Restorative Justice Takes On West Oakland Schools

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From 2005 to 2009, the city of Oakland backed a restorative justice pilot project at Cole Middle School, in West Oakland, which was already slated to be shut down for low test scores. It was among the first attempts to implement restorative justice circles at a U.S. school.

By the final year, standardized test scores had risen by 74 points.

The school, which had suffered from a high turnover of teachers, retained all of its faculty.

And delinquency plummeted; suspensions fell 87 percent and expulsions dropped to zero.

Those staggering achievements prompted researchers at the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, part of the University of California, Berkeley 's Boalt School of Law, to analyze the results. They declared the program at Cole -- a school where the entire student body was eligible for free lunch -- a national role model.

The program provided a successful alternative to zero tolerance policies, which have led to a doubling of suspension rates since the 1970s and have disproportionately affected low-income men of color.

The restorative justice model is now being applied in a second pilot project at nearby Castlemont School, which recently received a $1 million grant from the California Endowment.

But Oakland Unified School District, which passed a resolution making restorative justice its official district policy, has been able unable to find money in its own budget, from the state or federal government, to sustain the project in its schools.