on a whole-school basis. Sam is a counselor at SCEGS (Sydney Church of England Coeducational Grammar School) Redlands, a private school in Sydney, Australia. She's been working with restorative practices in Australia for 15 years. At SCEGS they've incorporated circles in classrooms at every level, also involving parents.
Sam began her trip in April by attending IIRP's 4-Day Basic Restorative Practices event in Boston, Massachusetts. She wrote on her blog, "It has been an amazing experience in which I have met professionals from a range of different settings, including schools, social services, health services and the juvenile justice system. These are all environments in which restorative philosophies can be embedded to develop relationships and strengthen positive community."
Then, as part of what she calls her "school immersion program," Sam spent time in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, public schools, which have been implementing IIRP's whole-school change program district-wide. In a post about her visit to Liberty High School, Sam wrote, "Every teacher has a circle timetabled at least once a week. The circles are used to ‘check-in’ with students, not only to review learning and curriculum, but to hear how they are feeling. As always, one of the main aims of the restorative philosophy is to build community."
In another post she said, "I asked ‘Kyrsten’, one of the School Counsellors, how she knew that working restoratively was making a difference at Liberty. She told me that in one week she had two students, not related, referred by their respective teachers because in their classroom circles these students felt safe enough to vocalise that they were thinking about suicide. The teachers accessed Kyrsten immediately, and she was then able to put in place crucial therapeutic support for these students. Well, I was impressed with that – but more was to follow. She said that teacher referrals for student disciplinary actions were down in 2012 by one thousand…yes… that’s right …1000 – which is a 30% reduction in the first year. "
Sam also spent time at IIRP's demonstration project, CSF/Buxmont Academy, where at-risk youth are immersed in a restorative milieu. During her visit to Bethlehem, Sam told Laura Mirsky, IIRP's Assistant Director for Communications, that she really appreciated seeing how the staff at CSF employed high control and high support to work with students. She had learned about the RP continuum at the professional development event in Boston, but here she got a practical view of "how the CSF staff moved so readily along that continuum in their work with kids, from the informal — using affective statements, like 'I'm disappointed when you do that,' to the formal — a conference. They're so skilled. It's their way of being: so respectful, all the time, even in challenging situations, creating a safe space for kids to express themselves. And the teachers communicate so well together."
Sam completed her stay in Bethlehem by taking IIRP's "Restorative Responses to Grief, Trauma & Adversity" professional development event with Mary Jo Hebling. Sam then went to Canada for the final weeks of her trip to visit more schools, many of which have been trained by IIRP Canada. She also attended a Symposium which brought together "over 250 students, teachers, administrators and special guests from across Ontario, Canada, [who] came together to share their Restorative Practice and experiences." Sam was impressed by the "shared values" that came out of the sessions, which included "community, dignity of every person, voice, inclusivity, diversity, connection to each other, equality, strength of relationships, repairing harm, respect, honesty, equity, restoration."
Sam said in one blog post, "Every day I am grateful to the Anika Foundation for sponsoring me in this journey." She plans to take what she's learned back to her school in Australia and use her new knowledge there. Her blog is one of the ways she hopes to disseminate what she learned here to educators all over the world. Sam's experiences can be read in full at http://samanthakourakis.wordpress.com.