The well-known proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In the case of the Delray Beach community, it takes a school called Village Academy. Well, not just the school alone – include a few resident leaders with a passion for change and strong community partnerships, and you’ve got a village that raises not a single child, but hundreds of children. A village with a goal to send every one of those children to high school, and then to college.
Village Academy is a predominantly African-American public school established by the Delray Beach community in 1998. The school was founded in response to the poor academic achievements of the county’s minority students. Residents believed that the students were losing their village, so to speak, when they were separated into 13 different Palm Beach County schools. With the help of several community partners and the School District of Palm Beach County, Village Academy is now serving students k-12 using the Beacon Concept Model, and aims to send every student to college with a Bright Futures scholarship from the State of Florida.
Now, Village Academy is continuing to pioneer optimal student development as the pilot site for a new program called “Restorative Justice Practices.” Restorative Justice is a theory of justice initially developed to address criminal behavior. Traditionally, a person who commits a crime and is caught must answer to the State, which then takes punitive action against that person. Under a Restorative Justice model, the person’s crime is not seen as an offense to the state, but rather to an individual or a community. Restorative Justice suggests that better results are achieved for a community’s safety and wellbeing when the person who committed the crime isn’t thrown in jail, but rather invited to take meaningful responsibility for their actions by facing their victims in open dialogue.
This model works. Not only within the criminal justice system, but also in schools. The school version of this framework is called “Restorative Practices” and guarantees that with its implementation, school suspension and expulsions (time that students are excluded from instruction due to behavioral infractions) will decrease and result in a culture that is inclusive and focused on relationship repair rather than punishment.
A school culture less focused on punitive solutions to troubled behavior makes a massive impact on student success. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a single ninth grade suspension doubles the risk that a student will drop out of high school, facing a higher likelihood of unemployment and lower wages and earning more than $330,000 less in a lifetime than a high school graduate. Restorative Practices works against those statistics, and urges the school community to share the responsibility of building a positive environment based in strong relationships between students, faculty and staff.
So, how did Village Academy come to learn about Restorative Practices? Enter Emanuel Dupree Jackson, a resident leader with a passion for change. Jackson was born and raised in Delray Beach and has always held a special place in his heart for the city’s youth. As a little league coach and a local, Jackson knows all the community kids and their parents, and early into his adulthood began taking it upon himself to constantly engage the kids in positive projects. His efforts not only spared the youth from some of the challenges he experienced growing up, but also instilled a deep sense of community pride. There was no official order to his process at first, admittedly, he was “winging it” – the parents all trusted him, so he’d get up on a Saturday, make a few calls, swing by to pick the kids up and embark on a community improvement project. “I was always trying to figure out ways to keep them busy,” Jackson explains. “I wanted to show them how important they are.” Soon, Jackson wanted to expand his work with the youth, to open their eyes to more possibilities and self-potential. In 2014, he established the Emanuel Jackson Sr. Project, a nonprofit organization that provides free mentorship with the goal of “building tomorrow’s leaders.”
Because of his steadfast, voluntary commitment to Delray’s youth, Jackson began getting noticed. In 2014, he was recruited to sit on the steering committee for Healthier Delray Beach, a Palm Healthcare Foundation, Inc. initiative focused on improving the community’s behavioral health. Through his work with Healthier Delray Beach and his activism in the community, Jackson met Dr. Sara Selznick, Seth Bernstein and Stephanie Seibel, who brought him on as a community liaison at Achievement Centers for Children and Families, an out-of-school aftercare service.
As a community liaison, Jackson’s job is to help both youth and their families. “Working at Achievement Centers, I observe the behavioral issues that some of the youth display,” Jackson explains. “And I know they are symptoms of a deeper issue that may be happening at home.” Jackson is able to connect with the families and help them find a solution to the child’s issues. But, because of his change-making nature, Jackson wanted to dive even deeper into this work. “I wanted to change the culture and make Achievement Centers a haven where no matter what is going on outside in the world, the youth had teachers to communicate and work with, who will give them equity and a voice, who will make them feel part of the community,” Jackson says.
So, Dr. Selznick introduced him to the Restorative Practices model. Jackson threw himself into research – he read articles and watched YouTube videos and saw that this model was being practiced in places like Colorado and San Francisco, and it was getting great results. With the help of Healthier Delray Beach, Jackson brought a national Restorative Practices trainer to Delray Beach in the summer of 2016 and trained 35 staff from Achievement Centers, Village Academy and Carver Middle School. Among staff were the Village Academy Site Director, Junior Beauzier, and Assistant Director Michael Dieurestil, who immediately started implementing the strategy at the Achievement Centers campuses over summer break.
The transition to this new way of functioning took a little getting used to. “It was hard for staff at first because it didn’t feel natural to get on the child’s level,” Jackson says. “It felt as though they were relinquishing control. But I continued going to weekly staff meetings so I could hear about problems arising and could keep driving home the Restorative Practices message.” Under the Restorative Practices model, when a student has a conflict with a teacher, they participate in something called a “circle.” The student sits with the teacher, parents and other school administrators and discusses how their actions affected each person. The idea is that, after the circle, the student feels heard and respected and is able to take responsibility for what they’ve done, while also establishing a closer relationship with their teacher.
Under Restorative Practices, there wasn’t a single physical altercation at Achievement Centers’ Village Academy campus all summer long. When issues of bullying arose, the students did circles and worked it out. Jackson wanted to provide more training. He solicited the help of Rick Lewis with Safe Schools and together, with the support of Principal LaToya Dixon, they trained the entire Village Academy staff. In August of 2017, Village Academy began piloting the Restorative Practices model at the school. “It doesn’t happen often that a school principal will allow you to come in and train the entire staff,” says Healthier Delray Beach Senior Director Lauren Zuchman. “We hope that Principal Dixon can talk to other principals in the area about how this program works. We want this to be a growing movement.”
Jackson has an open-door office on Village Academy’s campus to aid in daily Restorative Practices work. “Teachers knock on my door when a group of students are acting up, and I grab them to do circles,” Jackson says. “When we talk and get in front of the issues, there’s no need for detention. Those conversations keep the big fights and arguments from breaking out. The kids are given the space to talk and correct their wrongs among each other and the staff.”
For Jackson, Restorative Practices aren’t an option, they’re necessary. “This isn’t just a theory about something that ‘might work,’ this is something that needs to be done,” he says. “All kids deserve to know that when they are spending most of their day with an adult, that adult knows them, trusts them and is there to provide continuous support. We are working to create socially responsible kids who will make the right decisions more often than not. This is more than a school activity, it’s changing our culture.”
Contributed by Vanessa Moss