By Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
Last year, a fight nearly broke out at Skyline High School.
Instead, a member of the school’s 23-student “Sky Squad” who saw what was brewing pulled one of the boys aside, calmed him down, and alerted adults of the situation.
The feuding teens soon took part in a peacekeeping circle, in which two Sky Squad members guided them through a calm discussion in which each was encouraged to talk while the other listened.
The result? No fight. No suspensions. Situation resolved.
Skyline High School counselor Amy McLoughlin says the results of the school’s Restorative Justice program are nothing less than “profound.”
“It’s pretty incredible, and I think the results are in the culture,” said McLoughlin. “A lot of those things that normally would get to administration don’t get there anymore. They get to my office, the Sky Squad does a circle, and then they aren’t escalated anymore.”
AAPS has seen a dramatic drop in school suspensions in the past few years, and some of the credit goes to such new behavior programs that emphasize the positive, and encourage self-awareness and growth.
At Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, Jane Landefeld, Executive Director of Student Accounting & Research Services, explained that AAPS has seen a significant decline in suspensions across the board, with middle school and elementary suspensions dropping by 75 and 74 percent in four years.
One of the new programs is Mitchell Elementary’s Responsive Classroom, a teaching method that values students as connected members of their school community and focuses on reinforcing positive behavior.
The method is in its third year at Mitchell, and other AAPS elementary schools have begun aspects of it as well.
Mitchell Elementary Assistant Principal Matt Hilton said the method promotes a sense of belonging, and helps make school a fun place where students can be engaged.
“We work together to create a calm, orderly environment that promotes autonomy for kids, and allows students to focus on learning,” he said.
These goals are accomplished through specific practices in every classroom every day.
For instance, classroom teachers begin the day with a morning meeting. The class typically sits in a circle, and the teacher welcomes them, begins with a message, followed by a greeting where kids talk to each other in a structured way to build relationships and strengthen the sense of community. Then there’s a fun activity and sharing time.
Those 15 minutes or so set the tone for the whole day, said Hilton.
“What we’ve found is that devoting that time to the morning meetings really creates a sense of community and significance and belonging and bonding in the classrooms, and that helps kids understand how to solve problems,” he said. “It helps kids understand how to work together in an academic situation, how to work together in a social setting, and work together in small groups.”
Hilton says he’s seen a huge improvement in behavior as well as social, academic and emotional skills, especially among the older students who have been exposed to the practices for two years now.
Effective teacher language is emphasized at Mitchell, and teachers, for example, are encouraged to be specific with their praise.
Hilton said that just a few years ago, a teacher presented with student writing might have simply said, “Good job!”
“But that doesn’t really tell the child anything,” said Hilton. “Now what you’d hear is a teacher saying something like, `I noticed that you used a capital and punctuation marks in every sentence. What did you notice about your writing?”
Such language, he says, not only tells the student what he or she specifically did well, but opens a conversation.
Across the district, schools are implementing new methods proven to positively impact the learning environment.
The Developmental Design approach is largely in the Scarlett feeder pattern (all elementary feeders and Scarlett), Tappan and Clague. Link Crew, which provides transitional support for incoming freshmen, is at all the high schools while Positive Behavior Intervention & Support is in place at all middle and high schools.
In addition, mindfulness is taught at Ann Arbor Open, and The Leader in Me, at Lawton Elementary.
Skyline’s Restorative Justice protocol is universally recognized as a powerfully effective process of intervention, deescalating conflict, and moving forward with responsibility, said LeeAnn Dickinson-Kelley, assistant superintendent of Instruction & Student Support Services.
“Caring for the whole child is central to our district’s mission and evident in our classroom practices,” she said. “This is true even during times of personal challenge and disciplinary intervention. Restorative Justice is a framework that focuses on taking personal responsibility, accepting appropriate consequences and making amends for the wrong-doing.”
Skyline’s program is based on peacekeeping tribal practices meant to restore relationships once someone has been harmed. Students are trained at the Dispute Resolution Center in Ann Arbor.
McLoughlin said that in the past, student conflicts often never fully went away even following a suspension.
“It might be resolved when they’re apart from each other, but as soon as they came together again, we didn’t really have anything in place to help them integrate back into the school community again,” she said.
Students can now receive a reduction in their suspension if they agree to work through it in a circle, passing a “talking stick” back and forth.
“We have ninth graders doing circles, which means we have young men and women learning how to have conversations about their problems rather than just fighting and bullying,” said McLoughlin. “They’re learning in ninth grade that we actually can have a conversation.”