Expanding pilot programs is often dicey, for reasons which go beyond funding concerns; but this good, short overview should expand imaginations about what’s possible for troubled schools:
Before 2006, when Debora Borges-Carrera became the principal at Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School (KCAPA) in north Philadelphia, the school was the scene of pandemonium. Not a day seemed to go by without a fight in the concrete stairwell. Kids sent to the principal’s office for disrupting class roamed the hallways. During one visit from the superintendent, a riot broke out in the cafeteria, with students climbing on tables and chucking their meal trays across the room. In Borges-Carrera’s first year on the job, the school—where about 90 percent of students are Latino or black and 100 percent are below the poverty line—reported 76 incidents of student misbehavior, more than four times the state average, including 13 aggravated assaults on staff members.
Under KCAPA’s “zero tolerance” policy—since the late 1990s, the prevailing approach to discipline in schools across the country—the typical response to student misbehavior was harsh punishment. “Any behavior that got a student sent to the principal’s office almost automatically resulted in suspension,” says Erin Smith, a teacher at the school since 2004. Under the district’s vaguely worded discipline policy, students were routinely transferred for possession of a “weapon,” which could be anything from a gun to a butter knife. With an estimated 200 out-of-school suspensions, according to the School District of Philadelphia, and a student body of just under 400, it was clear the system wasn’t working.
Within months of coming on the job, Borges-Carrera replaced KCAPA’s existing policy with a set of practices collectively known as restorative justice. Rather than punishing students who are out of line, restorative justice aims to help them rebuild their standing in the school community and repair the harm they have caused. The practices vary—peer-mediation programs, empathy training for offenders—but the basic idea is that strong interpersonal and community ties work better than fear of retribution.