The sound of punching could be heard in one of the "Safe Rooms" at Enrico Fermi School 17 in Rochester's Northwest Thursday.
Two middle school students who started to act up in class were sent there. Each slipped on boxing gloves and started punching. They didn't hit each other. The jabbed at two heavy bags. The teens literally punched themselves to exhaustion. From there the students pulled up a video game, then grabbed basketballs and shot at a pair of hoops. In 10 minutes, they were ready to return to class.
What are called "restorative responses" like these at School 17 are examples of the progress the district has made in reducing suspensions and violence, and improving student performance in some of Rochester's most embattled schools. The Fermi school had been in state receivership. Three years ago, there was twice as much violence reported in its hallways than the state allowed.
"We know that there are experiences and trauma and obstacles in our students’ and families’ path," Principal Caterina Leone Mannino said. "And we know we have a responsibility to help them clear it because we have the strongest relationship."
With community support from JOSANA, the neighborhood agency down the street from School 17, and other education organizations, Fermi school has engaged students in mediation and other "safe place" and "cool down" strategies to help an impoverished student body.
"Positive school climate is working in this district. Suspensions are down. Academics are up,” said Eamonn Scanlon of The Children's Agenda. "We need to continue and deepen this work, because it's been a huge positive."
In one mediation room, nearly all of ten students seated had participated in a single disruptive event at School 17 Thursday. All experienced mediation with the people with whom they engaged in the conflict.
"You hear the person, and what they gotta say, then they hear what you gotta say," said student Anaiyah Stroman of Rochester.
Faculty buy-in to School 17's methods are as critical as community buy-in. Teacher Kevin Baldwin believes you can't teach any student who is not present.
"You invest time in relationships early on and deep in those relationships, it actually cuts down on disciplinary issues later," Baldwin said.
While all of Rochester's schools learn how to embrace the district's updated code of conduct that reduces the emphasis on suspension, not all are ready to convert to School 17's methods of restorative response. Still, the school board's president believes Fermi school remains a beacon in the city's education storm.
"Change in the right direction has been happening and continues to happen," Van White said. "And it is led by, not one person, but a multitude of people."