SDP Awarded $3.9M from the US Department of Education for ‘Relationships First’

Posted on January 25, 2023
Categories: News from SDP

The School District of Philadelphia has received a $3.97 million dollar grant from the US Department of Education to expand Relationships First and to partner with Research for Action (RFA) to conduct a rigorous evaluation of the program. This is a part of the Department’s $160 million in new grant awards through the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program that was recently announced.

“I have visited schools to see Relationship First in action and can truly feel its impact,” said Tony B. Watlington, Sr., Ed.D. “I am excited that the US Department of Education is investing in this approach because this is a real solution to challenges that schools are facing.”

Designed and supported by the District’s Office of School Climate and Culture, Relationships First is a comprehensive restorative justice-practices approach that is designed to transform relationships among and between adults and students in schools and improve outcomes for K-12 students. Through a multi-tiered, schoolwide restorative framework that addresses disciplinary, academic and social-emotional outcomes, Relationships First helps students to de-escalate situations, feel empowered and heard, have leadership opportunities and make real-world connections.

“The impact that Relationships First has had on South Philadelphia High School is immeasurable,” said Joseph Tabasco, Assistant Principal of South Philadelphia High School. “Students can navigate conflict with the support and guidance of coaches and more importantly, students now know that they are in a community of people who care for their safety. Staff and teachers are empowered to navigate conflicts with intentional questioning and approach behavior management in a restorative manner.”

Relationships First currently serves about 30,000 students in 65 schools. Expanding the program will extend coaching, training, and implementation to an additional 40,000 students in an additional 72 schools. Schools can implement the three tiers of support to meet the needs of all students based on their school community:

  • Tier 1 activities benefit the entire school community, and include proactive measures designed to build trust and improve relationships. These include Community-Building Circles and Restorative Conversations.
  • Tier 2 supports include harm and healing circles, which help resolve conflicts peacefully and prevent further issues.
  • Tier 3 activities include targeted circle-based interventions for students needing intensive support. This includes students experiencing behavioral challenges and those entering or re-entering the school community.

“We know that punitive and exclusionary disciplinary practices harm students and are ineffective in improving the overall climate of schools over the long term. We also know that schools need feasible alternatives that are structured and supportive and aligned with existing practices,” said Abigail Gray, Ph.D., Deputy Chief of School Climate and Culture at the District. “Relationships First is just such an alternative, and we are seeing impressive results in terms of school climate, disciplinary, and academic outcomes in schools that are using this approach.”

RFA will serve as the independent evaluator of the program specifically looking at the schools where Relationships First has been implemented to study its impact on academic outcomes, behavioral outcomes, teacher retention, and perceptions of the school climate from teachers, students and parents.