Hrag Hamalian is the Chief Executive Officer at Bright Star Schools, a charter network that serves over 2,700 K-12 students in Los Angeles. The network’s 7 schools serve the neighborhoods of Panorama City, Koreatown, and West Adams. Hrag is executing on a growth strategy that will add 2 more elementary schools in the next few years. When complete, Bright Star will offer a contiguous K-12 (elementary, middle, and high-school) experience in each of its 3 neighborhoods.
You can also check out our previous conversations with Hrag on creating strong student and staff culture. Part 1 is on building student culture , while Part 2 focuses on the staff side of the equation.
Thriving Schools: What does restorative justice mean to you?
Hrag: It’s the basic idea that when a harm is done to a community, the reaction isn’t just punitive. Rather, there’s an attempt to heal the community. For a very long time schools have operated under the assumption that if a student does something wrong, there should be a consequence. And very little thought has gone into what happens after the consequence. We’ve put so much emphasis on the consequences that we’ve failed to consider how we can help restore the student.
Thriving Schools: How did you form your views on this topic?
Hrag: Several years ago, I was sitting in on a presentation that was covering the history of Chicago. And the presenter showed that around the same time the country adopted a zero-tolerance approach on drugs, schools also started taking a zero-tolerance approach on discipline. So, when students acted out, schools ended up suspending students and taking them out of class. When that happened, those students would fall behind academically. This would, in turn, lead to higher rates of school drop-out, which lead to higher propensity towards crime, and higher rates of incarceration. The net takeaway was the creation of intergenerational poverty. I left that presentation with a clear sense that we need to find a better way to discipline students and to work with students when things don’t go the way we expect them to.
Thriving Schools: So what does this look like at Bright Star?
Hrag: All of our deans at all of our schools are trained on restorative justice practices. When a student does something wrong, our immediate response is not to punish them. We’re going to hold a restorative conference – we’re going to invite in parents, teachers, and the person or persons who were harmed and we’re going to have a conversation. No doubt, there’s a consequence for the behavior. But the part that’s new is that as a community, the offender and the one offended come up with a way that they’re going to self-heal themselves so that this doesn’t become a repeating offense. It’s a lot more time intensive than just suspending a student. But it’s been completely game-changing at our schools. The result of all of this is that we now have students who proactively come to us and say they’re having a problem with another student, that they don’t’ want to get into a fight, and ask if we can we sit down and talk through it. 2-3 years ago, something like that would’ve never happened.
Thriving Schools: There’s a lot of people who are going to balk at a process like that. So what do you have to do to get a program like this right?
Hrag: A big part of where things go wrong is in thinking this can be another program that is handed down from administration and teachers are expected to do it (because we read it in a book and we think it’s a great idea). At Bright Star our VP of Student and Family services is in charge of our restorative programs, but our entire team – from our executive staff, our administrators, and our teachers – are invested. I make a point of being directly involved and have made a clear statement that this is the direction we’re moving in. I wholeheartedly believe in it, and by the way, I’m going to sit down right now and lead a council (restorative practice) and make myself vulnerable in a way that no one would expect. So I think it’s knowing that everyone in the organization operates in this way.
Thriving Schools: What are some of the problems you’ve encountered enacting restorative practices and what kind of training was necessary to help overcome them?
Hrag: We’ve had a very hard time with this. When we talk about it as a team or an organization, everyone buys into the theory of restorative justice, because that part is easy. When it comes to execution, no one wants to be a jerk and say, “No, we should only provide consequences and we don’t care about the long-term impact of inter-generational poverty.” No one’s going to come out and say that. But what they are going to say is that right now, this student is causing a lot of trouble in my class. And right now, in this moment, this student is disturbing the learning of others and the easiest way to deal with it is to take them out and excise them from class. But that’s only fueling this cycle further. So we’ve had to create processes and trainings for teachers so that in those moments when they’re struggling with a student and they want them out of class, they have other ways to find solutions. And over the course of a few years, the student in question has the potential to change in such a way that no other practice can get the same result. This has been a huge investment for us. We work with a number of external partners to train our staff. One of our deans is certified in leading restorative conferences and he’s in the process of certifying all of our other deans.
Thriving Schools: Can you give us a few other examples of programs that are helping to support this idea of restorative justice at Bright Star?
Hrag: Another thing we’ve done is to replace detention at most of our schools with mindfulness classes or some other activity that encourages self-reflection. We’ve also implemented what’s called “council in schools,” which is actually a practice we picked up from LAUSD. We’ve trained all our staff and students in a structured way on how to self-counsel one another. And there’s an expectation (that appears in our school culture rubric) that teachers and students engage in these with a frequency that allows there to be a sense of community. One other nationwide issue that we are hoping to help address is sexual assault to female students in college. Thinking ahead, we’ve hired a full time staff member to deliver a dual program where our middle and high school girls learn both about self-defense and how to build self-confidence in themselves to bring their best selves into the world.