High School Launches Unique Restorative Justice Class
High School teacher Matthew Tuths works with students on their research to develop effective projects utilizing restorative practices that will help improve the overall school climate at University City High School.
High School Launches Restorative Justice Class
By Nancy Cambria
Director of Communications
Luther Baker and Matthew Tuths knew their students had the power to make significant changes in the way students and staff got along in the University City High School community. The students had the passion, and they understood the issues in their school – they just needed the right tools and the training to use them.
So, this past fall, Tuths, a Latin teacher originally from Boston, and Baker, a St. Louis pastor and a partner with the high school, launched an ambitious Restorative Practices class open to all high school students. The class teaches students the social science behind restorative practices, and techniques to not only improve their lives but build strong, positive relationships within the school culture.
The year-long class, approved by the University City Board of Education last summer, was an immediate hit. It attracted 17 students from all grades. It was the first of its kind in Missouri and one of the few high school courses on it in the country.
The students didn’t really know each other at first. But Tuths said, their passion for the work made most of them nearly inseparable by the end of the first semester in December. Their hard work has already sparked transformation both within themselves and with their teachers and peers.
“We’ve already had students who have on their own facilitated restorative conversations between fellow students and the teachers their peers are having trouble positively connecting with,” he said. “I’ve had teachers email me afterward and thank me, saying how amazing our students were. They have been able to get the teachers and their fellow students to be very vulnerable and to open up so they understand the teacher’s perspective when a wrong has been done or a misunderstanding takes place.”
Since 2017, The School District of University City has embraced the use of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice as important foundations to build healthy learning and social environments in its schools. Last year, the District’s Board of Education also passed a landmark resolution in support of restorative practices.
In classrooms throughout the District, visitors may often find teachers, athletic coaches, counselors and other staff leading restorative circles with students so both youth and adults have a chance to emotionally check-in with one another and have a voice in the classroom community.
In instances when a wrong has been done, Restorative Justice is used so that harm can be addressed and relationships can be repaired – an investment of time and reflective energy that may result in a reduction in out of school suspensions and a strengthening of school community and relationships.
It is all part of the District’s efforts to build equity and strong relationships and foster a culture of well-being and joy in its schools.
But Restorative Practices cannot be fully successful in schools unless the students also take ownership and leadership in using these practices. So that’s why the course came to be, Tuths said.
The Restorative Justice class is held in Baker’s classroom on the first floor of the high school, a relaxed space containing couches, beanbag chairs and group tables. The room invites collaboration and authenticity among the students.
The early morning class usually starts with a restorative circle for everyone to check-in. Tuths is mindful of the mood of his students, sometimes giving them more time than usual to settle in and focus because his students often have complicated lives with a lot going on outside the school.
“The course helps them not just as students in the school but as people in their own communities and as humans existing in the world for the rest of their lives where they can respond to harm in restorative ways and they can build relationships with people in other restorative ways.”
At times the circles take on a life of is own, as a topic that started the conversation is often left behind as the students open up about their feelings and opinions on another topic.
“The emotional trajectory of the circle can be really interesting, going from kind of blah to intense emotions and to very real expressions of support for each other,” Tuths said. “They often end in a group hug.”
The ensuing class consists of group work, readings, discussion and some lectures. The work in the first semester culminated with research and the planning of projects to begin in the spring to better the culture of the school through relationship-building and restorative practices.
Early in the fall semester students read a variety of chapters from Michelle Alexander’s challenging book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness,” to better understand biased systems and the need for system change.
“Their ability to navigate through ‘The New Jim Crow ‘was really amazing,” Baker said. “They were able to really digest the history and the impact of mass incarceration on their generation and get an understanding of how the school-to-prison pipeline functions. They learned the necessity of repairing harm when it comes to relationships as a first step in stopping the pipeline.”
During the fall semester, students also welcomed a guest facilitator to help them learn about effective social movements, protest and social change. Dr. Lee Ann Banaszak, a UCHS graduate and chair of the Political Science department at Pennsylvania State University, coached the students on developing Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) projects to undertake to restore and build authentic relationships in the high school.
YPAR projects require students to collect data on specific topics via surveys, interviews and other methods. The data collected helps them to better design their projects and provide evidence to leaders that change needs to happen.
On a December morning, the students worked in groups to develop their research methods.
Freshman John Hilton planned to survey and interview peers on attendance and new ways to encourage students to show up to school. He said too many of his friends opt-out of school they are sometimes enabled by their families.
“So I want to know how we can more people to show up to school. Is it incentives or rewards? Or is there something students can do to get them here so they can learn,” he said.
Seniors Roberta Booth and Kailon Ford said they both wanted to know why some of their peers avoid using the college and career counseling office at the high school. The two have been active with the counseling office and have taken part in a variety of career programs and paid summer internships.
“There’s a lack of preparation for post-secondary options among them and they don’t take advantage of the resources that are out there at the high school,” Kailon said of some peers.
“I think it’s a confidence issue and I think it’s a trust issue,” Roberta added.
“And I think a lot of students feel like they won’t qualify for programs, but they do. They just don’t find out if they do,” Kailon said.
Student emotional well-being was also a concern of the class. Students said academic stress and mental health need to be better addressed, and they want to help their peers.
“I feel like in order to restore our school and our students we need to have conversations with our students about mental health. And we need to be more mindful of health and mental illness,” said sophomore Emma Schock.
Tuths said he’s seen remarkable transformation among his students.
“I think the course helps them not just as students in the school, but as people in their own communities and as humans existing in the world for the rest of their lives - where they can naturally respond to harm in restorative ways and they can build relationships with people through other restorative ways. They can be in a position where they can be leaders in whatever school they end up attending and in whatever job they end up in. They can continue to be happy and successful people when they leave high school.”