Posts Tagged building communities

Without Strong Communities, Schools Will Fail

Published by — Chaotic families can wreck their kids’ lives despite a school’s best efforts.  So what can rescue the family?

(Photo: In the Hive 2012)

In the world of school reform, there are two ways of thinking about kids’ families and backgrounds.  A 2013 movie called In The Hive shows why we need a third.

Approach #1: Focus all possible energy and resources on the kid herself.  Working with families can seem like a black hole, with seriously low return on investment.  Better to concentrate on equipping kids to transcend their backgrounds with a strong academic foundation and disciplined habits.  The KIPP schools and Success Academies are education examples of the save-the-kid strategy.  These strict, so-called “no excuses” schools have long days, demerit systems, and practices that resemble military-school environments.  The students who can stick with it do better than their peers on tests and college enrollment.

Approach #2: Acknowledge that kids can’t really thrive without bringing the family along. Dedicating resources to help families overcome obstacles to their children’s learning not only promotes academics but also builds the kid’s support system.  Unfortunately, programs like home-based visiting serve only “at risk” little kids, sending trained support people into homes to help families develop healthy routines.  Without similar social services help for older kids, schools are left with taking over family support.  Save-the-family schools have a delicious, welcoming school climate and rich family engagement.  The students in these often home-grown and stand-alone charter schools perform better than average, but not as well as “no excuses” schools.

But both these approaches have pitfalls, because they operate in a vacuum. 

Approach #3: Back up and look at the bigger picture.  The community is the field in which these kids and families are growing.  Its modeling, nurture and gifts are the conditions for all its people thriving.  Invest in the community that supports the family that supports the kid.  This approach seems to be creeping back into fashion, as Approaches #1 and #2 are increasingly showing their limitations.

Separating kids from their loved ones is an obnoxious idea no matter how messy the family. But given schools’ limited resources, chaotic families can wreck their kids despite schools’ best efforts.  Social conditions are deteriorating. In 2000, 16% of children under 18 lived in poverty.  Today it’s 22%, with 45% considered “low income.”  And income is only one form of social poverty.

In The Hive shows both the kid and the family isolated from a community context.

The movie’s protagonist is a 16-year-old black youth named Xtra Keys who’s committed a dumb but serious crime. He’s been given a choice between juvie prison or an alternative school for delinquents, called The Hive — a loving portrait of Approach #1. Xtra is so street hard that he might have taken the prison route if he didn’t want a better life for his infant son so badly.

The Hive pulls no punches. In a powerful moment, an administrator, Mr. Hollis, completely loses his cool trying to get the boys to face their plight. He crams all but a few boys into one corner of the room to emphasize how most will fail — drop out, go to prison or die on the streets. He adds more boys to the crowd until just Xtra is left. Hollis hasn’t singled him out for salvation, but constructed a living graph of the odds young boys of color face when already in the judicial system. The Hive can only help to a point.

Xtra’s home is a superb example of why Approach #2 seems futile. His scary dad is in prison. The substance-addled mom can’t hold a job and is mostly useless to her kids. Xtra’s live-in girlfriend feels that he’s growing superior to her with his fancy schooling. Eventually she leaves, taking his precious baby.

At the end, no Hollywood triumph nor tragedy.  It’s just a quagmire.

Whatever Xtra’s learned from the school, his family will drag him back down. He’s seen a better path, but so what? In a final shot, his face shows only a bad feeling about what comes next. The school can’t bring back his son, or deal with his mother, or raise his brothers and sisters.

So where’s his community — the neighbors, church, other functional social network? How’s he supposed to manage, never mind thrive? Public social services could remove all the kids from the dreadful mom, but that would only traumatize them more without denting the source of Xtra’s various problems. Rotting in prison, or even rotting in the Hive, doesn’t help him give back to his community the repair he owes, having committed a crime. He needs to rebuild his place, his neighborhood, while it rebuilds him. A new report makes the same point, but notes that so little thought has gone into bringing whole communities back to health that there are few examples.

What we have here is a failure of imagination. A numbed public can picture a kid or a family. But the public has a far harder time seeing the many children who are growing up in nutrient-free communities that yield a scant harvest of successful adults.

America’s sad performance on international tests is far more an indictment of the quality of our communities than it is of the schools themselves. The Hive, like other schools, doesn’t exist in a vacuum any more than a kid or a family does.

