School Re-Imagined: How a DC High School Transforms Lives Using Data-Driven Restorative Practices
District of Columbia Public Schools
Ron Brown College Preparatory High School / Washington, D.C.
- Grades 9-10
- 205 students
- 96% Economically disadvantaged
- 29% Special education
- 96% African-American
- 3% Hispanic
- 3% Multiple Races
Ron Brown College Preparatory High School (RBHS), Washington, D.C.’s first all-male public school, is building a new kind of school culture from the ground up. The school team is extinguishing punitive mindsets and actions typical in many urban neighborhoods and schools, especially toward young men of color. They are instead creating a culture that restores a person back into the fold after a mistake is made. Using culture data as their guide, leaders, teachers, and students engage in intentional restorative practices that build a strong, healthy community. When conflicts arise, the community holds offenders accountable, while helping them repair the harm they’ve caused so that they can once again be contributing members.
- Establishing a new school in a high-poverty urban setting
- Supporting young men of color who are over-represented in discipline statistics, by reducing suspensions and expulsions and increasing graduation rates
- Reframing staff and student mindsets focused solely on punishing wrong-doing using traditional, punitive methods
- Creating data systems to measure effectiveness of schoolwide practices that build a restorative community to develop the whole child
When RBHS opened its doors to 100 freshmen in August 2016, it set out to create an academic environment and culture designed specifically to meet the needs of young men of color in the nation’s capital. Teachers and administrators establish high expectations for students, who are called “Young Kings,” and work diligently to support their academic achievement while creating a nurturing environment for their social and emotional growth.
“At RBHS, we recognize the importance of educating and developing the entire young man,” said Principal Benjamin Williams, Ph.D. “Disproportionate rates of graduation, suspension, attendance, student satisfaction, and performance on college readiness exams all point to the need for a renewed focus on Black and Latino males.”
With precise intentionality, leaders at RBHS set out to create a school culture founded upon the Restorative Practices model. While providing a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum, their aim is for all young men to be prepared to successfully navigate high school and their post-secondary school pursuits. With that end-goal in mind, leaders execute both proactive as well as responsive practices that build a thriving community.
Instead of spending all of their time and energy reacting to behavior problems, the RBHS team puts high priority on getting ahead of behavior challenges. Steered by the school’s Care Team, they carve out ample time for non-academic practices that will inevitably yield academic results. These practices all work to create a positive, restorative community where their Young Kings can learn.
Summer Bridge Program:
All incoming students attend a two week-long summer program to learn about the uniquenesses of RBHS. This time is intended to help the group become a true community, rather than simply a co-existing class of 9th graders. They get their first experience with community circles, internalize the school’s vision and core values, and get specific training on the student side of Restorative Practices. There is also a good deal of time dedicated to developing healthy mindsets for building their new community.
At RBHS, school leaders have established and specifically defined a set of Core Values using the acronym PACE:
P: Peer and Adult Respect
- Treat others as you would like to be treated
- Respect yourself
- Respect others
- Respect property (others’ and school’s)
- Respect the academic environment
A: Academic Readiness
- Be prepared for all classes at all times
- Be on-time to school and all classes
- Be in uniform
- Be committed to being an academically inquisitive student who is willing to take chances
- Show grit and perseverance
- Take ownership of your educational experience and environment
- Participate in all aspects of the RBHS program
- Positively represent yourself, your family, RBHS, and your community at all times
The Care Team provides explicit training for PACE before the school year begins and then throughout the year, all staff coach these Young Kings to exemplify these core values in their daily lives.
Young Kings start each day at RBHS in a school-wide or grade level-wide community circle. Circles are interactive, not simply adult-directed, intended to help the young men realize the power of their voice. Each student has an opportunity, as the “talking piece” is passed around around, to share something they think or feel about the topic of the day. Planned and facilitated by members of the school’s Care Team, community circles help students explore a wide range of topics such as:
- What it means to self-advocate
- How to praise adults and peers
- Events within the school, locally, or nationally–especially those that affect young men of color
- Mindfulness meditation
- How to code-switch for success in an academic or career environment
Community circles serve as a venue for social-emotional learning, help strengthen the community, and provide a model for smaller classroom communities to follow.
