Five years ago, Fremont High in East Oakland had some of the highest discipline rates and lowest attendance in the city. Fights and disputes were commonplace. Only 1 in 4 graduates qualified to attend a public college in California. One in 3 has given up completely.
But Fremont High is – quite literally – a different place now. With a newly rebuilt campus and an intensive focus on improving the campus climate, Fremont saw enrollment jump 20% even as district-wide enrollment plummeted and the number of students eligible for the admission to university has almost tripled.
Much of the credit, students and administrators say, goes to a restorative justice program that has evolved beyond its initial mission of conflict resolution to encompass a total transformation of school culture.
“If you grew up here, you remember when Fremont had an awful reputation,” said Tatiana Chaterji, the school’s restorative justice facilitator. “But we worked so hard to build community, relationships, trust. I really feel we made a difference. I feel so proud. Honestly, to see where we are now is a dream come true.
Restorative justice, an alternative to traditional discipline, focuses on repairing the harm caused when students misbehave. Typically, students sit in a circle and talk about their feelings or how an incident has affected them. By getting to know each other in a more personal way, the hope is that students learn to respect each other, form friendships and take responsibility for their actions.
Oakland Unified has funded restorative justice in various schools for nearly two decades, but in 2017 invested $2.5 million to expand it districtwide. That’s when Fremont High launched its full program. In addition to organizing circles, Chaterji works with teachers to bring restorative practices to every class.
Over the years, the program has expanded to include community groups, district staff, and even alumni who return to help. The program has its own website and Instagram account. Fremont students attend national restorative justice conferences. It was featured in a book by Heather Manchester, “The Little Book of Youth Engagement in Restorative Justice(2021). Even school security guards participate.
But above all, it no longer focuses solely on conflicts. Students use circles to welcome newcomers, get to know each other, and build bridges between different cliques and ethnic groups. Located on the edge of bustling Fruitvale, Fremont High is rich in diversity, with immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, Yemen, Tonga, Cambodia and Vietnam, among other countries. More than half are English learners, and almost all are low-income.
In order to include as many students as possible, restorative justice circles are held in English, Arabic and Mam, an indigenous language in Guatemala. They are integrated with a leadership class and a class for ninth graders where students learn to design and lead their own circles. They are also related to career planning, with a focus on law, psychology, social work, law enforcement, and teaching. Somewhere on campus, students hold circles almost every day.
For freshman Jayla Pablo Martin, Mam’s Circles are an important way to help newcomers feel welcome. When she came to the United States at the age of 10, she spoke little English and felt very shy in school. She didn’t understand what was going on in class and had few friends. It was a lonely time, she says.
This year, she is helping lead circles for Mam language students in Fremont, with the goal of helping them feel comfortable, safe and welcome at school.
“I tell them I know how it feels because I’ve been through it too,” she said. “I tell them to never give up and keep trying. I feel that because I speak mam, I can help. It feels good.”
At a recent circle at Mam, the students were talking a bit about themselves, then playing a musical chairs type game where someone said, “I like my neighbor who… wears red shoes,” and all the students wearing red shoes were jostling for new chairs. The students were laughing, joking and having fun.
Fremont has a large Yemeni population, as well as refugees from a civil war. Ebrar Wasel, a junior, said the circles in Arabic, as well as English, made a huge difference in helping him adjust to a new school, a new city and a new culture, especially after living the trauma of war. As a recent immigrant, she was often afraid to participate in class and often felt uncomfortable in school.
“Before, I was afraid that people would laugh at me,” she said. “But then, in the circles, I learned that it was the same for others too. Now I feel better, I feel like I have a lot of friends on campus.
Another addition to Fremont’s restorative justice program is a connection to nearby Horace Mann Elementary School. Fremont students lead circles for students to learn about themselves and develop social skills, reinforcing the restorative lessons already underway there.
On a recent visit, Fremont students met in pairs with elementary school children of all ages and learned about the basics of restorative justice circles: how to listen, how to express emotions appropriately, how to snap their fingers to show his approval. In a fourth-grade class, students tossed a ball around the circle to relax before Fremont leaders began with the tough questions: How are you feeling right now? What do you like about yourself? What is it in you that you would like to improve?
A student said, “I wish I was smart.
“You are already smart. Maybe you wish you were smarter,” said Kimberly Higareda, the Fremont High student who leads the circle. “We all have things we want to improve at home.”
Later, when the students got distracted and started acting up, Higareda cut them off.
“I hear some of you disrespecting your classmates,” she said. “It’s hurtful, to use those words. Try to think before using words like that.
The students calmed down and resumed listening. One by one, they shared details about themselves that their classmates might not have known. A girl likes the color of her hair. Another is proud of her friendships. A usually shy boy turns out to be a football expert. Another boy says he loves his family most of all.
Afterwards, students said they enjoyed the experience.
“It was fun because we all got to talk and we played games,” Junior Alvear said, adding that he discovered classmates he didn’t usually interact with. “It was fun to see everyone happy.”
Aaron Gray, restorative justice coordinator at Horace Mann, said it’s never too early to teach children about restorative practices. Even at age 4, they can learn to resolve conflicts, build friendships, understand body language, identify emotions, and speak respectfully to peers and adults.
These skills will help them feel safer and more comfortable at school, which will lead to better academic results and an improved overall climate on campus for everyone, he said.
“There’s really no way to teach or learn when there’s a lot of conflict in the classroom,” Gray said. “When I started here, I was dealing with conflicts all day. But now there has been a change. Children solve their own problems and organize their own restorative justice circles. It’s amazing to see. There has been a huge shift in culture.
Joshua Watan, a freshman at Fremont High, credits the school’s restorative justice program with helping him make a smooth transition from college. Although popular and athletic in college, he often felt pressured to maintain a certain image and was afraid of failing. It made him even more nervous about the challenges that awaited him in high school, he said.
But in Fremont’s restorative justice circles, which are available to all ninth graders, he finally felt some relief. He learned to express his doubts and fears and was comforted to learn that many of his classmates felt the same way.
“I learned to talk about my emotions, which helped me gain confidence,” Watan said. “And I learned a lot about my classmates, especially the quieter ones. I think RJ Circles teaches you to be yourself, to feel good about yourself.
Chaterji, a restorative justice facilitator from Fremont, said she would encourage all schools to adopt some form of restorative practices that go beyond conflict resolution. But she noted that many teachers had been doing it informally for years, long before restorative justice became a buzzword.
“Teachers already have these skills. It should not be imposed on them,” she said. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. … We can tap into the wisdom that already exists. We can all circle.
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