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Beyond Academic Personalized Learning: Implementing Restorative Justice

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By Mike McCarthy, Executive Director of Specialized Services, Distinctive Schools

Personalized learning is a philosophy that seeks to provide educational experiences for students tailored to their unique characteristics. This usually manifests on the academic side with students working on individualized pathways. At Distinctive Schools, the academic side was the entry point for our personalized learning journey. But for students to have a truly individualized experience, this system has to become a part of the non-academic parts of their schooling as well. Based on this, our schools have shifted to adopt a restorative justice model. 

This school year, Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Bucktown, managed by Distinctive Schools, sought to infuse this philosophy into the school's discipline practices. The school has been known for its positive culture; however, the team recognized that to transform their one-size-fits all legacy model they needed to adjust their behavior management and disciplinary practices. Dean of Students Kory Kliebert, Assistant Dean of Students Jermaine Weems, School Social Worker Stephanie Indianer and Counselor Annette Ramos launched an active listening tour to hear from students, staff, and family members. They found that all stakeholders were frustrated with the existing model's limitations, which led to wasted time and strained relationships. Everyone expressed a desire to change how students responded to redirection, increase student agency and ownership over behavior choices, and foster academic success and skill growth.

Based on the feedback, the school leadership and the network's academic team determined that the school should update its cultural and restorative justice practices that took into account each student's unique profile. As a result, CICS Bucktown launched three new initiatives that successfully enriched the broader school culture while improving the student-centered learning experience. 

The team first attempted to reset the systemic guardrails around discipline. They removed cumulative disciplinary consequences for repeat behavior and reduced suspensions overall. Instead, CICS Bucktown invested time and effort in creating personalized behavior plans that accounted for specific data on demerits for student feedback, skill needs, and logical consequences specific to student action. This allowed for a more restorative approach to discipline, and left space for dialogue among teachers, students, and families.

The CICS Bucktown Student Support Team invested more time in having restorative conversations with students, developing consequences that aligned with specific behaviors, and teaching skills for managing their behavior. For example, instead of giving detention for repeatedly earning a certain number of demerits, a team member would work with a student to help them learn what was driving them to make this choice. The student learned to recognize the impact of their actions, practice replacement skills to support them in the future, and determine how to repair any harm done to their community.

The second initiative CICS Bucktown rolled out in pursuit of restorative justice was shifting the adult mindset around discipline, which took even more time and active listening. The team challenged themselves, staff, families, and students to rethink the traditional discipline system of using consequences as deterrents. To ensure it was not a top-down initiative, the leadership team leveraged teacher-requested, voluntary point-of-practice workshops to broaden awareness, deepen understanding, and widen skill sets related to student trauma, de-escalation, and the core tenants of restorative practices. Teachers learned more about the 'why' behind the shift in practice and built their skills by participating in restorative conversations and community building circles. This shift from associating direct consequences with conduct violations was met with early skepticism; however, teachers and staff began to recognize the issues more holistically and see that not every incident required the same response. 

The third and final initiative CICS Bucktown launched was an exercise in reimagining their school roles and responsibilities. This ultimately produced a new student support team made up of deans, social workers, and a behavior coach; this allowed for more time to be dedicated to restorative justice and social emotional learning. This restructuring enabled the team to create new systems that helped them get to the root of student behaviors, develop better listening skills, and create tailored practices to address individual needs.

The early results of these restorative justice initiatives have been very positive. Staff have seen an increase in student sharing regarding their actions and in their desire to develop new coping skills. Teachers have improved their language and engagement structures with students. Most importantly, students report feeling better heard by their teachers and have demonstrated more understanding of the logical consequences of their actions.

So, what's next for CICS Bucktown's restorative justice program? We believe it's crucial that we continue to promote family awareness and understanding. Families are used to the zero-tolerance policies of the past. We plan to explain the restorative justice mindset to them through in-person meetings while continuing to provide a clear point of reference regarding the code of conduct in all of our communications (e.g., email and the Family-Student Handbook). Our team will also strive to educate families on how to use restorative practices at home. By continuously improving our school practices, we hope to gain the buy-in of parents, students, and teachers in this endeavor.

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