Equity = Safety > Belonging > Achievement
The new year started with hope and enthusiasm. Then, from day one transportation was a challenge. Lunch was a challenge. Classroom behavior was a challenge. No, it wasn’t COVID.
Unknowingly, we had tripped trauma triggers for dozens of students. For years, we planned to combine two schools. An older school with declining enrollment would be combined with a much newer school. A win for everyone we thought.
Not, however, in the eyes of the students from the smaller school. Now we realized, with new eyes, these student had never ridden the bus before and greatly missed the culture of a much smaller 200 student community where everyone knew each other.
Now the students from the smaller school were thrust into a school of 600 students. Even with extra administrative and teaching staff, chaos ensued. Co-principals did an amazing job of engaging staff, students, and community in finding better ways forward. Here are some of the lessons learned.
Emerging Practices–What we learned about growing resiliency:
Every teacher created a time-out space where students could go if they felt overwhelmed and in need of a safe space. These spaces featured soft lighting, fewer visual distractions, and support materials. Teachers created a buddy system so students could go to a neighboring classroom for a safe space if needed.
Counselors provided mindfulness training and routines for teachers and for students. Growth mindset became part of the school culture. Students were taught they could GROW their brain.
Teachers provided a safe and predictable routine at the start of each day that included pledge, singing, cultural routines, and celebration of success. A giant butcher paper “tree” was populated with hundreds of “leaves” celebrating student successes.
Since the majority of students were Native American, symbols of Native culture were posted visually, along with pictures of tribal leaders, tribal icons, tribal values, and tribal language. Identity safety was built into every aspect of school.
Parents were invited to “coffee” each Wednesday morning and gradually more joined. Tribal leaders were invited to participate in the morning assembly. Parents were invited to game night and to see their child’s projects. Eventually, those evening sessions went from a few dozen to nearly a thousand participants.
We created a safe place for students most endangered by our new larger school. A dozen students were scheduled into a safe space for half of their day: six students in the morning and six in the afternoon. The safe space was supported by one teacher, one para, and computer-assisted programming to help students work at their level of success. Meanwhile, home classrooms had the opportunity to create community and positive behavior structures.
Counselors built intervention plans for the neediest students. Some could get food, and/or a hug, from the building secretary each morning. Others could seek out a calming center outside the counselor’s office.
Teachers were taught tribal culture by tribal leaders. Tribal members served as cultural guides, explaining how classroom routines might fit, or not fit, with tribal culture. Teachers experienced tribal celebrations firsthand.
Some of these cultural learnings were embedded into classroom routines. Morning circles provided an opportunity to invite all students into the circle to speak individually or discuss collectively. Sometimes circles helped process playground incidents and re-establish a community of caring and understanding.
After decades of seeing parents “stay away” in response to printed flyers announcing parent conferences, we shifted our thinking to become more community oriented. Facebook announced the tribal chairman’s participation in the morning assembly. Word spread person-to-person that the school meetings were more family responsive with game nights and meals together. We did better at fitting into the community culture instead of assuming/imposing school routines.
Safety and Belonging before Achievement
Loving students was a critical first step, but not enough to prepare students well for the future. As we pushed toward higher expectations, we did so through scaffolding and the use of pre- and post-assessments to measure progress. Initially, that triggered more anxiety with students. A reinforcement of growth mindset helped calm student fears and move many to the stage where the students could admit that, “I don’t know this yet but I will … when you teach me.”
Progress and Growth
Teachers became more attuned to student progress, noting that even the most challenging students were moving in the right direction. This took lots of grace and patience and a growing understanding that we needed to meet students where they are and help them grow. Growth mindset for adults was a huge part of our progress.
Parents began to see the school as their community school: a place where they were welcomed and listened to, a place where cultural values were respected and students treated with dignity and respect.
The school–a priority school under No Child Left Behind–was recognized by NEA for their remarkable progress.
None of this was easy or linear. It was messy and required many stops and starts as we “figured out” what worked. Key to all that was a growth mindset for adults and an unwavering commitment to students–sticking with it until we found a better way. Looking back, we listened to students and community, learned, and made small iterative progress. We created safety, belonging, and eventually academic success.