In 2007, City Springs Elementary / Middle School, a Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP) public charter school serving children and families from some of the City’s most underserved neighborhoods, pioneered Restorative Practices. Today, BCP’s six neighborhood conversion charter schools use the trusted program, as do many Baltimore City and County public schools across the state.
Restorative Practices, part of the social sciences field, focuses on strengthening relationships between individuals and enhancing the social connections within communities. First pioneered in the criminal justice system in the 1970s, schools are now using it as a proven way of handling conflict and solving problems. Since, the International Institute for Restorative Practices and others have researched its effectiveness for students and teachers.
As a lifelong educator, I’ve seen Restorative Practices transform how students learn and engage with each other. Now in my second year as City Springs’ first Director of Restorative Practices, I am leading new initiatives to deepen how we use it with our students and across BCP.
The practice didn’t come on my radar until about a decade ago. As a middle and high school Spanish teacher, I have always been passionate about social justice issues and have founded several student clubs focused on peace and social justice. In 2014, I began a new job at Overlea High School in Baltimore County, chairing the World Languages department, teaching Spanish and mentor teachers and students.
The principal asked me to attend a four-day training on Restorative Practices, which the County school system was beginning to adapt. Turns out the philosophy was 100% everything I believe in as a teacher and person. From 2016 until joining City Springs in 2022, I served as Overlea’s first Restorative Practices/Equity Coordinator, creating their program and developing a robust peer mediation program.
Using Restorative Practices to Get at the Root Causes of Student Behavior and Decisions
Restorative Practices is about root causes. There’s always a reason a student does what they do. One of the Restorative Practices expressions is to separate the doer from the deed, to stop attacking the kid, rather attack the action and work on why they’re doing that action.
Think of Restorative Practices as a pre-correction, a process of teaching students how to think about their actions, problem solve and replace unacceptable behaviors with acceptable behaviors.
It’s also all about creating positive relationships by repairing and strengthening lines of communication and promoting accountability and leadership. We use circles to come together to talk about conflict in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not reprimand or impose group or individual discipline or to correct “bad” behaviors. Each BCP classroom has daily class Circles each morning to gather as a community, and we use smaller circles as needed to address student behavior.
Giving Students a Voice Through Restorative Practice
Students have and develop their voice through Restorative Practices. When students have a voice and feel listened to, they behave better. Students get to express themselves through the whole restorative questions. It’s no longer an approach of ”‘Why did you do this?” It’s now a collaboration of “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
Sometimes we have eighth graders come in and say that they’ve done a circle with another student seven times. My response is that we’re going to keep doing it. In essence, we are showing them a different way to fix issues. We are teaching the skills they need to be successful in school and in life.
There’s a ripple effect, too. Teachers are also better supported. There are five of us at City Springs who go into classes when there are struggles and help. Administrators no longer need to deal with low-level behavioral stuff because it doesn’t even get to them. They can focus on the bigger issues or running the school. I communicate with parents all the time as an ally. We establish a trusting relationship about how we are going to help their child.
The Myths of Restorative Practices
The biggest myth around Restorative Practices is that there’s no consequences. There are absolutely consequences to student behavior. They’re just not the consequences some adults might expect. There are a lot of “tough love” teachers out there, but Restorative Practices is a progressive discipline policy. The first consequence following discussion with the teacher is to talk to me as the Restorative Practice Coordinator.
It is possible that this consequence will be severe like suspension, but it’s going to take a long time to get there because we’re always looking for the reason why a student did the action and how to get them the supports they need.
When Dr. Rhonda Richetta, City Springs Principal, implemented Restorative Practices in 2007, she wanted to address discipline issues and curb suspensions. And it’s worked.
The Baltimore Banner recently examined the efficacy of Restorative Practices, noting that “Suspensions [at City Springs] have dropped to below 40 a year since 2008, a year after implementation, with one exception .”
The article also references the 2018 Johns Hopkins University study that examined 14 restorative schools in the city. Researchers discovered that schools using Restorative Practices “…decreased suspensions by 44% over one year.”
Another myth is that a Restorative Practices program is the school’s discipline or behavior management processes. It’s not. It also doesn’t take anything away from the teachers and administrators in terms of providing consequences for difficult or disruptive behavior. What it does is provide a greater context and includes everyone in a process that provides more authority, not less. Circles, which are fundamental building blocks of Restorative Practices and processes, promote conflict resolution, healing, support, better decision-making, and build relationships.
