East High School: Embracing a Restorative Approach
East High School: Embracing a Restorative Approach
“There’s a lot of pride at East,” says Michelle Garcia, social worker at East High School’s Lower School. “We have high expectations of our students and we provide a high level of support. Everyone at East—students, teachers, administrators, security officers, secretaries . . . we are all making it work.”
Each morning, students enter the building greeted by security officers with booming smiles. Posters with inspirational phrases like “Keep calm and carry on” and “Be positive” adorn lockers and hallways. Kids flock together chatting and laughing as they move from one class to the next, stopping to give a hug or a high five to a teacher along the way.
Taking a restorative approach
Since the Warner School of Education formed an Educational Partnership Organization (EPO) and first partnered with East in 2015, the improvements to the school’s culture have been palpable. The Center for Urban Education Success supports that partnership, one that serves—through research—as a model for urban schools nationwide.
At East, student outcomes are quantifiable, with much of it attributed to a restorative approach, which helps students learn by fostering a responsive and compassionate environment. For Michelle Garcia and Glerizbeth “Beth” Sanchez, a senior scholar in the Upper School, this approach is all about relationships—building them, validating them, and seeing another person’s perspective.
“If we show kids we ‘see’ them, we care, and we want to know what it’s like to be in their shoes, they learn better and they are happier—we all are,” says Garcia. “We can build and maintain a better society when we focus on building our relationships with each other.”
Creating safe spaces
Sanchez tells a story about a recent experience with another student, a girl who thought Sanchez had a problem with her. That girl went to a teacher who said the two of them needed to talk. “The teacher got us together, the girl told me what was on her mind, we worked it all out, and the teacher didn’t even have to say anything,” she says. That’s the kind of safe space East High encourages, where students can engage in productive interactions. “It’s not always easy,” says Sanchez. “But, students are now doing it . . . they are living it.”
Garcia is clear to point out that consequences happen as they need to, when actions justify them. With the restorative approach, students may get suspended for physically fighting, but when they come back to school there’s work done to try to repair their relationship. “We don’t suspend and then magically think the problems will go away,” she says. “We charge the kids and give them the support to make right what they did. It can’t be that they have to do arbitrary service either, it has to be meaningful and relevant to that relationship.”
Building a community
Sanchez came to East High before the EPO, when the rumors about the school shutting down ran rampant. She was in the 8th grade at the time. “I remember my first Family Group,” she says. “It was right after lunch, and we were with a group of random kids and we had a teacher we didn’t know. We sat in a circle and when we were handed a talking stick, it was our turn to say something about our day.”
At first, Sanchez says, students were curious and unsure about whether it made any sense to sit down with relative strangers and talk about themselves, their weekends, and their challenges. That’s what Family Group is all about—getting students together daily with one or two adults in the building to foster connections and provide social and emotional support. It’s a key part of the school’s restorative approach to education.
But then something happened. Students started to break out of their small groups. They began advocating for people they hadn’t known before. Garcia notes a time when an 8th grader saw a 6th grader getting picked on. The older student got very protective and said, “This is my younger brother,” referring to his Family Group. “Leave him alone.”
Students, and the entire school community, started to see that perhaps they could relate to someone they didn’t know. They were starting to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They were building community.
Being on the lookout
Today, Sanchez says, Family Group is a vital part of everyone’s day. So is being on the lookout for kids who might be struggling with something. Garcia describes how a teacher who takes a restorative approach might start class by asking students to tell her how they would rate the day so far, on a scale of one to five. If someone says a one or two, that teacher might ask that student “What’s up, I see that you put up a two. What’s going on? How can I be helpful?”
Another teacher might give out an assignment or a test and notice one student lost in thought and not participating. With a restorative approach, that teacher may walk up and down the rows of students, lean in to that one, and ask, “Is everything going okay today? Why don’t you stick around at the end of the class and let’s check in.” Yet another teacher might be confronted with a student who adamantly says, “I’m not doing any work today.”
Under the old model, a punitive response may have been the initial course of action, with the student being sent down to the principal’s office. Under the EPO, the teacher would likely pause and say something like “Wow, you seem to be really struggling today. I see you, I care about you. What can I do to help you?” Sometimes the students need to talk, go to circle, or go to a cool down or care room—special areas set up to help them deal with big issues in their lives and get through the day.
Putting it all together
Everyone has a lens through which they see the world. One lens isn’t right or wrong necessarily, it’s just different. For Sanchez, her lens is showing a bright future. She’s moved through high school as a multi-sport athlete and a top scholar and she’s taken classes that have pointed her toward a career in teaching.
Sanchez has done all this while working after school and on weekends at a local grocery store. She’s seized every opportunity presented to her. Now, she is poised for college, and has already received scholarship offers from her top choices. Her next decision is just “where?”