Restorative practices pave path to success for graduates

An alternative school of choice in Pearland ISD leads with restorative practices and a focus on mental health.

Two students at the PACE Center (Pearland's Alternative Choice for Education) look proudly into the camera on graduation day.

By Anne Bannister

Photography by Anne Bannister

Matthew was a talented high school football player, with hopes of playing in college. Then, in the blink of an eye, his dreams were shattered.

“During my junior year, I suffered an injury while playing football. This injury dissolved my hopes of playing college football, and became the reason I fell into a depression. I struggled to find the motivation for school and just stopped attending altogether.” 

Matthew dropped out of school.

Natasha’s family fled Pakistan when she was young, to escape extreme poverty and violence. Lost and alienated in a new country, Natasha struggled to connect with her peers. At the beginning of her freshman year of high school, Natasha’s father passed away.

“Many risks were taken to give me a better future and this truth put a great deal of pressure on me. I had no room for failure.”

Natasha was immobilized by her anxiety. She considered herself a failure and didn’t want to attend school. 

Yet, on a warm January morning, both Matthew and Natasha are among 23 seniors — and their friends and families, partners and babies — arriving on the campus of Pearland’s Alternative Choice Education (PACE) Center for winter convocation. They are about to graduate from high school. 

Here, their stories are familiar. Their classmates have similar stories of struggle and sacrifice to share. PACE students have faced extreme obstacles, from homelessness to food insecurity, young pregnancies to mental health disorders, and today, their caps and gowns are symbols of their triumph over challenge and tragedy.

For many students at PACE, the path to graduation started in a circle.

Produced and edited by Anne Bannister; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs; assisted by Lauren Cook & Christina Dunigan

“Trauma sensitivity is not just for the kid who has already been diagnosed as bipolar or social anxiety or any of those things. Trauma sensitivity connects to all people … it’s every adult in this building, it’s every adult who enters this building, it’s every kid, it’s every person every day.”

Kimberly darden, principal

For twenty minutes every Monday through Thursday, students at PACE participate in Restore 101, a homeroom class focused on restorative practices.

Students push their desks together or sit in a circle on the floor. 

Symone Rainey – the inclusion support teacher on campus known for her big laugh and warm smile – sets the community norms for the day’s circle. 

“We’re going to have our talking piece, Mr. Duck, here,” Rainey says, displaying a small rubber duck wearing sunglasses. “We’re going to do a check-in circle, so from one to five — one being I’m not having the best day, and five, — I’m ready to take on the world. I want to hear what number you are.” 

Rainey goes first. “I am a five,” she says, kicking off the activity with gusto. “I am ready to take on the world.”

As the duck gets passed around the circle, each student grasps it and indicates their mental and emotional state on the numbered scale. Then they unpack why they feel that way. 

“I’m a five,” says one student. “I don’t have anything to complain about.”

Another shares, “I’m a five because me and my sister are going to look at apartments this weekend, so I’m moving out.” She receives cheers of encouragement from the group. For this student who recently turned 18, moving out means newfound freedom and independence. 

The circle represents a safe space where students feel seen and heard, and where they can reach out for support from peers and adults alike. As the facilitator, the teacher notes the status of each student and what he or she needs to be successful that day – words of encouragement, space to work alone, a phone call home, or one-on-one time to talk and work through something with the student support counselor. Typically, the circle continues another two rounds, with topics ranging from pop culture to philosophical musings to personal reflections. 

“Setting our kids up in the morning to have a great day makes a world of difference,” Kimberly Darden, the principal at the PACE Center, explains. Darden is in her fourth year of principalship at PACE and attended the Charles Butt Foundation Leadership Program in the summer of 2019. She comes from a family of educators and leads by the philosophy that there is worth in all people. 

“It allows them to know, number one, every day is not going to be a great day,” she says. “It’s not going to be number five every day, and that’s okay. I can start at a two and I can work my way toward a five. That’s real life. That’s us preparing kids to be the best versions of themselves right now so that they can master that and function well in their adult lives.”

Check-in circles extend beyond the students. Darden explains how she uses the technique with her staff. “In the mornings, three times per week, I meet with my admin team. The very first thing we do is, ‘Guys, one to five, how are we doing this morning?’ What that allows us to do as adults, is to take a moment, breathe in, slow it down and sometimes we even reach out to one another around that table. It’s not uncommon for us to engage in prayer for one another, to provide an encouraging word.” 

Darden believes these practices are for everyone. “Trauma sensitivity is not just for the kid who has already been diagnosed as bipolar or social anxiety or any of those things. Trauma sensitivity connects to all people, so it’s not just our kids, it’s every adult in this building, it’s every adult who enters this building, it’s every kid, it’s every person every day.”