New Initiatives at City Springs
Although City Springs has been a restorative school for a long time, it never had someone to coordinate and organize it full time. Last year, I created a supportive learning hub (SLC) that allows us to pull a student out of class for long periods of time because we have a dedicated teacher in the hub administering lessons appropriately. If there’s a kid that’s blowing up the class, we have to figure out a way to help the student, and that’s the support of SLC.
We can address behavior in SLC and keep the learning going. The student remains at school, is not at home on a suspension doing nothing or in school suspension just sitting there. There’s a full-time trained teacher working one on one on academics and doing a root causes lesson to address the behavior. We haven’t used it yet because in Restorative Practices, there are steps. Our goal is to keep kids in their own classroom and to address behavior issues proactively.
City Springs serves an extreme poverty area. There are lots of reasons for students to act out, and we need to empathize and know that. But removing them from class through suspension is not the solution.
We are digging down into the trouble spots. One of those is helping kids create better friend relationships with each other, with kids they don’t normally interact with or resist interacting with. We create intentional, guided ways for them to interact through a Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) lesson. We will put kids together in SLC to play Uno and get to know each other. We create groups at lunch, recess, and for other fun activities in the hub. This year, we’re adding walking field trips to a local park for a SEL activity.
Another initiative we’re doing this year is proactively mixing friend groups and pulling them out of class for lunch and recess to do fun stuff with them. We choose different friend groups that may not quite get along so that they can bond. Each adult has a specific grade band they handle. The goal is for students to get to know other people and interact with different friend groups. We do this for preschool through 8th grade.
We’ve been doing that since last year, and this is the most relaxing start in the history of City Springs. When I arrived here in fall 2022, I was amazed. I have never been in a school environment where there are so many adults as there are in BCP schools. The vast majority are Restorative Practices trained and they’re doing well.
Dr. Richetta told me I was here for the adults, and she is totally right. I work with a ton of students all day, but my focus is professional development (PD) with the staff. Last year, I gave a “Tough Love vs. Restorative Practices” presentation with Anthony Patterson, City Springs’ Director of Equity and Anti-racism. That morphed into 15 hours of PD on Restorative Practices, which was absolutely necessary and very powerful.
Prior to my position, there was a Restorative Practices unit the first week of school, but it was challenging to do ongoing staff PD because Dr. Richetta was pulled in a thousand directions. City Springs now has one half-day/week for PD, so we can really do it well. In my first year here, I did 22 PD sessions on Restorative Practices and Equity.
Peer Mediators at BCP Schools
In January 2023, I introduced a peer mediator program at City Springs. At first, I thought of it as a kind of Restorative Practices side hustle, a tool, but it’s become a huge thing that I could see changing the culture of the school.
We choose our peer mediators very wisely. I selected kids (5th through 8th grade) in the middle of the pack that were kind of in trouble. We provide peer mediation training that is all about active listening, conflict resolution, and controlling your own anger. These are powerful lessons for that middle group.
Once they started as peer mediators, their own behavior started changing. We have 46 mediators now, and we’re growing. We meet consistently, have a few field trips for leadership opportunities, they feel powerful. When I walk into a classroom, every peer mediator raises their hand in case I am there for a mediator. It’s a change vehicle for the school from a conflict resolution point of view.
They’re trained on how to start a peer mediation effectively, which they do in pairs. They have participated in more than 30 peer mediations since last January. Some of the conflict needs to be handled by adults, of course, so we began having our peer mediators creating mini-lessons to teach younger students. They’ve written lessons on anger management and active listening and will teach it using role playing, which they love to do. The peer mediators love this, and the little kids love it. It’s a win-win-win all around. To hear a lesson from an older kid is powerful.
I am working now to expand it to other BCP schools. It could be a game changer. I am trained to train peer mediators, so we can expand our program without paying for outside training.
I am going to a different BCP school once a week. We start training at the end of September. The schools are choosing the grades from which they want the peer mediators and will choose the actual mediators.
Five out of the six BCP schools has its own Director of Restorative Practices who will help me coordinate the peer mediators:
- Dr. Tynika Carpenter at Frederick Elementary
- Ronnae Berry at Govans Elementary
- Steve Plunk at Hampstead Hill Academy
- Marc Lestor at Pimlico Elementary/Middle
Read about the September 2023 visit to City Springs by Ego Nwodim, actor, comic, producer, writer, cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” and Baltimore native, who launched a partnership with City Springs to use improv as a tool for life skills in active listening, collaboration, and positive relationships.
Read more about Restorative Practices by the International Institute for Restorative Practices.