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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Creating a Restorative School District in Syracuse, NY

Restorative Strategies partnered with Reaching Solution to train over 100 circle keepers in Upstate NY. The training was done over a period of one month and staff from around the district were given the tools needed to build a "restorative ecosystem" in their schools. We want to thank the Board of Education and Superintendent Mrs. Sharon Contreras for bringing us on board. We were so thankful to have the support of Shelia Donahue of SCSD and three teachers who were previously trained by Restorative Strategies through an American Federation of Teachers' sponsored training. Christine Agaiby of Reaching Solutions worked with me to conduct this historic training for the district. Christine brought her knowledge and expertise and gave the teachers and staff the opportunity to experience the power of Circles and the intersection of the legal system in schools. It was an honor to do this training with Christine.

Evette William, Dana Crokett and Tabitha Ngwashi of SCSD were invaluable in their sharing of best practices in using Circles in their classrooms to support the overall social emotional learning for their students. I appreciate their willingness to assist us in this training and offer their heart and passion for the children in their district. Your contributions were invaluable to the training and the teachers and staff were made better because you were apart.

I mentioned in this Blog that we were in the business of supporting teachers in creating a "restorative ecosystem" in their schools. The questions and answers are multi-layered. As we embark on this adventure and proceed with the dismantling of the School-House to Jail House Pipeline in school districts all over the US it is important to know where we are in order to chart a new course. Here are some statistics of the school district we are currently working in just to give some context of the problems we face and the need to find a solution.

Syracuse City School district is made up of 21,030 students, 1,930 teachers, 14 elementary schools, six K-8, 6 Middle schools and 5 high schools. The racial make up is as follows. African-Americans make up 53% of the student population, Whites make up 28%, Hispanics are 12%, Asians are 6% and Native Americans make up 1% of the students in SCSD. There are 74 languages spoken in the district. Eighty-four percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch. Ninety-six of the students in the district are in under performing schools. Fifty-one percent of High School students graduate on time. SCSD students account for 85% of youth incarcerated in the county jail from 2010-2011.

This district is not alone in the use of zero-tolerance practices as a means of building a safe school environment. The result of using these practices has been a failure and the lesson that I learned as a fourth grader from my teacher Ms. Paulino was to "learn from your mistakes". That is why I am so passionate about looking at our schools and communities from a restorative "lense". You can "see" how to learn from your mistakes and repair the harm you caused by your actions. You can "see" opportunities to heal and build community. You can "see" how to craft programs that are geared to foster hope and restoration for the "least of these". This is at the very heart of the work of restorative practices. This is where we need to assist our schools to "see".

What is in play is an opportunity to utilize Restorative Practices at the school and community level to shift thinking around our children and build more restorative processes to repair harm and build community. It is clearly needed in Syracuse and across the nation. Our nation has a "heart" problem. Here are the symptoms to this problem. We make up only 5% of the worlds' population but make up 25% of all those incarcerated. We treat our mentally ill by locking them up. We suspend our children from school as early as kindergarten and pre-school. Our resources are being placed in jails and prisons and not in schools. While as the dean at Christian Fenger high school, I was told by a fellow administrator this saying. "Either you pay now or you pay later". This saying stuck with me as my role at Fenger shifted from Chief Dean to Culture and Climate Coordinator. It occurred to me that using zero tolerance practices was just simply "kicking the can down the road". We were not problem solvers but future problem creators. And society thought that the solution to this was to lock up the problems or rather out source the problems away from society. This does not solve anything but rather creates more problems for society in the future. Americas's heart needs to be fixed and fast before America has a heart attack and dies. It is not the terrorist from foreign countries I am concerned about but the fear and hatred perpetrated on our children every time we use zero tolerance to correct behavior. School districts from around the country are re-thinking their approach to the children and their needs. Restorative Strategies is glad to be supporting the change in Syracuse, East Baton Rogue and my home city of Chicago.

Building "Systems of Care" for our youth is crucial to creating pathways from cradle to career. What steps are we taking in Syracuse to move this district from zero tolerance to a restorative model for their youth? What are some ways to get our parents and community partners engaged in this process? Who should be at the table to make the decisions for their community? The first step has been to train100 Circle Keepers in the district and offer further district support to implement this process. Restorative Strategies has been asked to continue this partnership with SCSD by providing on-going training for this team during SY 2015-2016 and also provide 'Community awareness' workshops for parents and others interested in learning more. Restorative Strategies will also be working closely with the district and community organizations like the Center for Court Innovation as we move toward a restorative community in Syracuse, NY.

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