Three years prior, the PACE Center began a journey to implement restorative practices and trauma-informed teaching in the classroom to address an increasing number of mental health disorders diagnosed in students – ADHD, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, as well as substance abuse. 

While the numbers alone make a clear case for social-emotional learning, it’s also something Texans say they want more of in the classroom. The 2020 Charles Butt Foundation Poll found that Texans value social-emotional learning above other student outcomes such as preparation for jobs, college, and standardized tests. 

The graphic shows five figures. Four are colored in blue and one is in black representing 1 in 5 kids living in the U.S. who show signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year, including depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse.
kids living in the U.S. show signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year, including depression, anxiety, and/or substance abuse.

Source:  NPR Ed series on mental health in schools

The graphic shows eight figures representing students. Seven are colored in blue and one is in black to show 1 in 8 high school students in Texas attempted suicide in 2017. That is 12.3% compared to the national average of 7%.
high school students in Texas attempted suicide in 2017. That is 12.3% compared to the national average of 7%.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

Our graduation rates are improved. Our academic performance has improved … Most importantly, our kids have become individual people who are able to self-regulate.

Kimberly darden, principal

When Darden took over the helm of the school in 2016, she dug into the campus data to pinpoint the biggest barrier to learning for students at PACE. It was attendance. 

“Why weren’t our kids present? Life. ‘I’m homeless. I don’t have clean clothes. I don’t have a supportive family.’ One kid told me, ‘I’m 16 and I’m not smart, Ms. Darden. I’m not going to come to school.’” 

Darden knew that in order to establish a healthier school community and see students’ confidence, attendance, and academics improve, she would have to shift how students and staff viewed themselves and the people around them. 

She learned all that she could about restorative practices and hired someone who would use these principles to inform their counseling responses. She sent her new student support counselor, Claudia Sotelo, to TEA trainings and conferences on restorative practices. Sotelo compiled books and articles on the same topic, notably Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community, and trained the campus staff on how to implement these practices.

Sotelo started by having teachers and administrators do circles at faculty meetings. “We started the year with some powerful circles where they got to know each other as humans,” she said. “They did the work within themselves, and they said, ‘Wow, this is powerful.’” 

As teachers scaled the practice to their classrooms, Sotelo guided them in creating respect agreements, driven by input from students. What does it look like for a student to respect a student? A student to respect a teacher? A teacher to respect a student? What does it look like to respect the campus environment? Those shared community agreements were posted in every room on campus. When one of the agreements is broken, Sotelo holds a restorative circle to address the resulting harm. In this space, those harmed convey the impact to those responsible, and those responsible acknowledge this impact and take steps to make it right. 

Thanks to these efforts, students and staff were equipped with a vocabulary to describe their mental and emotional state, and the ability to regulate their thoughts and feelings. Mental health disorders are no longer stigmatized, but rather something you could share about to help someone else process their experiencing.

Three years into restorative practices, Darden is pleased with the initial results. “Our kids’ attendance is not quite where we want it to be because, of course, we wanted above 90% but it’s better than it has been. Our graduation rates are improved. Our academic performance has improved. Our kids’ self-confidence, willingness to enroll in post-secondary learning, willingness to sit for the SAT and ACT have improved. Most importantly, our kids have become individual people who are able to self-regulate. We haven’t had a fight on our campus this year, not one. Kids are taking ownership of their feelings about themselves and toward others. They’re taking ownership of their responses. All of this is positively impacting the culture on our campus, it’s impacting the way our kids are functioning in classrooms, and it’s impacting the way our teachers are providing instruction. All of those pieces have made a world of difference. For us, it is the right path.”

Because of the success found at the PACE Center, Pearland ISD is looking to scale restorative practices across the district by offering TEA training in this area for all campus principals, assistant principals, and counselors.

Left to right: Seniors Kaya Fredrick and Joshua Garcia rehearse a duet of Stand by Me;  Principal Kimberly Darden takes a selfie with every graduate; Mary Kirksey, the lead counselor holds a mirror so Michelle Laredo can adjust her cap; Matthew Loubiere shares his PACE story from high school dropout to aspiring engineer; Natasha Raza squeezes a friend’s hand during the final procession; Hailee Fitts poses with her son.

The commencement ceremony is followed by a reception in the cafeteria. Families line up to take photos in front of a backdrop that reads “Congratulations, 2020 Graduates!” Parents hold their graduates in a long embrace while choking back tears. One graduate squeezes her toddler, whose shirt reads, “You did it Mommy, Congratulations!” Another couple that just graduated poses for a photo with their newborn. 

Darden says, “These are kids who thought, ‘I’m not going to graduate. I’m not going to make this. I’m the first in my family to graduate. I didn’t think this was possible.’ They’ve made it to the finish line. It’s phenomenal. It’s one hour, but in that one hour, it’s a lot of love and a lot of truth, just a lot of good stuff for our kids and our community.”