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The Institute for Educational Research and Public Service

Partnership shows "restorative education" helps at-risk youth succeed in school

A partnership between Kansas Children’s Service League, a private nonprofit social service agency, and University of Kansas researchers has shown that restorative justice helps at-risk youth reach their educational potential while reducing problem behavior.

Kansas Children’s Service League administers the Center for Restorative Education, a Topeka-based center that works with students who are unable to remain in a traditional school setting, and may be at an increased risk for falling behind or dropping out. In 2011, KCSL requested that KU’s Institute for Educational Research and Public Service and School of Social Welfare evaluate the CRE to determine wheter the program was enabling students to meet desired educational goals. The evaluation showed that students increased their grade-point averages by 43 percent, earned 74 percent of the credits they needed to advance to the next grade level and maintained or increased their socio-emotional strengths.

“When we look at questions like, ‘Are they where they’re supposed to be for their age?’ we’re finding that these kids are leaving the program better off, not only in their grades, but also in their interpersonal relationships and psychological well-being,” said Jacklyn Biggs, project coordinator at the Institute.

The Center for Restorative Education bases its services on restorative education, an idea that addresses the behaviors that have led students to have problems in traditional educational settings. It focuses on their strengths and abilities, all while maintaining their education and academic credits. Many of the students who come to the Center are dealing with substance abuse, anger and impulse control problems, mental illness or other behaviors that can be violent and disruptive to their home and school environments.

While the initial evaluation confirmed that the program is working, the partnership will continue, both to increase the sample size and to provide more resources to help the Center be even more effective. The Morris Family Foundation has provided funds to support the evaluation of this program.

“We provide programs with an evidence base behind them. If we determine it’s not effective, we go back and change it with the goal of always strengthening families and children,” said Gail Cozadd, North Central Region Director for the Kansas Children’s Service League. “Our partnership with KU has been fabulous in providing that needed evidence. They truly understand the work we do and its family impact, educational impact and more.”

In addition to improved grades, the evaluation found that students who had been truant or suspended from previous schools attended Center for Restorative Education classes 84 percent of the time. The students, boys especially, also showed marked improvement in socio-emotional well-being measures such as family involvement, interpersonal support and school functioning during their time in the program.

“Given the right environment we see that these students’ innate knowledge and intelligence can be supported and flourish,” said Teri Garstka, assistant director at the Institute. “These are students who can be successful, and we think CRE’s restorative justice model is responsible for some of the outcomes we’re seeing.”

While completing the first year of evaluation, researchers helped the Center develop infrastructure including computerized student records that will eventually enable them to conduct self-evaluations. The partners will also work together to build a larger evidence base to show which activities and interventions are most effective and to help ensure they are provided consistently. The ongoing evaluation will also monitor long-term academic success and graduation rates for students in the program.

The findings are especially valuable, Cozadd said, because they will allow the Center to show funders and schools that refer students to them that programs are indeed effective. In addition, the evaluation will help build the knowledge base for those working in the field of helping youth receive an education despite social challenges.

“This project is a wonderful example of how the interests of the child welfare and education sectors can converge and discover new knowledge that benefits both,” said Alice Lieberman, professor of social welfare at KU and one of the evaluators. “When we complete this project, we will understand a lot more about the efficacy of a restorative education model in terms of its impact on the well-being of at-risk kids.”

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