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Johns Hopkins study shows potential for restorative practices to reduce suspensions, improve schools

When assistant principal Heather Hilte arrived at Holabird Academy several years ago, she found the students defensive, reserved and unlikely to greet one another or the teachers in the morning.

But Holabird was one of 15 Baltimore public schools that in 2018 implemented an intensive program, called restorative practices, that is aimed at changing the culture of a school to eventually reduce discipline issues and build the community. Restorative practices de-emphasizes suspensions and other discipline in favor of communication to resolve conflict, modify behavior and make students feel valued and part of a community.

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Hilte saw changes after a year. Suspensions went from 98 one year to 54 the next, and office referrals for bad behavior have been declining as well.

“Kids who were so standoffish were giving me hugs every day,” she said, then paused and added, “These are middle school boys. I think it brought kids together. It changed our overall climate.”

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A year after restorative practices was implemented in those test schools suspensions are down by 44% and surveys show relationships between teachers and students in those schools have improved, according to a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. The study was released this week by Johns Hopkins, the Open Society Institute, the Maryland Carey School of Law and the school system.

The study was not designed to prove a causal relationship between restorative practices and suspensions, said researcher Al Passarella. But he said the study did show that teachers and school staff believed it had been implemented successfully throughout the school, that they were comfortable using it and it had improved the school climate.

And, Passarella said, other rigorous studies, including one done in Pittsburgh, have proved the effectiveness of restorative practices — when implemented well — at reducing suspensions

While the program has been around for years and used widely in Maryland, advocates of the program say schools often haven’t provided enough intensive training for teachers and administrators and follow up.

In this case, Open Society Institute has provided $1.2 million in funding for the work in dozens of schools, including paying a consultant to give staff two days of intensive training and two days a week of coaching through the first year, said Karen Webber, director of education and youth development at OSI-Baltimore. Webber used restorative practices while teaching in a city school and witnessed a transformation in her own classroom, long before she went to OSI.

“This is a way of being and a way of creating well-being,” Webber said. “It attempts to change the behavior within the school by first creating a sense of community among the students and faculty.”

A central element of restorative practices requires a teacher and students to form a circle in a classroom. The teacher asks everyone to respond to a question that attempts to draw out students, such as asking who they would be if they were going to be a super hero?

“Students have voice and they have attention as part of the day,” Webber said.

Those discussions usually happen once a day, but circles also are used with students when there is a disagreement and can be broadened to parents and community members.

Holabird principal Stephanie Novak Pappas said when two children are in a fight or have a disagreement they are asked to come to the school to talk about the issue. In a school without restorative practices, typically the assistant principal would tell the parent what their child had done wrong and what the punishment would be.

In this case, the parents of both sides would come in to discuss what had happened, what harm had been caused by the actions and how the students would move forward.

“We have more involvement from our parents. I think our families and our parents feel welcome,” Novak Pappas said.

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The school system is continuing to increase the number of schools where restorative practices is ingrained in the school culture.

Sarah Warren, executive director of whole child services and support in the city schools, said there are now 56 schools where teachers have received intensive training and restorative practices is being used extensively. It is being combined with a focus on improving the social and emotional health of students.

Another 3,500 teachers received three hours of instruction on restorative practices last month.

“At its heart restorative practices is about building community and building relationships,” Warren said. "Our vision is to keep rolling out the work and look at integrating it throughout the system.”

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