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Fenger High School – a model for CPS

Mark Brown offers an inspiring report on the success of restorative justice in “creating an atmosphere that is both disciplined and relaxed” at Fenger High School, overcoming the unfortunate notoriety the school received with the killing of Derrion Albert in 2009.

Newstips noted Spicer’s work at Fenger over a year ago, in a post reviewing restorative justice efforts in individual CPS schools – and the lack of district support for the initiatives.  (Spicer’s commitment to restorative justice goes back years with his work heading the Community Justice for Youth Institute.)

That’s the bigger picture:  coalitions like VOYCE and the High Hopes Campaign – building on the work of community groups like Blocks Together and POWER-PAC, and the in-school efforts of social service agencies like Alternatives Inc. and the Chicago Area Project — are pressing CPS to put real resources behind the restorative justice approach it officially embraced, at least on paper, in 2006.

VOYCE points out that CPS spends millions of dollars on zero-tolerance discipline approaches that aren’t effective at improving student behavior or making schools safer – and that only make dropout rates worse.  Both High Hopes and VOYCE emphasize the blatant racial disparities in the use of harsh discipline – an issue recently backed up by Arne Duncan.

Mayor Emanuel says improving high schools is going to be a priority.  It needs to be; in two decades of school reform, high schools have been the most resistant to change.

The very first step should be a serious commitment to implementing restorative justice – an approach that holds students accountable for their behavior and supports them to do better, that solves problems rather than kicking them out the door; the approach that’s had such success at Fenger – in every school across the district.

Look at the guide to implementing restorative justice in schools from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

And take advantage of the detailed work of committed Chicagoans on this issue: last year’s report from the VOYCE on the true cost of zero-tolerance policies in CPS; and the important new report from High Hopes, spelling out the steps involved in implementing restorative justice in CPS, including best practices, an analysis of existing barriers in CPS, and how to pay for it.

In fact, High Hopes estimates that CPS could save money — more than $20 million a year — by shifting funding priorities from zero tolerance strategies to restorative justice.

Two years ago Fenger showed us that the status quo is intolerable – and today Fenger is showing us that the problems are not intractable.  It’s a redemption story fitting for springtime.  But it has important lessons for all of us, and it’s up to us to put them into action.

Students are petitioning the mayor, and City Council members and other elected officials are callling for implementing restorative justice.  Let’s heed these voices.

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Category: CPS, school discipline

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