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An experienced educator shares thoughts on Restorative Practices in SFUSD

As you may have heard there has been a LOT of discussion surrounding school safety and district implementation of its Safe and Supportive Schools Policy. For the record, Restorative Practices (one of the main focuses of this resolution) was originally piloted in 2009. Later, in 2016, an official policy was drafted and ultimately approved to implement Restorative Practices district-wide.

I have been pretty transparent in sharing my questions and frustration with the implementation of this important policy. Many schools report it is being used successfully to reduce suspensions and expulsions and resolve conflicts in our school communities. Nonetheless, full implementation continues to elude our district, with many families and staff reporting a lack of site and central office support to implement it with fidelity.

Last year, during my very first meeting on the Board of Education, staff were unable to answer many of my questions. See a clip of my questions during the January 15, 2019 Board Meeting below. (Watch the full presentation, starting at 58:40 minutes.)

On June 16, 2019, at a special meeting, I continued grilling staff, which included Chief Lau-Smith (who is our new Chief of Student Family and Community Support Division (aka SFCSD). I asked her and the former Cheif, Kevin Truitt outright for an actionable plan, which I have yet to actually see. Listen to audio of this meeting. The Safe and Supportive Schools update begins at 1:46 minutes. My comments start at 20:19 minutes.

This past Tuesday, during our February 25, 2020 Board Meeting, we got another update from Mele Lau-Smith. She has only been in her new role for a month now, so I can’t fault her for a lack of successful implementation. Nonetheless, with all that is happening in our schools, it is really frustrating that I am still asking many of the same questions.

Before I share my questions, I thought I’d share a letter I received after the meeting this week. It came from an SFUSD educator with personal experience implementing RP in district schools. With their permission, they have allowed me to share it for your consideration and anonymized it to protect their identity.

Staff letter on Restorative Practices in SFUSD

Dear Alison,

I appreciated your pushback at the Board meeting the other night about the implementation of Restorative Practices (RP) in our District, and I share your frustration. Having worked at school sites over the past ten years, I have been frustrated and disappointed in the lack of consistency in implementation from site to site.

I have been integrally involved in the whole-school implementation of RP in SFUSD schools and even serving as a site’s RP lead for several years. I led training for staff, implemented mandatory community-building circles at the start of after school programs every day at various different sites, and facilitated countless restorative processes over the years. I have seen firsthand the profound differences that properly implemented RP can have on both the school-wide climate and on the individual experiences of students and families.

It sounded like, from UESF President, Susan Solomon’s comments the other night, that teachers want the guarantee of training, which is good.

I think, and this is a personal opinion, based on where I’ve seen the barriers, or successful implementation, over the past ten years, that our biggest challenges are in the following areas:

  1. Principal buy-in and accountability (and therefore consistent implementation in classrooms through expectations and accountability for teachers)
  2. Sufficient resources to ensure successful implementation, which includes:
    • A staff person, fluent in RP, who can process conflicts (which can sometimes be a lengthy process) while teachers continue teaching their classes. This is critical because very often conflict starts on the play yard at recess and comes to a head when students are lining up and give teachers the lowdown upon returning to class
    • Release/PD time to fully learn and practice the various components of RP and be able to attend Professional Learning Communities where teachers/staff can strategize and get peer support for challenges in implementation, whether with circles or conflict resolution.

Also, I have serious concerns about the “Train-the-Trainer” model in this scenario because I know, from experience, that it takes time and repetition to get comfortable with the processes of RP. I cannot imagine attending one training, then being expected to go back to my school site and lead training for my peers in something I don’t even feel I have begun to master.

When SFUSD rolled out RP, we had a department of skilled facilitators that could train staff and support site teams with challenges; I am not sure if any of those positions currently exist or not.

When I hear about the challenges at many of our sites, such as Aptos MS, it saddens me because I believe that we have the tools. In addition to this, it takes a whole community coming together to consistently implement RP with fidelity, in partnership with all the other support services we know our kids need, in order for these challenges to be addressed.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s my two cents. I welcome your thoughts, ideas, etc. as we go forward. I do believe that Mele Lau Smith, the new Chief of SFCSD will do good work with this; any folks have expressed admiration for her work which is rooted in a community health model. Fingers crossed…

When will the District fully commit to implementing Safe and Supportive Schools?

