Ushering in a Process of Change: Introducing Restorative Practices at the Middle School Level
My name is Suzanne Hitchman, and I am the Restorative Practices Coordinator at Ebbets Field Middle School in Crown Heights through Partnership with Children. I got my start with Restorative Justice and Restorative Practices as a youth worker in Washington, DC and later worked as a school social worker/Restorative Practices Site Leader at a large urban middle school in San Francisco. Prior to joining Partnership with Children, I was a district-wide Restorative Practices Coach for the San Francisco Unified School District.
I’m excited to be part of the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project because Brooklyn Community Foundation is so committed to the change process. Our benchmarks are tailored to our school’s current climate, culture and need, as well as to our own organization’s approach. The Foundation has given us four years to work collaboratively with our schools to create a paradigm shift. Also, I have the opportunity to connect with the coordinators from other schools and agencies who are some of the sharpest practitioners in the field. There is definitely a feeling of co-creation and movement-building that is exciting and powerful. We are also explicit in our focus on racial justice. While I believe restorative justice is good for everyone, it is our communities of color and our students receiving special education services who pay the biggest price in a punitive culture.
Ebbets Field is a small middle school in south Crown Heights. We have 190 students who live within walking distance of the school, but whose families come from all over the world. While we have a lot of newcomers to the neighborhood, we also have families who have sent three generations of children to middle school here, and whose elders are still active members of the school community. Our school staff is deeply experienced, and includes scholars, filmmakers, musicians, actors, activists and physical fitness experts. Staff members smile even when they are overwhelmed and under pressure, and are quick to offer hugs, support, and snacks. They participate in celebrations, lunch-and-learns, and critical dialogue whenever asked.
My role as Restorative Practice Coordinator is to usher in a process of change. As such, the role evolves as the school community evolves. Right now I’m focusing on building relationships with members of the school community, educating staff about Restorative Practices, assessing school climate, and establishing buy-in for school-wide implementation. It’s important to me that the Restorative Practices work belongs to and is implemented by the entire school community—administrators, teachers, school safety personnel, parents and students—and is not just some program that an outside agency is bringing to the school. In a lot of ways, I see my job as a community organizer, building power and movement towards a major paradigm shift.
Partnership with Children’s approach to Restorative Practices grows from a long history of providing exceptional social and emotional support services through Master’s level social workers in schools throughout New York City. The role of a Partnership with Children social worker has always been restorative in nature. Partnership with Children focuses our school-based work on addressing the wellness of the whole child. This mindset informs our work to increase safe and supportive school climate and culture in all of our schools. As we develop our Restorative Practice work more explicitly, our regular practices are foundational: assessing of the needs of each school we partner with, and capacity-building for the adults in the building to reflect upon their own practice, and collaboratively building and strengthening the systems and structures for Restorative Practices.
I am drawn to this work because I believe it’s what humanizes school communities in the context of a punitive society and educational system. In our schools, educator bias and structural racism can create a context where the behavior of our black and brown students and our special education students is seen as defiance. Rather than label our young people as “defiant,” Restorative Practices asks us to think, “What is happening for this student?” and “What can we do to make things right?”
The punitive approach in schools also challenges teachers and administrators. Stringent benchmarks and a primary focus on test scores have made it increasingly difficult for educators to prioritize relationship-building with their students (and each other) or to understand or apply the intersection of social-emotional learning and classroom learning.
Without a foundation of strong relationships, classroom cultures suffer. Teachers can feel like they have no choice but to raise their voices or refer students out of the classroom. Some teachers struggle to employ creative interventions that engage students and allow them to reflect on their own behavior. The result is a system caught in a vicious cycle of misidentified behavior, negative relationships, and unmet needs. Changing this requires additional thoughtfulness and support. I like my job because I am able to provide this support and serve as an ally to educators and school staff as they reconnect with their students and with each other, in spite of the institutional barriers to doing so.
Currently I’m working on exposing all students and staff to the circle process by facilitating circles in every classroom. Engaging students and staff directly in regular class circles will build our staff’s capacity to keep regular circles as part of their classroom communities. Prioritizing this will make major inroads in our school’s effort to build a solid foundation of strong relationships and positive school and classroom climates. I also focus much of my current work on staff wellness. I am a firm believer that you need to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. I hold voluntary staff wellness circles and conduct individual check-ins and consultation with school staff. I believe personal wellness is the first step to fostering trust among the adults in the building—a vital piece in transforming school climate.
My goal for this year is to develop trusting relationships with the school community and to build a leadership team who will develop an action plan based on our assessment. This will give us a shared road map to guide us as we build the systems that will sustain whole school implementation of Restorative Practices.