Public Policy and Community Service
For 20 years, I’ve been trying to understand how the public sector can successfully cultivate strong families, healthy schools and lively communities.
Good ideas abound – about character education, socio-emotional learning, and personalizing the school environment. But they tend to be add-ons, partial solutions, and special programs vulnerable to budget cuts. In the meantime, America’s kids have some of the most negative social statistics in the developed world. Taking better care of our kids is our most urgently-needed work, in my opinion.
The international “restoration” movement brings a wide range of practices under a simple philosophical umbrella. Its main technique, “talking circles”, can be applied almost anywhere and taught to anyone, including young children and undereducated, marginalized adults. Circles can settle fights, develop empathy in bullies and safely engage victims and offenders in dialogue. The City of Hull, England, collaborated on training thousands of child-serving individuals in restorative practices – everyone from moms, day-care workers and teachers, to the police and all social service agencies. In four years, statistics showed radical improvement in what had been a dismal and fractured social environment. (Check out this short piece on Hull.)
I became a restorative practitioner by collecting courses and experiences. Through the Community Mediation Center of RI, I trained to be both a certified mediator and a family-conference coordinator (for the juvenile justice system). I am certified by the Suffolk University Center for Restorative Justice in their “Bringing Restorative Justice to Schools” workshop series. I have been through two trainings at the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). Margaret Holland McDuff, CEO of Family Service of RI, and I were presenters at IIRP’s 2010 International Conference in Hull, England. I’ve researched and written extensively about restorative justice and practices in my weekly column in the Providence Journal (through 4.2011), and now in EducationNews.org.
Youth Restoration Project
The Youth Restoration Project (YRP) involves a series of partnerships among schools, non-profit social service agencies and local government agencies responsible for children and families. Our current focus is in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where in 2009 the visionary school superintendent, Dr. Frances Gallo, contracted with the YRP to build a demonstration project in her district. Our most creative partner has been the non-profit Family Services of Rhode Island (FSRI), the lead agency in a statewide child-protective services initiative.
In the Central Falls schools, social-service workers team up with school staff to help the kids and families most at risk. Central Falls is the poorest and most troubled districts in the state. Together, YRP, FSRI and the schools have redesigned the function of behavior specialists and truant officers, training “restorative specialists” to get to the root of students’ issues. In place of the usual punitive approach, which just isolates misbehaving kids, they help students, families and school staff use simple techniques to solve problems and hold kids accountable to their community.
I offer two 2-hour standard training sessions to groups interested in restorative practices. One is basic training in “circle technology,” in community building and the origins of restorative practice. The other shows how to run “talking circles” specifically for youth involved in fighting, bullying, chronic tardiness, disruptive behavior and so forth. I adapt these trainings to a wide variety of audiences and purposes, including facilitating solving problems among an organization’s staff when they’ve become fractious or stuck.
I also do presentations on the philosophy of restorative practice, and can provide some preliminary local data on request. See here (link) for some relevant articles by me and by others.
I’m a consultant on two projects for The Providence Plan – a local non-profit group specializing in data collection and analysis to support public policy.
Information Works LIVE! (IWL)
In 1997 I was part of the original design team for Information Works! , the first award-winning version of Rhode Island’s public-education accountability system, that presents data on every school and district in the state. For 11 years I was its project manager. Now, reflecting the priorities of Deborah Gist, RI’s current Commissioner of Education, the new-and-improved version of “Infoworks” has been redesigned to be more accessible to the parents, arguably the hardest members of the school community to engage.
Called a “tour-de-force of data integration” in the January, 2011 issue of Child Trends, the HUB is an innovative data-analysis tool developed for use by policy makers, service agencies and the general public. It gathers information from schools, health and welfare agencies, the Census and other government departments. The HUB assembles item-level (or individual) data behind thick firewalls, and then aggregates the results for public availability while shielding confidentiality.
To quote the site itself – “Policymakers, program planners and grants writer can use the HUB to demonstrate where to target scarce public resources and explain the data-driven rationale behind policy decisions. With the proper clearance, the HUB is a researcher’s paradise.” A slick interface lets you graph and visualize the data you select. I’m proud to have invented the HUB’s “data stories”,which are guided tours through graphs and text, that offer succinct explanations of key issues, such as substance abuse, or mathematics test scores.