2011-03-17 / Local & State

Restorative Practices Grow In Eastern Pa. Schools


BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) – When a student talks back in class, a teacher might send him or her to the assistant principal, who then doles out detention.

“The student generally leaves the meeting feeling more angry, feeling like a victim,’’ Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy said.

Roy believes the public school system metes out punishments without trying to fix the damage bad behavior leaves behind.

“We have done nothing to fix the relationship (between teacher and student) when we just hand out detentions,’’ Roy said.

Roy wants to launch a two-year school climate change pilot program in the district’s two high schools through the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Restorative practices call for repairing the harm wrongdoers cause to people and relationships, in addition to punishment.

“We’ve really developed a name in urban education with the toughest schools in the country,’’ said John Bailie, director of continuing education for Bethlehem based IIRP.

The program is rooted in a theory that people are happier, more productive and cooperative when those in power do things with them, not to them or for them.

Roy plans to make a proposal to the school board at its March 14 curriculum committee meeting. He’s been involved with restorative practices since the mid- 1990s when he worked in the Palisades School District.

Palisades parents Ted and Susan Wachtel, who founded IIRP, wanted to see whether methods that worked in the alternative schools they ran would translate into public schools. It worked so well at Palisades that Roy brought it with him to the Springfield School District.

“I was the first public school they worked with and it’s grown unbelievably,’’ Roy said.

Training will show teachers how to build communities and relationships with students every day. A key idea is using circles.

In a high school, a teacher could have students put their desks in a circle to discuss a paper due on Friday and pair up kids who need help or set goals for the week on Monday.

“If everything is built around communities when people misbehave they can use that community to hold people accountable,’’ Bailie said.

Roy tells the story of a young Palisades teacher who struggled with rude student interruptions that almost became a joke to students.

Instead of yelling, the teacher told students they were upsetting her since she works very hard at home to prepare the lessons. The talking back soon stopped and a new culture evolved in the class.

When a new student tried to call a lesson boring, another student turned to him and said, “Hey, don’t say that. She works really hard on those questions.’’

Educators are often afraid to show emotion or look weak to students, but Roy notes if a teacher is yelling they’re already showing emotion, just in an out of control way. When students realize their behavior impacts others, they tend to change it and start self-policing, Roy said.

Teachers often say “I don’t have time for this,’’ Roy said. He argues spending five minutes on circles cuts down on discipline.

“The time is created,’’ he said.

If Roy’s proposal gains traction and funding –it’s unclear what the price tag for the two-year school improvement program would be – everyone in the high schools will get training. The institute follows up with varied support until, after two years, some teachers become trainers themselves and can spread the ideas to other schools.

Roy hopes to include community groups and the police to be part of the initiative. The Bethlehem Police Department actually was trained and conducted a restorative justice conference to bring together offenders, victims and their families.

A key component of training will be teaching restorative questions that can be used everywhere from the classroom to formal meetings. A disciplinarian’s first question should not be, “Why did you do it?’’ Roy said. That is the human instinct but it puts students on the defensive.

Restorative practices encourage teachers to ask, “What happened? What’s your role? Who was affected?’’ A key part is challenging students to find a way to fix the situation.

For the philosophy to work, Bailie believes there must be strong leadership. Bailie’s confident Bethlehem has that in Roy, who he calls an expert in coalition building.

“The reason it works is because it is based on good teaching practices,’’ said Pottstown High School Principal Stephen Rodriguez. His school has had restorative practices since 2005.

“It is not some sort of convoluted system,’’ he said. “I often find my best teachers say ‘I was doing this anyway.’ Imagine if you can take what great teachers do and give other teachers a model to use it every day.’’

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