This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.
I started getting into trouble my freshman year of high school. My family of nine moved around a lot when I was a kid, and so I had always had a hard time making friends or developing relationships. Childhood for me was a tough place.
Unfortunately, when I got to high school, the first meaningful friendships I made were with people who cut class. I never saw it as a big deal, because everyone seemed to be doing it. On top of that, I also developed extreme anxiety and self-esteem issues about my weight. I even started taking diet pills.
With all my friends skipping and my anxiety building, I began skipping classes too. As a result, my ninth-grade year was filled with lunch detentions, court dates, and in-school suspension.
It was like a repetitive circle: I skipped class, I got lunch detention, and I never really cared. Not a single teacher ever asked me why.
Luckily, my sister convinced me to change schools before my sophomore year. Her Individualized Education Program case manager had found Paladin Career and Technical High school, which works with students who have had adverse childhood or traumatic experiences.
I had never thought about going to an alternative school. I always thought people were forced to go, but my sister was choosing to willingly and wanted me to do the same. By this point, my best friend was thinking of leaving school too, so I had nothing to lose. I even convinced my friend to go to Paladin too.
I now know it was the best decision I ever made. The school staff seemed to understand me, and every teacher took the time to get to know me.
When I was homeless for the whole 11th grade year, the school introduced me to this program called Hope for Youth, which provided me with food, clothes, and hygiene products. Paladin also let me come in early and take a shower.
Though most students experiencing homelessness don’t feel comfortable telling their teachers, I didn’t hesitate to tell my success coordinator and the therapist they had helped me find.
My therapist was always there for me to turn to. She taught me that when you're in a bad spot and are at your lowest, that's the most crucial time to learn and better yourself.
She showed me that the world is filled with people with problems, and everybody is just trying to find their way.
I didn’t get into any major issues at Paladin—with all the support I had, I no longer needed to skip class—but I observed other students who did. And teachers always took the time to sit down with students and figure out what was going on, using what is known as a Restorative Practice approach to discipline.
As the recent Center for Promise report Discipline and Disconnected says, things like suspensions and expulsions don’t really work to change students’ behavior or make schools safer. But Restorative Practices can, because they focus on restoring relationships and getting to the root cause of an issue.
This approach also focuses on peer-to-peer support, and I became a Restorative Practice leader just after ninth grade. In the same year, I became the president of my school and the student of the year for a club called MAAP STARS.
Each of these experiences helped to rebuild by self-confidence, use my talent, and be a part of a real community. I am now a proud graduate of the Class of 2018.
To people looking to implement restorative practices: No, it's not easy at first. But it’s worth it.
For youth to succeed in education, we need a shelter over our heads, we need food in our bodies, and we need a community. So make sure a student’s basic needs are met before you send them to detention or punish them.
Related story: Five Youth Quotes on What It’s Like to Be Suspended or Expelled
After that, empower youth to take on their dreams and do good for their community. It's imperative that students get addressed individually. No student should feel lost and forgotten.
Paladin made such a big difference because teachers didn’t look down on me. Instead, they looked at me as a human and gave me the tools to succeed. I took them and became a leader.
Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative
The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.
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To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.