A new program is bringing restorative practices to schools. Community Service Foundation and Buxmont Academy (CSF Buxmont) — which operate day-treatment schools, foster homes and supervision programs for at-risk youth in eastern Pennsylvania, USA, and are model programs of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Graduate School — recently launched the Restorative Services program. Developed in response to a growing need on the part of public schools to deal with at-risk students on site, the Restorative Services program was introduced in fall 2009.

In the past, young people with behavioral, emotional and substance-abuse issues have been placed by school districts or local courts in alternative schools and community-based programs. But school districts in Pennsylvania, like those in many areas of the U.S. and other countries as well, have been under pressure lately to work with troubled students within their schools instead of sending them away.

Budget cuts and political mandates are driving this change in institutional policy, leading an increasing number of school administrators to seek services that give them the capacity to deal onsite with disruptive behavior, drug use and emotional issues. Responding to this need, CSF Buxmont is offering the Restorative Services program. The program complements and promotes the same restorative philosophy as the IIRP’s SaferSanerSchools program (www.safersanerschools.org), which is bringing whole-school change to schools throughout the U.S. and the world.

The key to the success of these services is the use of restorative practices. Restorative practices creates positive classroom culture, with the goal of fostering mutual respect and a sense of community schoolwide. As implemented in schools throughout the world, restorative practices has helped dramatically reduce days lost to suspensions, expulsions and out-of-school placements.

The Bethlehem Area School District in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA, engaged CSF Buxmont’s Restorative Services program during spring 2010. Restorative Services facilitator Elizabeth Smull provided expertise in restorative practices for six hours a week in three emotional support classes, two at Liberty High School and one at Freedom High School. At the end of six weeks, Smull could point to encouraging results and positive feedback from the students and three teachers involved.

“The whole experience was really fantastic,” said Jennifer Curti, a science teacher at Freedom High School. “Using restorative practices, and circles especially, gave us a structure and forum for discussions in my class. We engaged in some really heartfelt conversations during this time. I found myself sharing things about myself with my students, and that established a new level of trust and cooperation between us. They felt respected and empowered,” added Curti. “My classroom dynamic changed for the better and provided more time for teaching.”

To begin, Smull asked each of the teachers what they considered the major issues and objectives for their classes. “All three teachers seemed to have the same goals in mind,” said Smull. All felt being more productive during class time and creating a more respectful environment were top priorities.

Smull sized up the situation in the classrooms this way: “My sense was that the kids didn’t feel safe and needed this kind of [restorative] structure. This was the starting point, and it was what we had in mind as we moved forward. First, everyone needed to learn about circles.”

Her use of the circle process, a basic component of restorative practices, is integral to the Restorative Services program approach in schools. Using circles as a way for young people to express their feelings has proved successful in resolving classroom conflicts, encouraging thoughtful conversations and replacing disruptive and devaluing behavior with cooperation and trust between students and teachers. Over the long-term, these improved relationships promote enhanced learning, with everyone profiting from a more productive climate in the classroom.

“We were able to utilize circles to resolve such problems as student disrespect of fellow students and teachers, fighting among students, students not following through with expectations and being unfocused during class,” said Smull. “We also concentrated initially on norms and goal setting. And we spent a lot of time in the beginning working on the students taking responsibility for their actions when problem solving.”

After the first week, Smull decided that the classroom circles should focus on developing social skills as well. The teachers agreed that it was crucial that the students have a voice and an opportunity to discuss their own concerns, including how to deal with relationships with their families. One teacher said that she wanted to use circles to help support her own needs when classroom issues arose.

Said Liberty High School science teacher John Grigg: “The program was very successful. My class was really enthusiastic about using circles, and I plan to use them again this fall with my students.”

Circles are extremely useful in times of crisis. This became evident when a boy in one of the Bethlehem schools committed suicide during the time Smull was involved there. Since the boy’s classmates and teachers were already accustomed to using the circle process for other issues, it was an easy and natural step for them to employ circles to sort through their feelings of grief and shock following the death of their classmate.

“The groups were able to process the events of the boy’s death, as well as the students’ and the teachers’ feelings about what had happened,” said Smull. In the wake of this tragedy, restorative practices provided an opportunity for dialogue and healing. With restorative processes in place, the members of the class were able to share their feelings and then move on and return to their studies.

Thanks to the cooperation and support of the three teachers, said Smull, students in all the classes made progress. In one class, Terry (not his real name), went from being a disruptive troublemaker to Smull’s ally, helping to enlist reluctant fellow classmates to participate in the classroom circles. Other students also changed their attitude from obstructive and negative to enthusiastic and supportive, even asking if circles and norm setting could continue in their classrooms in the fall.

Overall, the use of restorative circles and an emphasis on purposeful communication introduced by CSF Buxmont facilitator Elizabeth Smull helped transform these classrooms into more respectful environments that facilitated learning and paved the way for improved academic achievement.

“What became obvious from our experience with the Bethlehem schools is the critical role teachers play in this collaborative process,” said CSF Buxmont executive director Craig Adamson. He went on to say, “CSF Buxmont’s 33-plus years of experience working with at-risk and troubled youth provides the foundation of knowledge and skill for the Restorative Services program, designed to help public schools resolve conflict, prevent discipline problems, deal with traumatic events that affect the school community, assist challenging and at-risk students and families with recurring issues, and improve communication between students, families and staff.”

Adamson concluded: “With the Restorative Services program, we are providing a way of working collaboratively with teachers and staff and offering them the needed support and guidance to create restorative environments. We’re helping them learn how to use these methods to maximum effect and giving them ways to deal with issues that are flexible enough to meet multiple needs as they arise.”

“My hope is that these tools our kids have learned can be carried through into their lives with their families,” added Jennifer Curti. “In the long run, I hope our students will remember the positive, supportive atmosphere we were able to generate and the respectful relationships that came about through our work with restorative practices.”

More information about CSF Buxmont’s Restorative Services program can be found at: www.csfbuxmont.org/restorative-services-for-schools.php.

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