Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series about discipline in Maine schools.

WINDHAM – Last November was a tough month for Robbie Blair.

A freshman at Windham High School, he had a bad reaction to blood pressure medication that he had taken from a family member. He thought it would get him high and help boring classes breeze by. Instead, he wound up in the emergency room and was kicked out of school.

Fortunately for Robbie, Windham High has a Restorative Learning Program that helps expelled students keep up with their schoolwork, learn how to avoid offending behaviors and stay on track for graduation.

Today, Robbie is back in school, getting As and Bs, continuing weekly drug counseling and passing random drug tests. After making the varsity cross country team last fall, he hopes to expand his sports participation to include spring track this year and skiing next winter. A clean-cut kid with an easy smile, he says his new girlfriend has been a positive influence and he’s too smart to make the same mistake again.

“They gave me a choice: I could attend RLP or I’d have to take my freshman year over again,” Robbie said. “That really wasn’t an option. I want to move forward.”

Restorative Learning is an alternative program at Windham High that serves students who have been or are on the verge of being expelled. Started six years ago, the program serves students in grades 6 through 12 in the Windham-Raymond and Westbrook school districts.

Students attend daily afternoon classes and regular counseling sessions meant to keep them learning while they’re expelled and get them back to school as soon as possible.

Other Maine districts with zero-tolerance policies would have left Robbie to his own devices, largely because state law doesn’t require schools to provide alternative education for expelled students unless they receive special education services. Education experts point to the Restorative Learning Program as an example of what more Maine school districts should be doing.

“There are wide variations in the way schools handle expulsions and suspensions across the state,” said Shelley Reed, a student support services specialist at the Maine Department of Education.

Reed was co-chairwoman of a group that reviewed expulsion and suspension policies statewide last year for the Legislature’s education committee as part of an effort to increase high school graduation rates. The group found that many districts kick students out of school without providing them a way to continue their education or explaining what they need to do to return to school.

“A lot of these kids are in crisis, so if we expel them without having anybody support them or talk them through it, the situation doesn’t really change and their chances of graduating decrease,” Reed said. “It’s great that more (districts are offering alternative) programs that support individual students and help them move on and grow in their educations.”

Restorative Learning is seeing some success, according to Pender Makin, a Windham-Raymond school administrator who developed the program.

Since it started in 2003-04, expulsions in Windham-Raymond schools have dropped from an average of 19 per year to four last year, and the dropout rate has fallen from 5 percent in 2005-06 to 2 percent in 2009-10, Makin said.

In Westbrook, which has one or two expulsions per year, the dropout rate is down from 7.75 percent in 2005-06 to 5 percent in 2009-10, Makin said.

Of 34 students who attended Restorative Learning in 2009-10, 31 were able to return to their sending schools or transferred to long-term programs more suitable for their educational needs. Two students went on to graduate through an adult education program.

The Restorative Learning Program is offered each afternoon in a warren of small classrooms on the second floor of Windham High. Its $139,000 annual budget is funded by grants from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and from the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group.

The program is taught by three half-time teachers and directed by Sarah Anderson, a social worker. The teachers offer group lessons in core subjects that emphasize teamwork and fun in learning. They also provide motivational counseling and individual tutoring that’s tied to lessons in regular classrooms.

Along with core subjects such as reading, math and science, the teachers and outside counselors address what’s happening in each student’s life with family, friends, health concerns and emotional issues.

“Often kids are spiraling,” Anderson said. “We put the plug in the drain and try to build authentic, supportive relationships with each student. These kids see through people like it’s their superpower. They connect with people who are real with them.”

Restorative Learning includes counseling related to each student’s disciplinary issue, from substance abuse to anger management.

Students are expected to take responsibility for their actions, recognize the impact of their actions on others, make amends for the hurt or damage they inflicted on other people or property and develop an alternative plan to address the feelings that led them to act out in the first place.

For Robbie Blair, that included writing a letter to the Windham-Raymond School Board explaining how he has changed. The letter impressed board members and encouraged them to welcome him back to Windham High.

“I enjoy high school more than anything and I’m going to make it the best I possibly can,” Robbie wrote to the board. “I’m going to continue my journey as an athlete and I am working towards a scholarship to a college of my choice. I am working to be a positive role model amongst my peers and to show them that what I did is not right and should never be done again.”

No one is more thankful for Restorative Learning than Robbie’s mother, Deb Chute. As a single parent, Chute worried that her son’s future and her family’s financial security were in jeopardy because it would have been nearly impossible to pay tuition to send Robbie to a private school.

“He’s so lucky because other schools don’t have anything like RLP,” Chute said. “They just expel kids, and that’s it.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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