CAMDEN — “Thank you for having hope for me when I didn’t have hope for myself …”

These were one student’s words as she spoke to a standing-room-only crowd, prepared to graduate from the Community Schools at Opportunity Farm and Camden last week.

We serve youth at risk of not completing high school – students who, for a variety of reasons, have not been successful in a traditional setting.

We operate a residential program in Camden and New Gloucester and the home-based Passages program for teen parents. We work with small groups of students on a highly individualized basis to help them become connected, contributing members of society and earn a state of Maine-approved high school diploma. Our students often come into our school as disengaged learners – where a difficult event in their lives or a challenging learning or school history has derailed their success.

As researchers in adolescence, we often talk about “risk and protective factors” predictive of problem behaviors such as substance abuse or delinquency. The ultimate goal of this body of work is to increase protective factors (e.g., resources, caring adults, access to quality after-school programs) and reduce risk factors (e.g., effects of poverty, abuse and neglect, truancy or dropping out).

Certainly, it is widely known that the presence of a caring adult is one very important protective factor.

Also, what we find in our work at the Community Schools is that simply keeping a youth engaged in school is one of our greatest protective factors. Our students are around caring adults who create a healthy environment for learning – which leads to a meaningful high school diploma.

Earning a high school degree is an important marker in terms of moving successfully into adulthood (high school was designed for this purpose). So, going back out into Maine communities and putting students back in school not only helps divert the possibility of delinquency, but also works with a higher moral goal and our primary belief that all students can learn and have tremendous capacity to be strong participants in our communities.

Within our progressive curriculum, which meets the student where he or she is academically and developmentally, we put much focus on relationship-building and communicating effectively – components of emotional literacy. (High emotional literacy translates directly into greater success in relationships, academics, the work force, etc.)

One significant foundational practice that provides important scaffolding for high emotional literacy at the Community Schools is the use of restorative justice practices.

Restorative justice models stress inclusion and repairing relationships over exclusion and punishment in instances of wrongdoing. Many traditional schools, however, continue to use a punitive system of detention, suspension and expulsion (isolation or exclusion) in the effort to “right a wrong.”

Restorative justice practices have been used in the United States for more than 30 years. In place of separating an individual from a community after he or she acts unacceptably, restorative justice stresses bringing the individual back into relationships as the key to resolution.

At the Community Schools, we observe weekly restorative circles where students practice nonviolent communication, problem-solving skills and work toward building trusting, respectful relationships with their peers and the entire school community.

In this system, all voices are heard, as the group works toward mutually agreed-upon solutions to problems, building a culture of mutual care and respect. The skills that students learn during circles – such as how to respectfully resolve conflicts and listen to and honor the feelings of others, while accepting responsibility for their own actions – continue to serve them well in their post-graduation lives, as they will have new skills to handle the challenges they will face in adulthood.

Restorative justice practices have played an integral role in our success at the Community Schools – this year graduating 24 students. Since 2009, we have posted a significant graduation rate, nearly 100 percent of our students were offered jobs after graduation, and half were accepted to the college of their choice. These were students who, for one reason or another, felt they had little hope of graduating from high school.

Our use of restorative justice practices, strengths-based work and Positive Youth Development provide some of the greatest support of adolescent success today. By using restorative practices, we can combat the significantly high truancy and high school dropout rate in Maine that affects not only our youth but also our communities and the economy.


– Special to the Press Herald


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