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Video Review: The Transformation of West Philadelphia High School: A Story of Hope

Sep 01, 2009

by Kate Strong

 

A troubled high school in Philadelphia undergoes a radical turn-around after restorative practices transform the whole climate of the school.

The Transformation of West Philadelphia High School: A Story of Hope. International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2009.

The DVD is the visual equivalent of a newspaper article: there is little ornamentation and even littler excess. The story presented is simple: West Philadelphia High School had been on the "persistently dangerous" list for six years because of the violence and crime that had plagued the school.

Then, as an attempt to thoroughly transform the school from its bones to its behavior, they introduced restorative practices, including conferencing training and circles for dispute resolution. Within the first year, the crime rate was down by 52%. The next year, the crime rate had dropped another 45%.

But the broad strokes of the film sufficiently indicate what restorative practices well-applied by enthusiastic people can achieve. Dramatic statistics speak very highly of the tangible results brought the school. The opinions of the students, teachers, and administrators testify to the less quantitative changes.

According to the assistant principal, the atmosphere of the school completely altered. Another teacher talks about how circle practices have made her classroom feel more like a family. The students agree.

One says that the school used to be crazy until they introduced the circles. The school has become much calmer, another says, and the students talk to each other more respectfully. A third says that kids are not afraid anymore, a fourth that everyone had to come together as a team. Nearly all of them remark on the power of talking, whether it be to resolve disputes without turning to violence or giving the students a safe space to express their emotions.

The students were not the only ones who had to change to make the restorative practices work. The teachers also admit that they had been contributing to the situation. One says that she realized that she could not continue to be aggressive with her students if the circle practices were going to work, while another relates that restorative practices had been teaching him to understand "the issues that [the students] bring with them into school that prevent them from getting a good education."

This kind of holistic change is what the whole enterprise of restorative justice is about. Identifying a person as greater than his or her behavior lets one start to prune and nurture the seeds inside of a person that grow out in certain patterns. It becomes possible to cultivate productive healthy behaviors and weed out whatever is destructive and unhealthy.

In a school setting, the goal is not to have a merely efficient or easy system where teachers say and students do, but to have an environment where teachers and students are united in their goal for fuller learning. As one of the teachers puts it, "Content and material mean nothing without relationships."

In West Philadelphia High School, a concrete example dramatically demonstrates what the circle was able to accomplish. Two cliques in the school had been fighting for a while after a perceived insult. The hostility was only increasing and one of the teachers said it looked like it would escalate into physical violence. So they brought the students to a circle resolve the issue before it grew out of control. During the circle, both sides got to talk about how they viewed the situation. Eventually, it became clear that the supposed slight was based on miscommunication. At the end of the circle time, both sides went away satisfied without resorting to any physical violence.

It is easy to write off rebellious kids constantly defying the rules as incorrigible. But the lesson in West Philadelphia High School's story is that not only is change possible, but sometimes students themselves are ready to change.

One of the teachers observes that when the students realized that their opinions mattered and that expressing their opinions could actually have an effect on their environment, they embraced the circle practice. As a result, the progress has been so significant that several of the teachers swear their complete trust in it. One member of the personnel is confident that the school will be off the "persistently dangerous" list very soon. Many recommend implementing restorative practices in other schools, one saying that the fact it worked in their tough urban school proves that it can work in any school. Another says that the reason restorative practices work is because they are not just an educational fad: they are a way of life.

The DVD does not have any extra features, but if inserted into a CD drive on a computer, it contains a PDF with a few supplementary documents, which is a useful addition to flesh out the story.

"The Transformation of West Philadelphia High School: A Story of Hope" is nine minutes long and can be viewed for free at SaferSanerSchools. A transcript can be found here is also available online. To purchase the DVD for $10, please visit the International Institute for Restorative Practices website.

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johnny
johnny says:
Oct 01, 2009 06:29 PM

Many recommend implementing restorative practices in other schools, one saying that the fact it worked in their tough urban school proves that it can work in any school. Another says that the reason restorative practices work is because they are not just an educational fad: they are a way of life.

jonathanjones
jonathanjones says:
Nov 02, 2009 02:41 PM

I attended during the late 70's and early eighties. In the late nineties I returned as a teacher. I was heart broken. Such a large, spacious and once palacial, vibrant educational organism. WPHS requires such CPR and surgery. I am glad for the reconstruction, renewal, revival and redirection. Sincerel J. Jones, M.Ed (WPHS '81).

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