Our nation is experiencing escalating uncertainty and rising inequality. Since Trump’s election, we are seeing a rise in hate speech and discrimination, much of it within our nation’s schools. We can’t rely on a “fingers-crossed” approach. We need an actionable plan. One that involves all school stakeholders. One that is resourced, and informed and sustainable. One that is not built on the backs of individual educators who are currently going above and beyond in myriad other ways (while trying to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world.)

The following are my unanswered questions about the Safe and Supportive Schools Policy. Please print out the policy and share it and the following questions with other families and staff. Or, add other questions in the comments below this post:

As you may know, I have been asking questions about district implementation for many years. (I testified about Hate Speech and the Safe Schools line and also testified about the lack of real support for educators in implementing RP
I shared my most recent concerns along with the feedback I’m hearing from educators and families in my blog:

My overarching questions are the following:

  • What is the plan for the full implementation of Safe and Supportive Schools? How are Restorative Practices resourced? What roles do teachers, support staff, admin and central office play in supporting successful implementation?
  • If the mechanism of implementing Safe Schools Resolution is ‘Climate Teams’, do all schools have them? What are the components of an effective team? How are staff compensated/supported in their participation in these teams? How are families, students and community members involved in meaningful ways?
  • How are schools partnering with students, families, and community-based organizations? How are families informed about Restorative Practices? How do they participate in creating or supporting the school Behavior Plan? How is the District strategically engaging with community partners to expand capacity to do culturally humble and community-responsive RP?
  • What are the ongoing ways central office and schools are gathering feedback to ensure all kids and families feel safe and valued? How are we making it easy for students and families to report hate speech (e.g. Safe Schools Line, Family Voice), bullying and microaggression in their schools snd classrooms? How are we educating them on appropriate and respectful and non-discriminatory behavior? What do historically marginalized communities like newcomers, foster youth, LBGTQ, and underrepresented racial groups need to feel seen and cared for?

We need to do better. Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe! Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

One thought on “An experienced educator shares thoughts on Restorative Practices in SFUSD

  1. Hi Alison.

    Thank you for writing about this and posting the educator’s letter. I agree wholeheartedly with everything in your whole post!

    Everything I write here is in the best interest of caring for and educating the students of SFUSD. After sadly resigning from SFUSD and gaining some perspective with distance, I want to suggest that the dominant culture within SFUSD needs to change. A glaring obstacle that undermines any intention of integrating a paradigm shift such as RP is the pervasive practice of disempowering and demeaning teachers through evaluations , not heeding their feedback, and myriad other ways.

    I understand that administrators have a really hard job! And, having never been one, I don’t understand the enormous pressure they have, nor the training they get. The practice of disempowering and demeaning teachers is so widespread that one can only assume it is systemic and comes from the top. Are administrators also being demeaned? If so, then common sense tells us they will not be able to go back to their sites and uplift the culture of their schools unless they have some kind of exceptional ability to repel the crushing pressure they receive from their higher ups. Those administrators exist but I have seen the inner strength they summon take a heavy toll on them and may not be sustainable.

    I know there are pockets of supportive school communities with effective administrators, and I have experienced being in those pockets, at which points I was so gratified that I could not have imagined leaving the district. It wasn’t perfect, but I need to acknowledge that some administrators and departments in SFUSD are getting it right in terms of realizing high morale and job satisfaction among their staff. By all appearances those departments are making strides in the results they achieve. Which departments are they? What are they doing right? Can it be replicated? The SFUSD community is an amazing group, including parents, staff and students. It needs only to search within!

    We know that education is not being adequately funded and that the lack of funding have created scarcity, and the effects of the efforts to privatize public education have caused great harm. Successful RP needs to include deep, systemic change. I think the district needs to step back and first lay the groundwork of creating supportive work environments where teachers and staff feel respected. If not, (and I have seen this more than once), site staff goes to a pd on RP and they are so wounded, depleted, and demoralized themselves they are not spiritually capable of buying into RP.

    I know we can only change that which is in the locus of our control. I also know that the macro is a reflection of the micro. We can’t expect teachers and staff to implement RP if they feel abused themselves. The dilemmas abound!

    With much love,

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