NEW ORLEANS — Fights were keeping 17-year-old Symphony Lee out of high school, and off the graduation track.
“Once I lose my temper, that’s it,” says Lee, with characteristic bluntness.
Lee spoke from the principal’s office at The Net Charter High School on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard here, a street famous for its ties to legendary black musicians, including Buddy Bolden and Professor Longhair.
“In my last school, I was always fighting,” Lee says, seated in a Mardi Gras-purple slipcovered chair in front of a wall painted the same color and wearing her hair pulled up in a careful ponytail poking out from under a baseball cap.
Lee’s cycle of anger and school absences had seemed impossible to break. “I’d fight on Monday, get suspended, come back the next Monday, get suspended again. Over and over and over,” Lee says.
It was a pattern Net co-founder and executive director Elizabeth Ostberg had seen before. Ostberg, a young, Harvard-trained educator who volunteered to work with youth in crisis, arrived in New Orleans the year after Hurricane Katrina. By the time she opened the Net five years ago, Ostberg had decided that restorative justice, an approach to discipline and conflict resolution that involves talking through conflicts, was the best way to throw some of the city’s most struggling youth a lifeline — not to mention keep them in school. “It gives the students more internal control and improves their relationships,” says Ostberg. “There’s the hope that if we build students’ conflict resolution skills, if they are in a conflict on the street maybe they can avoid it.”
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Around the country, educators have increasingly adopted elements of restorative justice amid growing frustration over the number of class hours lost to out-of-school suspensions: According to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent Civil Rights Data, 2.8 million, or 6 percent, of all K-12 students received at least one out-of-school suspension during the 2011-12 school year. For black boys, the percentage is 18 percent, stark evidence of racial disparities in school discipline.
According to a February 2016 report by the nonprofit agency WestEd, national data on restorative justice is still at an early stage, in part because experts are trying to reach a standard definition of restorative justice so they can better measure what outcomes can be attributed to its use, but the preliminary evidence suggests that restorative justice “may have positive effects across several outcomes related to discipline.”
The Center for Restorative Approaches in New Orleans says it has implemented 589 restorative justice circles, in which students and staff talk through the root causes of conflict in the classroom, since 2009. The center claims that since January 2015 the circles have saved the city’s students 1,800 instructional hours that otherwise would have been lost to suspension.
New Orleans schools that have embraced some element of restorative justice include Akili Academy, Langston Hughes Academy, Andrew Wilson, KIPP McDonogh 15, Edna Karr, Crescent Leadership Academy and Sci Academy.
The Net has taken things a step further than most schools, however. Resolving conflicts that slow down — and even stop — the education process is the school’s top priority. Teachers and other staff members are constantly looking out for problems that need to be talked through. Suspensions are unheard of. Restorative circles are so common — and can go on for so long — that walking into the school is a bit like entering a giant circle.
A key component to making this work is a collegial, intimate and flexible environment. Class size is in the single digits and teachers rarely lecture or raise their voices, favoring student-led discussions. There are no traditional grade levels at the Net and students may attend class at any time from 8 in the morning to 6:30 at night. They work at a pace that suits them and academics often take a back seat to emotional concerns.
The school makes every attempt to find and hire teachers who are strong negotiators. “This is not a school for teachers who are only interested in content,” Ostberg says.
Most of the Net’s students have struggled in numerous other school settings. They’ve been expelled, suspended, flunked out, dropped out, or spent time in jail or prison.
“These are not kids who are getting their second chance,” says Net math teacher Vee Francis. “This is a school for kids who are on their I-don’t-know-how-many chance.”
Fistfights were one of the problems that brought new student Lee to the Net; she had a lot of them at her previous school, and those fistfights resulted in numerous suspensions that made it difficult for Lee to complete her work. “The principal was cool, but he never really mediated the situation,” she says “That’s why I kept fighting the same people over and over and over — why we kept having the same situations. But here, they mediate.”
For Lee, a crucial mediation at the Net involved a conflict between the student and her Net chemistry teacher, Jennie Wimbush. It started with Lee’s hairdo.
Students must wear goggles in chemistry class. But Lee says she didn’t like the tightness of the goggles on her face. She was also concerned that the goggles would ruin her ponytail, which she likes to fall a certain way.
After teacher Wimbush asked Lee to wear the goggles several times, Lee lashed out verbally.
“The teacher was saying, ‘Symphony cursed me out,’” says Ostberg. “We talked and talked and talked, and we got down to the facts that Symphony was unwilling to put on the goggles and the teacher was frustrated.”
The mediation ran for about three hours in two separate offices and involved Wimbush, Dean of Students Charles Medley, who serves as a mediator, and Ostberg, then principal of the school.
The problem ultimately had more to do with relationships than with hair.
Wimbush told Lee she felt the teen was very intelligent and she had high expectations for her. The mediators worked hard to put Lee’s lashing out in context and open communication channels between teacher and student. Lee’s anger dissipated and she returned to class — this time with a looser pair of goggles.
“I thought she didn’t like me the whole time, and the whole time she did like me,” says Lee.
Medley, who is known by his students as Mr. Chuck, was more focused on the long haul than the goggles. “I was more concerned about fixing the relationship because I saw it as a situation that could have dragged out for a long time,” Medley says. Like Lee, Medley is black; the other two educators are white.
