New Orleans charter school refuses to allow failure

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 in New Orleans.

“In my last school, I was always fighting.”

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.”

 

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 six 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.

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.

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 eight 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.”

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.