Using 'restorative practices,' St. Paul teachers, students hold circle discussions to build relationships
ST. PAUL — Nikki Staab was on vacation in October when a fight broke out in her usually well-mannered seventh-grade science class at Farnsworth Aerospace school in St. Paul.
In a typical year, the teacher said, the disruption would have led to three-day suspensions for the boy and girl involved. Instead, back at school the following day, they listened for 90 minutes as their classmates asked questions and described how the altercation made them feel.
"It was incredibly powerful. It was really emotional," Staab said. "After that, everything went back to normal."
In four years of teaching, Staab has learned to kick out students for misbehavior only as a last resort. That's because once they leave, she has no input over when and how they return.
In past years, whether the student came back 10 minutes or a week later, whatever wounds had been opened would fester, unaddressed by anyone else inside the classroom.
Not so this year.
The grades 5-8 upper campus of Farnsworth Aerospace, in the city's Payne-Phalen neighborhood, is one of six schools that are a year into a three-year "restorative practices" pilot between St. Paul Public Schools and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
Guided by two grant-funded program coordinators, Farnsworth teachers regularly hold circle discussions to build relationships with and among their students. And when something does go wrong, they hold additional circle dialogues, either in small groups or as an entire class, to repair the harm.
Farnsworth social studies teacher Anna Dundek held three or four harm-repairing circles this school year in response to poor classroom behavior.
"We talked about how everything you do in class affects the class positively or negatively and it's like a ripple in the pond," she said.
During a small circle discussion with a student who had used hurtful words against Dundek, the girl agreed to write an apology letter and clean up the lunchroom as restitution.
"Just hearing her apologize and really mean it, that's all I needed," Dundek said.
The program coordinators at Farnsworth, Jim Yang and Shawn Davenport, say the circles have improved communication at the school. Quiet students are taking the opportunity to speak up, and teachers are better equipped to talk through problems with co-workers.
Suspensions have increased somewhat, but attendance is better and the hallways are more orderly, they said.
"Everybody's willing to talk now, so you're hearing about it before a fight breaks out," Davenport said.
Restorative practices in St. Paul
The pilot project was sparked by high-profile school assaults in 2015-16 and fueled by the district's uneven attempts since 2011 to reduce racial disparities in school discipline.
Suspension rates in the St. Paul district dropped 38 percent in two years before bouncing back last year to near 2010-11 levels; racial disparities in discipline remain as wide as ever.
The teachers union accused district leaders of reverting back to a zero-tolerance posture amid backlash over policies that sought to keep misbehaving students in school. The district said rising suspensions reflected growing trouble in the community at large.
The teachers union entered contract negotiations in late 2015 insisting on restorative practices as a means of empowering individual schools to improve the conditions for learning. The result was a three-year, $4.5 million effort that will grow to nine schools this fall and 12 the next.
District and union leaders hope that by establishing a more positive school climate and digging into interpersonal problems when they occur, they'll keep suspensions down while also boosting attendance and academic achievement.
The National Education Association shares those goals. They've given the local teachers union a grant to create a training curriculum to ensure restorative practices become a permanent fixture in St. Paul and elsewhere.
Becky McCammon, who is leading the local union's work on the pilot, said there's a tendency among educators to dismiss any new initiative as a fad soon to be replaced by the next new thing. But restorative practices have found substantial interest even at schools not selected for pilot funding.
"I feel really, really hopeful," she said.
How long it's been used
Restorative practices may feel new to many St. Paul educators, but the Minnesota Department of Education has been promoting the concepts for two decades.
In 1996, the department published a guide for school staff explaining how schools might implement the principles of restorative justice, a softer approach to crime and punishment.
Nancy Riestenberg, a school-climate specialist for the state, said that guide was followed by a three-year state project that showed that restorative practices could reduce behavior problems, among other benefits, in a variety of school settings.
Riestenberg has been training school staff on restorative practices since 2000, but the concepts are just now catching on across the state and country. She said about four times as many teachers as usual are signed up for training this summer.
Riestenberg said interest has grown as the public has come to understand the damaging long-term effects of harsh discipline practices such as suspension and expulsion, especially for African-Americans. Students who get kicked out, even temporarily, lose their connection to the school, leading to lower grades, poor attendance and failure to graduate.
Restorative practices can be used as an alternative to suspension, but they also can supplement discipline with circle discussions that seek to welcome the student back to school.
Zero-tolerance policies for schools and society haven't worked, Riestenberg said, and adults must recognize that teenagers' brains still are developing.
"We need to look upon discipline as a means of teaching people things, not punishment," she said.
Riestenberg said that by now, a good number of teachers have been trained in restorative practices. The greater challenge has been getting an entire school or school district on board.
"It's a slow process and it can be easily upended by any number of things," from budget woes to turnover in leadership, she said.
Funded by a University of Minnesota grant, Kara Beckman with the U medical school's pediatrics department is evaluating the St. Paul project to help the district decide what to do long term. She said all six initial pilot schools are on track to implement restorative practices schoolwide, but they're taking their time, which is good.
"I was worried it would be all about bringing suspensions down as quickly as possible. I've actually been very impressed with people's acknowledgment that restorative practices were chosen as a school-climate initiative because of the transformational power it would have and that it was going to take time," she said.
However, Beckman said it's been difficult to track progress because the school district's data systems weren't set up to monitor alternatives to traditional disciplinary action.
School staff haven't agreed on a common definition for restorative practices either, she said, and parents generally don't understand it.
Beckman added that some secondary teachers have been uncomfortable leading circle conversations.
"Teachers are used to feeling like they're masters of what they're doing because they're content masters. Asking them to hold a conversation in circle is asking them to step outside their comfort zone," she said.
At Como Park Senior High, math teacher Bruce Ringaman learned that the hard way when he led a full day of discussions on the presidential election last November. Como was not chosen for the pilot, but teachers there chose to try circle discussions on their own with minimal direction.
After students complained about Ringaman's lessons, the district suspended him for 15 days and reassigned him, for using inappropriate visual aids and giving students too little opportunity to speak.
Beckman said teachers also question the amount of time devoted to circle discussions.
At Farnsworth, though, Staab said she was three weeks ahead of schedule this year because students no longer are disrupting lessons.
"Because that's not happening nearly as often, we're cruising," she said.
Staab's students seem to appreciate the nonacademic time. In about 15 minutes on a recent Friday, 28 seventh-graders pushed their chairs into a circle, did a breathing exercise and passed a talking stick clockwise, sharing how their week had gone, one thing they were proud of, what they'd be doing over the weekend and what they thought about restorative practices.
"It's a really good way to express emotions," Benjamin Carver, 14, said of the circle discussions.
"It lets you know that you're not alone," said Christina Lee, 14.
Early in the year, Staab said, some classes were uninterested in circle discussions. One boy in particular would disrupt the talks, so she found him an alternative sharing activity on an iPad. Eventually, he decided to join his peers.
Another of Staab's students said during circle that he was feeling down because his brother was missing.
"It's incredible what students will share when they're given their safe classroom," she said.
Staab thinks students can better focus on academics once they share what's going on at home.
"It makes sense why sometimes we see the behaviors we see," she said. "It's a lot to hold in."