“In some schools it would come down to … ‘This white lady doesn’t like me,’ and a cultural disconnect, but in this school absolutely not,” he says, noting that talking through conflicts is key to overcoming cultural gaps between the school’s African-American students and its teachers. Slightly more than half the teachers are white.
Wimbush says academic struggles and insecurities were an issue as well. “This is (Lee’s) second time in the chemistry class. She is such a smart, bright girl but the first time she was not successful because of attendance.” Lee committed to following the schools’ plan to improve her attendance record.
Both student and teacher are closer to an understanding. “Symphony agreed to work on articulating what was actually bothering her instead of just jumping off or yelling or cursing,” Ostberg says. Both Lee and Wimbush seem pleased with the result. “I’m going to have her for another semester and that’s why we keep doing mediations,” said Wimbush. “You don’t quit. You keep working and building a relationship.”
This sort of negotiation is a main reason the school’s size is kept small, at about 160 students. A second Net Charter School is expected to open in New Orleans in 2017. Ostberg will be the director of both schools. It will mean spaces for approximately 160 more students. Ostberg and others at the school say that two smaller schools are more conducive to the intensive restorative justice approach that she thinks is so right for the city’s current climate.
Some administrators at other area schools say the approach might not be practical in every school, particularly larger ones.
Ben Kleban, founder and CEO of the New Orleans College Prep network, which encompasses four schools, says restorative justice circles might not be practical in every situation. (Kleban is leaving the school at the end of the year to take a seat on the Orleans Parish School Board.) But over the past several years Kleban has adopted a more flexible approach to school discipline that includes some restorative justice elements.
By any measure, youth at the Net are dealing with some very adult problems that can lead to conflict, even at the best-run school.
In 2015-16 about 20 percent of the school’s 167 students were involved with the judicial system (and 1 percent were incarcerated); 20 percent of students were either current or expectant parents; 20 percent were homeless; and 100 percent were eligible for free lunch.
“There’s nothing wrong with the students,” says Ostberg “It’s a time and a place that’s really bad. It’s not because kids are more violent here and lazier here; they just have a lot more to deal with. They’ve got to work a lot harder.”
For 19-year-old Net student Rodney Parker, that hard work came after his brother was murdered. Parker’s brother, fellow Net student Perry, had become Penny, a transgender woman. The phone call came at 2:30 a.m. in February 2015, notifying the family that Penny had been shot dead after leaving a bar on Canal Street. “When he [became] trans, I got used to it. I couldn’t get used to it that he was dead,” says Parker, who took some time off from school, then vowed to earn his high school diploma — for his own sake as well as to honor Penny. He accomplished his goal in June, moving forward with plans to study engineering at Delgado Community College.
A photo of Penny hangs on the purple-painted wall above Ostberg’s desk, along with those of the other Net students who have been murdered: Tyrin Whitfield, Terrence Roberts, Antwan Seaton, Leonard George, Wanda Dusset, B. George Carter, Isaiah Johnston, and Ja’Shad Simmons.
On Oct. 4, 2016, 20-year-old Net graduate Glenquel Emerson was killed by gunfire.
“I don’t know what the solution is and I guess no one does. But this isn’t the world a kid should have to live in,” says Ostberg.
But it’s safer in school than out. According to 2013 statistics from the Cowen Institute, 26,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 were neither working nor in school. It’s a figure Ostberg cited as she discussed everyone’s constant fear: students will age out before they graduate. The state will not pay for students’ high school education past the year that they turn 21. There may be no suspensions at the Net, but there are other absences that endanger this timetable.
For instance, there’s incarceration. Net student Tanya Davis, a petite girl with almond shaped eyes, and her boyfriend Dushawn Garrison, a former Net student, were charged with attempted first-degree murder last February in connection with a shooting on Piety Street.
The couple’s 1-year-old child lives with Davis and her mother.
Davis says she was not in the car the night of the shooting. But she spent more than three months in jail before getting out on bail. On her 19th birthday last April, she quietly vowed from a cell in Orleans Parish Prison to earn her high school diploma. She had missed her daughter’s first birthday just a week earlier. (The charge against her was subsequently reduced to aggravated assault; the case was closed on Sept. 30, 2016.)
With the help of Holly Wilson, a teacher at the prison’s Alternative Learning Institute, and teachers from the Net, Davis was able to finish her degree in prison. Davis plans to apply to college. She wants to set an example for her young daughter. Most of all, she hopes “never to go to jail again.”
Sahara Polk, 17, finished school at the Net while living in a group home and working full time at Panera. Polk moved to the group home and began attending school on the Net’s evening shift after the aunt with whom she lived moved out of town. The Net worked with Polk on all of these arrangements.
Meanwhile, Symphony Lee went from barely showing up at school to receiving accolades on her recent report card. She is due to graduate in May 2018, joining nearly 150 other students who have received Louisiana diplomas since the school opened. By its own calculation, the Net’s 2015-16 graduation rate was 88 percent.
Lee’s dream is to attend Southern University at New Orleans, a historically black college. She feels that she’ll be ready. Lee used to tune out when she didn’t understand class material, she says, but now she’s learned how to ask for the help she needs.
That’s sometimes difficult to do. But it’s certainly easier to find help in school, in class, than out on suspension.
“Now,” says Lee, “I ask questions.”