(Photo: In the Hive, 2012)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Kicking the Nasty Habit of Zero Tolerance

Published by — There’s no magic place where bad kids can go and get better at learning how to live well in their community.

Just the phrase “zero tolerance” sounds un-American.  At least I would hope so.

Originally, “zero tolerance” was the sound bite that get-tough politicians in the 1990s swore would be their response to the fallout from the crack cocaine epidemic.  Drugs and crime were on the rise; the public was frightened.

In schools, zero-tolerance policies were supposed to apply only to weapons and drugs.  But with a speed that rivaled the unstoppable spread of an invasive species, schools extended their lack of tolerance to all manner of misbehavior in school.

Suddenly, and with great righteousness, school staff thought nothing of tossing troubled kids onto behavior garbage dumps.  Since the 1990s numbers have soared in segregated “behavior-disordered” classrooms, school suspensions, expulsions and ultimately prisons.

The U.S. has 4.5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Our intolerance towards people who misbehave has created a lens through which we see a far higher proportion of bad people than do other countries.  We deal with them harshly, even mercilessly, and at great expense.

At this point zero tolerance is like the water that fish can’t see.  The attitude has become a deeply-rooted, bad habit among many adults.  As one teacher barked in my face, “I teach the good kids.  I don’t give the bad kids the time of day.  They shouldn’t be here.”

The doers of beastly behavior deserve to be physically and mentally dismissed.

Except that there’s no place where bad kids go and get better.  Suspensions and locked facilities just make them worse.

And wherever they go, it’s temporary.  They come back.  If ex-juvenile offenders return to their community too old for school, at least they won’t burden the school staff.  But these still-uncivilized people might well have unruly children of their own.  They never did learn how to live appropriately in a community because they were removed from theirs.  Nor did that community or their family get help learning how to deal with them.

With zero tolerance, nothing useful happens.

So I am thrilled to report that recently large numbers of school staff, officials and the public are starting to question the collateral damage of “zero tolerance.”

Yes, tons of research damning intolerance has been written into reports collecting dust on shelves.  Until lately.  Suddenly the data and the complaints of those researchers are being heard.

My evidence comes from Education Week, education’s industry trade magazine.  Just recently, they published long cover stories on two philosophies that offer alternatives to zero tolerance.  It’s huge that these approaches are gaining traction and EdWeek’s attention.

The two cover pieces were about:  Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) and Restorative Practices, also called Restorative Justice.

PBIS, developed in the 1980s, is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.  All states have technical-support partners — colleges or public agencies — easily accessible through their website.

In brief, PBIS schools explicitly teach clear behavior expectations to the kids, partly by giving them pleasant experiences of having done things right.  PBIS administrators work out an incentive system — usually points that can be cashed in for healthy snacks or fun supplies at a school store, or privileges like getting a pass on a homework assignment.  PBIS encourages teachers to “catch” problem kids in the act of doing something right, to reward that behavior.

By contrast, restorative practices does not yet have the official blessing of the feds.  But the internet has tons of material, though much of it is from overseas.  (Full disclosure:  I am a huge fan of restorative practices.)

Restorative practices use simple techniques borrowed mainly from ancient tribal circles.  It focuses on the health of the community as a whole, giving every member a voice in what happens, kids and adults, offenders and victims.  In small groups or circles, misbehaving kids explain what they were thinking when they did the dumb thing.  Sometimes there’s more to the story than the obvious, but often the group agrees on a restitution plan that will bring the offender back into the community’s good graces.  (Vermont has a restorative juvenile justice system, fyi.)

The two approaches are different, but they share the idea of separating the doer from the deed, the sinner from the sin.  Both alternatives work to teach clear behavior expectations to the kids.  Both realize that stigmatized kids will never belong to or cooperate with a community that looks down on them.

These kinder philosophies tackle the tough work of re-making the lenses with which kids and adults look at each other, weaning everyone off of the kick-out culture itself.

Their message is: “I care about you.  It is my job, if for no other reason, to invest in your success and to believe that you have genius and goodness in you.  But remember the day you were helpful to your math teacher and how you did such a good job of holding your temper yesterday?  We all would appreciate more of that from you and much less swearing and acting out.  Help us help you see your greatness.”

Like it or not, schools are the principal change-agents of troubled kids’ lives.  Schools can redirect the trajectory of unpromising lives.

Developing healthier attitudes towards misbehavior will take time.  Still, let’s hope the end of zero tolerance really is at hand.  Where you see it, call it out.  Help make it stop.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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