West: More talking and less fighting

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s the period before lunch in the tiny office of Christina Taveras, student advisor for the 9th grade academy at West Philadelphia High.

A girl enters quietly. “Miss, I need to talk to you. That girl called my house and wants to fight me.”

Taveras goes to work. Over the next 45 minutes, she establishes a truce of sorts by speaking with the two antagonists and getting them to promise to keep talking to each other. It isn’t easy.

The facts of the conflict are contested and complicated by hearsay, and both students are hurt and angry. At one point during the tense discussion, when both girls are feeling vulnerable, Taveras interjects, “Let me be part of your family, too.”

A few minutes later, a school security officer enters with a tall boy in tow. The officer explains that the student was, once again, misbehaving in the lunchroom and being disrespectful. The boy interrupts: “You got in my face.” But after a discussion, he begrudgingly agrees to follow the rules, and the officer doesn’t take any disciplinary action.

“It takes time to resolve conflicts where people feel … disrespected, but it’s a step forward when they are willing to talk instead of resorting to violence,” Taveras says.

Three years ago, that is not how these conflicts would have been resolved. But Taveras has been trained in restorative practices, an approach to behavior that emphasizes building relationships and conflict resolution as opposed to punishment. It is the linchpin of a concerted effort to improve West’s climate after the school spent several years mostly out of control.

Principal Saliyah Cruz and the school leadership team turned to the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in Bethlehem, Pa. to help develop and implement the approach at West.

“Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when people in authority do things with them rather than to or for them,” said Institute president and founder Ted Wachtel at IIRP’s annual conference in October.

The program, adapted from the restorative justice movement in the criminal justice system, has captured attention worldwide. Hull, England, has set a goal of becoming a “restorative city,” using the approach in schools and social services as well as criminal justice.

One of its hallmarks is the “circle,” a small group that meets regularly to establish norms, build community, and provide a forum for problem-solving. It empowers participants, ensuring them a voice and a promise that the group will take their concerns seriously.

Taveras uses circles for resolving conflict. Cruz takes them a step further. They are not just a crisis response, the principal says, but “an instructional tool.” Teachers are encouraged to use circles during the advisory period to address general concerns.

The IIRP stresses that when employed faithfully, restorative practices can be a powerful tool for improving classroom climate, relationships between teachers and students, and, ultimately, learning and achievement.

But as with any change, it takes time and work for it to become a part of the school culture.

Steve Korr, an IIRP trainer who has worked with staff at West and other Philadelphia schools, says its use by teachers is “growing” but not universal.

Cruz says teachers have been generally supportive and puts their use of circles “at 70 to 75 percent – higher in the 9th grade academy.” However, she adds that she is not sure it would survive a change in administration.

Marcia Walker, a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers building committee, is quoted in a video as saying it’s “not just another new thing on the block. It’s a way of life.”

Students are also positive. The most important difference between the school three years ago and today “is a sense of community,” says 12th grader and Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) member Khalif Dobson.

Restorative practices aren’t the only change that West has made. After concerted planning with the faculty, PSU, and the West Philadelphia High School Community Partners, the school also established a student success center staffed by a full-time social worker, invited a City Year team to provide in-class support and mentoring, and adopted Talent Development, a comprehensive school reform model targeted at the 9th grade. In addition, it closed off the third floor to improve security, a move that boosted staff morale.

The payoff has been a more than 50 percent reduction in violent and serious incidents from 2006-07 to 2007-08, accompanied by a significant reduction in the number of suspensions.

Still, no one should confuse West with utopia. It continues to cope with the same issues that plague other comprehensive urban high schools. Police are a major presence, and the school, once again, has made the persistently dangerous schools list.

When mediation or preventive measures fail, students are suspended. And while the changes have created a foundation to move forward academically, that has yet to happen in a measurable way.

But there is progress on a front where there is little to cheer about across the city. IIRP trainer Korr says that CAPA, Sayre, Stetson, Powel, and Mastery Charter have all had some exposure to restorative practices, but no school has made as deep a commitment as West.

The real story at West, says Eric Braxton, a longtime advocate for high school reform, is not that a heroic principal came in to save the day, but that significant culture change is a prolonged and difficult process.

Besides having enough money to support that kind of work, he says, “It’s about an administration that respects and supports its staff, a bunch of innovative programs, and engaged students and community members.”