Fortis Academy students introduced to restorative circles as part of new approach on campus

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September 3, 2021 by HCDE-Texas

This week, new Fortis Academy Principal Travita Godfrey, in partnership with the Center for Safe and Secure School’s (CSSS) Climate and Culture Specialist Cierra Nickerson, introduced students to restorative circles.

The circles, a key component of restorative practices being implemented on campus this year, are a community-building strategy used to strengthen and restore relationships, resolve conflict, and repair harm. In them, participants sit in a circle to develop a sense of equality, co-create expectations for collaboration, participate as equals (including teachers and administrators), and take turns speaking.

When put into practice, the effects are profound. In schools, students experience greater safety and a sense of belonging, resulting in improved behavior and greater accountability.

“What’s so different about restorative practices is that traditional classroom management strategies have guided educators in having control over students,” said Nickerson. “In restorative practices, we work with students collaboratively and acknowledge that misbehavior is a part of the learning process. If we are punitive, which is a form of exerting power over them, they may not learn from their mistakes. When we include them, we reintegrate them and restore our relationships with them.”

Nickerson underscores that punitive approaches do not result in better outcomes.

“We have studies that show that when we implement punitive, exclusionary measures like suspension, there is no positive impact on school safety or students’ academic success,” she said.

Godfrey, a licensed chemical dependency counselor and a 22-year veteran educator, explained the decision to implement this strategy on her campus, Harris County’s first public high school for students recovering from alcohol and drug abuse addiction.

“As a counselor, I could see the natural fit with restorative circles and substance abuse disorder. Restorative practices will add a layer of support for our students that will carry over into their counseling sessions and provide more depth,” she said.

She acknowledges that the most fundamental element of restorative circles is to build trust.

“For us, we’re really trying to increase sobriety in our students and reduce the amount of relapse that we see,” said Godfrey. “Having worked at a rehab facility and in schools for so long, I want students to trust me and come to me and know that I’m here so that they can be their best selves—not to dish out punishment or send them back to their home campus. You relapse. That’s going to happen. I want to get you through it, not punish you for it. Restorative practices really bridge the gap to strengthen relationships among students and between students and teachers.”

Fortis Academy students participate in a restorative practices session, August 31, 2021

During the 2-day workshop led by Nickerson, students became acquainted with restorative circles, created ground rules for circle members, and participated in relationship-building exercises. After the first two hours, the results were almost immediate.

“The activities we did helped me get to know more about my classmates because I don’t talk to some of them, like Miguel. I got to know what he was thinking and what he felt,” said Fortis student Yasmine Rivera. “The last question that [Cierra] asked about whether students from two-parent households are better off than students from single-parent households, I was thinking really hard about that because I don’t have any of my parents. So, whenever I heard [my classmate’s responses], I thought, ‘maybe one day I could try to talk to them to see how it is to have parents.’ I got to see how other people are living their lives.”

Fortis staff will receive ongoing training on restorative practices throughout the year. They will then lead periodic restorative circles with students to continually build trust and create a common culture that values collaboration, respect, openness, and honesty.

“The most important thing about restorative circles is the word ‘restorative,’ like restoring broken relationships,” said Godfrey. “Because, my goodness, they all have experienced that. When you are involved in that type of lifestyle, it’s inevitable that you are going to burn some bridges, but they don’t have to remain broken.”

To learn more about restorative practices, visit https://bit.ly/HCDE-CSSS or contact Cierra Nickerson at cnickerson@hcde-texas.org. To learn more about Fortis Academy, visit https://bit.ly/HCDE-Fortis or call (713) 696-2195.

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