Educators Aim to Empower Girls of Color

By Marika Pfefferkorn and Dr. Talaya L. Tolefree

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has signaled she may roll back the 2014 Federal School Discipline Guidance, a set of civil rights protections for K-12 students. However, school-aged girls of color need more protection, not less; as research in prior GPR Education posts shows, a mountain of statistics demonstrates that supports like the Federal School Discipline Guidance are absolutely necessary.

Girls in our nation –especially girls of color– navigate barriers to their education on a daily basis. One of the most harmful is the disparate impact of school punishment on their intellectual and social well-being. Research from the Women’s Law Center reveals that girls of color are being pushed out of school by punishments with more severe consequences than those handed out to their white counterparts, Here in Minnesota, black girls are 8.7 times more likely than white girls to be suspended (nationwide, it’s 5:1). When girls aren’t in school they are not learning and when they are in school, many feel targeted and pushed out.

Though Trump administration announcements have education advocates on edge, local school districts have significant power to address racial disparities in discipline. Local Education Agencies (LEA), through their policies and practices, can help create spaces that bolster academic and social emotional learning for girls of color, regardless of federal support. Promising research suggests Restorative Practices may be an integral component in such educational transformation. There are three core principals embedded in Restorative Practices (RP) that aim to create the learning conditions to improve all students’ academic outcomes; 1) cultivating strength-based relationships 2) repairing harm, and 3) empowering voice through engaging stakeholders.

We recently completed a report on a RP initiative and found transformative results. We looked at a comprehensive, multi-faceted application of RP in an upper Midwestern urban school. While many individual teachers may undertake RP training, few schools have committed to this site’s holistic approach in bringing RP to the entire school community. Through this process, we saw how the RP framework could support sustainability beyond any one individual, team, or funding trend by building policies, practices, and supports that came to represent a changing culture within the school.

The school in our report adopted what is known as the Restorative Practices Engagement Circle framework (Tolefree, 2015), a process in which

schools assess, adopt, and adapt approaches to improving the school climate in real-time. After intensive training in RP, key stakeholders, like administrators, teachers, support staff, students and parents, became engaged in the process. Through “cascade coaching” they worked continuously to root new practices, continue professional development, and adjust where necessary based on data review.

RP Leadership Circles for girls and boys became part of this school’s multi-tiered, three-year RP Implementation Pilot. Weekly Circles offered a shared space to build community and repair harm, facilitated by “Circle Keepers” from the RP People of Color Collaborative. The Circle Keepers prepared the space with a meaningful centerpiece (including art, books, school projects, and symbols of unity) and other items that relate to those in the Circle (such as family photos, stuffed animal or instruments) and opened and closed each Circle with a meaningful poem or affirmation. Within the Circle, a talking piece was passed to each participant, signifying the holder’s right to speak and be heard. Students were empowered to discuss issues large and small through their lived experiences.

In practice, the Circle Keepers focused on teaching students the school’s values and principles of leadership. But many of the school’s girls of color went on to lead community-building Circles as well as Circles to repair harm between peers experiencing conflicts. Staff and community members supported students as they learned to lead the process (in the RP Leadership Circle for girls, only one participant was white). This represented a deeper paradigm shift in student-adult relationships, from the common societal perception of girls of color as suspect and culpable to girls of color as students expected to engage in leadership roles and share their lived experiences. Most importantly, these students felt understood, heard, and respected as young girls of color. Students’ comments showed us how the Circle process impacted them and their relationships with adults in the school:

● Yes, it helps me to express my feelings, speak from heart, learn not to be afraid
● Nice, she teaches us for next year, teaches us to be who we are and be us, she is caring, when we are bad, she waits for us
● Being prepared, showing your feelings, getting ready for what is coming next
● Share what we do in Leadership Circle and how you can be a good leader
● I would want to tell [other students] that they could learn how to be patient and to not shout out, to respect the talking piece, sometimes they have to be flexible

In the RP Leadership Circles, girls met the leadership challenge with courage and burgeoning confidence—in themselves, in school educators, and in community leaders. Their lived experiences became normalized in the school community. Teachers’ perspectives about the girls and their ability to be positive role models and leaders in the school community (and beyond) began to transform.

In just the first year of the three-year RP pilot implementation, school data demonstrated a decrease of more than 60% in Office Discipline Referrals. Early lessons learned in the RP pilot confirmed that regular coaching for building leadership and the Restorative Practices Implementation Team, ongoing professional development and training for all building staff is imperative for the Restorative Practices Engagement Circle framework. Lessons learned also indicated that schools must distribute ownership of the Circles within a broad learning community to ensure their sustainability. The framework and its processes are intentional and comprehensive in engaging students, families, community, teachers, support teams, building staff, and district leadership in the process of improving school climate and culture for all children.

As schools look for alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline approaches, more and more are looking to RP frameworks. But RPs take time and training if they are to be implemented successfully. RP is a way of being—a way for educators, students, parents, and community members to engage in cultivating respectful relationships, embracing collective responsibility, and deescalating conflict. It is preventative by nature. To move from the short-term, widely accepted “fix” of referrals and suspensions to the long-term approach of RP means investment in teachers and staff, student leadership, and robust community engagement.

Often, individuals with the most RP expertise and lived experience are not licensed teachers or social workers; therefore, efforts must be made to cultivate and support community practitioners who reflect the values of students and families of color who are most impacted by punitive discipline practices. Our report demonstrates the necessity of strong community/school partnerships in building trust, transparency, RP integrity and accountability.

Even if federal guidelines and structures to support girls of color are rescinded, local governments and school districts retain the potential to implement profound change by adopting policies like RP in their learning environments. And the sooner, the better: Effective school practices require structure to achieve sustainability, and educating confident, successful girls of color requires that teachers, administrators, and peers operate within an educational culture of respect and reconciliation.

Marika Pfefferkorn, Executive Director, Midwest Center for School Transformation
Talaya L. Tolefree, D.Min, CEO, Koinonia Leadership Academy, LLC.

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