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Rise Up!

Middle School blends character-building with restorative practices


West Middle School eighth-grader Natalie Gonzalez jotted down her goals as part of “Reach, Impact, Stand and Empower,” a new program that includes monthly classroom sessions.

Short term, she wants to work on her hobby and draw more comics. Long term, she wants to be successful, “be myself” and be productive.

“I do admit that I have some anxiety, but I now made a goal for myself to be braver,” Natalie said. “RISE means I have to face that.”

In other words, RISE is helping Natalie rise.

To make sure all students feel supported, West Middle School teachers are blending several efforts under the uplifting theme, which is embedded into everything from instruction to banners and staff T-shirts. It supports the curriculum Suite360, for which students are studying and discussing character-building traits.

In eighth-grade science teacher Ken King’s classroom, Natalie and her peers set goals for themselves and in reaching out to others. “There is so much value in  teaching the non-curriculum stuff,” King said. “When it comes down to it, we are hoping we can produce good citizens of the world.”

Eighth-grader Natalie Gonzalez said her goals include being herself and being braver

A Shift in Approach

RISE is broader than character-building or anti-bullying. It is tied to Restorative Practices, a proactive approach to discipline that gets to the “why” of student behavior and focuses on righting wrongs and repairing harm rather than punishment that isolates students by removing them from school.

“We felt like we could make (RISE) a bigger thing at West Middle School in regards to a social-emotional curriculum and a character program,” said Principal Jeff Wierzbicki.

Added Assistant Principal Abby Kanitz: “All of these things we are doing fall under restorative practices, having these thing in place, educating kids on proper behavior, meeting their social and emotional needs.”

Wierzbicki, Kanitz, three teachers and a counselor and social worker are trained through International Institute for Restorative Practices.  The long-term goal is to see a dive in suspensions from 92 last school year to as few as possible moving forward. “Our goal is to have zero students out due to discipline,” Wierzbicki said.

A state law adopted last fall, House Bill 5619, requires schools to consider seven factors before suspending, including whether restorative practices were used.

Eighth-grader Amelia Bodinaku reflects during RISE

Addressing Root Problems

Students are struggling with myriad triggers (middle-school drama, mental health issues, academics, social media), “anything from homework to suicide, just the spectrum,” that can lead to conflict, acting out or other negative behaviors, Kanitz said.

But traditionally, too often students with underlying issues were suspended without the problem really being addressed. “We really needed to define what are we doing in the building to make sure we are helping kids, so we are not suspending, so that is the last option,” she said.

Seventh-grade science teacher Brett VanDeRoer said students behaving badly used to be sent out of the classroom – and that was it. Now, VanDeRoer tries to get to the root of the problem. “It’s more of a proactive approach to diagnose why that behavior is happening, rather than just saying ‘that behavior happened, here’s your punishment.’ Let’s get to the heart of why that issue is happening and fix that.”

For students who are put in in-house suspension,  lessons aim to help them reflect on their choices through ISS360, a digital program.

In King’s class, eighth-grader JoJoe Fletcher said her goals are to not have missing assignments and to never have to make up credits. She said RISE is helping students consider what’s important.

“It’s getting kids to think about the future and become more independent,” JoJoe said.

CONNECT

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Breaking Schools’ Rules

Restorative Justice Mediation

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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