If our goal is to uproot the systemic racism and other prejudices that live within the structure of our educational system and in every school building, then we must move to make deep changes in many areas. To get this done, it’s imperative that we share best practices and strive to implement model schools that can serve as beacons for others across the nation.
Importantly, we must recognize that to a great extent, we don’t need to wait for legislators or school boards to give us the go-ahead. We have the knowledge and experience within our teaching and student ranks to lead the way. Yes, it would be nice to receive extra funding, vocal support and legislative backup. But we must realize that the people who are a part of the system will most times be reluctant to take the lead in making profound changes as their positions of power are sometimes threatened. Reforms come from the top. Fundamental change comes from below; from the people ‘on the ground’. And, that is us.
If we are to do our part to uproot systemic racism, we need to start with principals and a critical mass of staff willing to truly serve the children and families of our neighborhoods. Working within our communities across the nation, utilizing all our experiences, and then sharing what our practice has taught us, will help us establish these ‘model schools’ in communities throughout the U.S.
To get this done, we’ll need to address, at least, these four areas of school culture and academics:
- Instruction—What is taught and how we teach it. We must move away from the standard curricula, which are often stultifying and geared toward tests, and from traditional teaching techniques, and move toward curricula that are culturally responsive. In practice, this means that the content reflects the history and culture of the students in your communities and is taught in a manner that engages them and inspires them to learn. BIPOC youngsters deserve nothing less.
- Assessment—How we measure what has been learned. We must get off the destructive treadmill of standardized testing, which measures only a narrow band of intelligence and robs us of precious class time with its’ ‘drill and kill’ lessons. We must move to include more performance-based assessment (PBA)—which teaches our students to research, write and present their findings orally to a panel of staff, parents and peers.
- Safety—How we keep our schools safe. We must work to replace police in schools (armed and unarmed) with a cohort of ‘peacekeepers’ who are an integral part of the school community. These peacekeepers would be trained in public safety techniques, such as verbal de-escalation, restorative justice circles and martial arts.
- Organization and Relationships—How our schools are structured and how we interact. We must move away from patterns of relationship rooted in the hierarchical and competitive nature of our traditional buildings. Rather, we must run our schools as respectful collaborations among equals. We must transform our schools from being alienating institutions as they are to so many of our students and families (read poor/immigrant/Black/Latinx/Indigenous and more) to being caring, inclusive communities where everyone is fully respected.
Shifting From Punitive to Restorative Systems
While, over the years, I’ve gained experience in all of these areas, my focus during the last 16 years has been rooted in using restorative justice theory, practices and structures to make my/our schools safer and change how everyone works together. Working as a Dean at my school, East Side Community in Manhattan, or as Director of our Restorative Justice Pilot Schools Initiative at the NYC Department of Education, I’ve drawn many lessons on how to change culture using this Indigenous-based approach to harm, healing and life in general.
I’m suggesting extending our concept of what it takes to have a school make a paradigm shift and move from being a punishment-based school to becoming a restorative-based one. This paradigm shift has two steps: Instead of solely fixating on catching the bad guy and meting out a punishment of detention, suspension or expulsion, the restorative approach will:
- Help the person(s) who have created the harm take responsibility for what they did.
- Work in circle with that person(s) and those harmed to repair the harm done (make amends) on the emotional and physical levels.
This is as far as we usually go. And, when done well, it can help resolve many issues. But, it doesn’t change the culture of the whole school because it is isolated to individual students.
Adults Create Harm, Too
Most schools never acknowledge what we all know: Adults create harm, too! If we want to change a school’s culture, everyone must step up and take responsibility for their actions. So, I offer a third step:
- Hold our adults accountable for the mistakes/harm that they create.
If we do restorative justice without holding staff accountable, we are increasing inequities in our building. If we only look at the harm created by our teens and preteens, we are actually criminalizing them. When done in schools where the majority of the staff is white and the students are mainly of color, this limited approach is outright racist, class prejudiced and ageist, if not sexist as well. This incomplete use of restorative justice may well account for why, even in schools where it has been used successfully with students and suspensions have dropped, inequities in who is being suspended still exist. Throughout the country, African American students, students with disabilities/IEPs remain suspended at rates two and three times their numbers in their school system. And there is anecdotal evidence of such persistent discrimination with LGBTQ students as well.
When I ask workshop participants (mostly principals and district personnel) if blaming is one key way that harm is created in schools, their answer is always a resounding “yes.” Following up on that, we decide that the antidote is self—reflection and taking responsibility. Thus, in a more robust implementation of RJ. With this in mind, I offer a fourth step:
- Create a ‘Culture of Self-Reflection’ (CofSR) in our schools.
When blaming is off limits and everyone is encouraged to be self-reflective in all situations, we can look to identify any mistakes we have made and then work collaboratively with others to correct our course. Important to note, when we reduce/eliminate the blaming, we will also reduce/eliminate the need of those who have made errors to reflexively defend their actions and/or feel guilty about their mistakes. We/they can adopt a growth mindset and look to discover new ways to address the issue with their professional team.
Finally, the 5th step in this paradigm shift from a punitive/top down handling of conflicts to a restorative, community based approach would be for us to embed this ‘Culture of Self-Reflection’ (Cof SR) and Circles, which are the main structural piece of an RJ approach to living, into the daily life of our schools.
- Embed the use of circles and establish a Culture of Self-Reflection in your school’s daily life.
Circles can be used not only in advisory, but in academic classes and all manner of department and grade team meetings, as well as parent association meetings. Self-reflection first (and recriminations never!) can prove effective in teacher evaluations, report card conferences (yes, let’s encourage our young people to mature through self-evaluation) and in collectively tackling why any school policy didn’t work as well as we had hoped it would. Rather than blaming each other, let’s each reflectively evaluate the situation, take our piece of responsibility and correct our course as a team.
Now, all of this is hard to do because we’ve all been trained to deflect criticism, blame others, follow directives from those higher in the educational hierarchy and to mind our own business. This approach to life and teaching reflects the individualistic, hierarchical values, traditions and beliefs of our capitalist society, replete with its racism, class prejudice, sexism, ageism, etc. These inequities are baked into our schools and all other institutions of U.S. society.
Only by adopting a different paradigm, one based on an Indigenous community-oriented view of society (which is where we have learned most of our restorative practices), will we be able to fully uproot the systemic inequities that plague us daily in our schools. Once done, Black, Latinx LGBTQ and special education students and their families will no longer be targeted, explicitly or implicitly, as the ones who are responsible for the U.S. having so many failing schools. Rather, the educational system will be exposed as the purveyor of the host of inequities that resound throughout almost all of our schools.
Making profound cultural change requires an ‘all hands on deck, everyday’ effort. That’s why, in order to get this transition going, a school needs to have a bold leader willing to buck repressive traditions and possessing a vision of what a school-based in equity looks like. When teamed with a cohort of staff willing to break the chains of school hierarchies and the way things are usually done, you can rally and win over the great bulk of adults and students in your building. Then, you have a solid basis upon which to begin transforming a school from being an alienating/repressive institution to becoming a caring and equitable community. We also set ourselves up to embrace culturally responsive education, performance-based assessment and a peacekeepers approach to keeping our schools safe.
We have to do this because the times are calling for fundamental change. The COVID pandemic and the murderous policing pandemic have exposed the racist, sexist, class-based and xenophobic prejudices that are baked into U. S. society. Organizers and abolitionists in every area/walk of life must collaborate on building people-oriented alternatives to the status quo. The future of our country depends on us picking up this challenge—and if we commit to making a full paradigm shift, then we can change our outcomes. Our children deserve nothing less.