The leaders at RBHS are proactive when it comes to behavior data. Adults reinforce and capture when students are exhibiting their PACE Core Values in real time using Kickboard. If a student exhibits a behaviors that goes against their core values, it’s captured as well. Each week, the leadership team analyzes this core value data as well as positivity ratios for students and staff. They are able to recognize and celebrate the young kings living out PACE. If corrective data suggests a need for growth, they are able to intervene early and take action. The Care Team observes and probes further into the friction in order to get ahead of potential problems. “With the Kickboard data, we can be very strategic in the support we provide” explains Williams.
Support for Adults
RBHS also invests a good deal of time and energy in supporting staff. Each summer, leaders hold a summer staff retreat to help train or reinforce culture practices the school expects. New staff members are trained on Restorative Practices, they learn the school’s vision and core values, and they spend time exploring the mindsets critical for serving the young men at RBHS.
During the school year, adults have their own community circles where they explore aspects of supporting the social-emotional needs of their students. Leaders hold regular individual check-ins with teachers and help them infuse Restorative Practices in their classrooms. Each week, instructional staff gather for specific culture meetings where they review the behavior needs of individual students, plan actions for behavior data trends observed, and revisit previous professional development topics that support student behavior.
Responsive Practices at RBHS
The underriding premise of Restorative Practices–the whole reason “restore” is used in the model’s title–is to help bring an offending party back to being a contributing member of his community as quickly as possible. The focus is on repairing the harm done, then getting back to business; the focus isn’t on the punishment.
Because this school has invested so much time and energy into building a positive, nurturing community of adults and students, when the inevitable conflict occurs, the foundation exists to restore the harm done and solve the root of the problem. The Care Team at RBHS follows a consistent protocol when a problem occurs.
Initiating a Restorative Effort
When a student or group of students display certain undesirable or dangerous behaviors, which the school has pre-determined, the teacher immediately enters the behavior and related information into Kickboard. A member of the school’s Care Team receives an instant text notification about the problem. They respond immediately and remove the student to what they call a “restorative space”.
Once in a safe, restorative space, the adult Care Team member walks the student who’s committed the offense through a process to help them understand and then own the harm they’ve caused. The behavior data and anecdotal log in Kickboard helps the adult understand the incident and any precipitating events leading up to the problem. The language employed in these conversations is quite different than what commonly takes place in traditional situations of student discipline. Instead of an adversarial conversation focusing on punishment, the adult acknowledges the intrinsic self-worth of the student and focuses on the action that caused the harm rather than the person who committed it. The Care Team member will probe with questions such as What happened? and What harm has been caused?
The conversation, still in the restorative space, then evolves into planning how to repair harm. Note this step is a collaborative effort. It’s not simply a handing down of punishment to the child, it’s a combined decision done with the child to help him grow and learn from the experience. Together, the Care Team adult and student plan how to make things right with those who’ve been affected, whether it was a peer, an adult, or both.
This phase occurs when all parties are ready. It takes place in a circle comprised of the student or students who committed the act, the people who’ve been affected by the act, an RBHS Care Team facilitator, and potentially caregivers of either party. Since proactive, community circles are a regular way of life at RBHS, this type of activity is not foreign and allows for all voices to be heard. The goal of the circle is for the person or people who’ve been affected to explore their feelings and allowing the person or people who committed the harmful act to repair the harm done. The ultimate outcome is for all people involved to learn through the conflict and to welcome back anyone who was removed so that the community is again made whole.
Dr. Williams shares evidence of early success with these responsive practices RBHS has employed. He states, “90% of the time, there is no repeat of the behaviors between parties” who’ve had conflict and gone through a restorative effort.
When asked why he and his staff spend the time and energy on both proactive and responsive practices, Dr. Williams goes on to say “I believe that school culture and academics are equally important. You can’t have a strong academic setting without a strong culture, and you can’t have a strong culture without high expectations in your academic setting. The two go hand-in-hand.” With such important learning going on inside the walls of Ron Brown High School, these young kings will certainly go on to become successful, contributing adults in their greater communities.
For more detailed insight into this school’s approach to school culture, please listen to the podcast “Raising Kings” on National Public Radio.