Community, connection, and joy. These are three things that we, at Democracy Prep, want every child to feel as soon as they walk into a school building. We know that these three ingredients are vital for a sense of belonging, for social emotional health, and they are an important foundation for academic achievement.
Navigating the global pandemic since March of 2020 has not been easy, especially within our realm of work in education. Naturally, our time apart led to a loss in our sense of community and our connection to each other. As we transitioned back to in-person instruction, we had to bridge this gap with care and purpose in ways that would meet the unique needs and challenges of our time. School as we knew it was changing, and in order for us to successfully educate our scholars in this ever-evolving world, we as an organization had to adapt to that change.
Each of our schools strives to provide our scholars with a safe and structured community, a rigorous curriculum with high expectations and high supports, and a joyful school culture. While there has always been a focus on fostering connections—scholar to self, scholar to scholar, scholar to community/world, and scholar to teacher—we began to think explicitly about:
• The type of structures we could implement in our daily practice that would enable us to more intentionally and effectively build and strengthen these connections.
• How to enrich a scholar’s school experience by carving out time every day with the explicit purpose of providing scholars with opportunities to connect with each other.
• What this could mean for scholars’ emotional health in a school building as well as their sense of connection with the school community.
These questions prompted us to embark on a journey of evolution as an organization to better serve our scholars. We took the time to look inward, which meant recognizing where our scholars stood (academically, socially, and emotionally), reviewing our school systems, and reevaluating our framework. In doing so, we committed ourselves to a vision for our schools to be rooted in anti-racism and a school culture grounded in “purpose over power” through restorative practices. This gave us a more intentional framework by which we can build a joyful school community, foster strong connections, and ensure that all children feel seen, heard, and valued.
What are restorative practices?
Restorative practices study how to improve and repair relationships between people and communities, with the purpose of building healthy communities, repairing harm when committed, and restoring relationships. It is a way for young people to stay connected through processes that foster a caring and equitable school community.
At Democracy Prep, we believe restorative practices are all about shifting school culture, emphasizing the proactive over the reactive, and prioritizing relationship building and principles of justice and equity in schools. After conducting extensive research and doing a listening tour with educators who have done restorative practices effectively at their schools, we landed on the following recommendations:
• Start with adults, and focus on mindset first
• Integrate restorative practices into sound systems and structures already in place (e.g., AM Advisory)
• As opposed to calling ourselves a “Restorative Justice Network of Schools”, we should frame it as: we use restorative practices in service of imbuing a joyous culture centered around Purpose over Power
• This work needs to be centered in the wants and needs of our scholars and families
What are Community Circles?
Community circles are at the core of restorative practices. They are designed to meet two crucial developmental needs of young people: belonging and voice. Through the act of sitting in a circle with one’s peers and teachers, scholars participate in the experience of sharing the space and having responsibility within the classroom.
It is an opportunity for scholars to share with one another, shape their learning, and create deep bonds with the people around them. Community circles are also a powerful vessel to have difficult conversations, support diverse points of view, and resolve conflicts in a constructive and sustainable way.
Our Journey With Restorative Practices
We partnered with the Morningside Center For Teaching Social Responsibility, an organization focused on helping educators create joyful, productive, and equitable schools. Many of our staff members went through a series of immersive and experiential trainings, wherein they got a sense of what it looks and feels like to learn and connect through circles. As a result, they had a robust framework to do this work in the classroom with students.
With professional development and training under our belt, this past fall we launched restorative practices in nine of our schools in New York, Baton Rouge, San Antonio, and Las Vegas. Democracy Prep Endurance Elementary (DPEE), our first elementary school in the Bronx, and Bronx Prep Elementary (BPE), the newest addition to our network, were among the schools within our network to pilot restorative practices.
Katherine Perez, founding principal of DPEE, went into the 2021-2022 school year making sure to prioritize restorative practices. She explains, “Having been remote due to COVID-19, we came into this year knowing that many of our children have had limited interactions in a school setting with peers and they would need a lot of support on the social-emotional side of things.” That’s why community circles are a practice that happens every morning in every classroom, allowing scholars to know that each day they are going to have the time to check-in with themselves and their peers, voice how they are feeling, and prepare scholars socially and emotionally for a successful day at school.
One of the many strengths of community circles is that everyone involved is benefiting from the experience, scholars and teachers alike. Before the school day officially begins, all staff members in the building gather together and do a community circle of their own. This time is dedicated to checking in with colleagues, providing a space to practice the community circles that will be held with scholars later on, and receiving constructive feedback on how to execute the community circle in a meaningful way.
Katherine believes that community circles with staff have been instrumental in strengthening her team. She says, “It’s helped me learn so much more about each person. We have to see people, acknowledge people, and accept people for their whole selves. It’s made us stronger because we understand where one another’s coming from.” This in turn has enabled her team to develop their capacity to communicate, collaborate, handle conflict, and make good decisions, all of which are fundamental skills as educators.
Seeing restorative practices manifest in the classroom is an incredibly powerful experience to behold. In Helena Sanders’s kindergarten class, she held a community circle with scholars focused on the importance of empathy. She began the exercise with the class’s opening ceremony song to get scholars revved up for their 25-min long community circle. With the scholars in high spirits, she started the conversation off with a simple question: “What are you excited about for the weekend?”
“I’m excited because I’m going to the park.”
“I’m going to paint a picture and give it to my dad.”
“I’m going to have fun with my mom and grandma.”
“I’m going to the pool.”
While each scholar had a different answer, each answer was heard, valued, and respected. You could feel the joy and excitement in the room as scholars rejoiced in telling their peers about their families.
How does this hold up in a different context? Helena transitioned the conversation to the topic of empathy by first providing an anecdote: She wore her favorite necklace to the beach and while she took a dip in the waves, she lost it. The class responded with varying degrees of sadness. She then asked scholars “How do you think I felt?”
“You felt sad that you lost something.”
“I would feel sad too because it was something important to me.”
A profound takeaway from this conversation is that Helena allowed herself to be vulnerable in front of scholars and she invited scholars to express how they felt, thus helping them understand what it means to be empathetic.
The community circle is an exercise that makes all participants—children and adults— a part of the process, and allows each individual to reflect on their emotions and cultivate empathy. This in turn creates a beautiful caring community that enables all scholars to build their social-emotional skills, feel comfortable in school, and be successful students. Katherine also expresses that community circles are “an opening point for scholars to share something and that warms them up for the rest of the school day. It helps them be more comfortable to share and take academic risks throughout the rest of the school day because they know that their community wants to know what they have to say and that their community believes in them.”
At Democracy Prep, there are many things that we will continue to do because we believe at our core they benefit the growth and development of the children we serve. As we continue to evolve our approach, our systems, and our practices, we understand that we must move towards a future in which connection and community are at the forefront of everything we do. It is equally important that scholars be invested throughout their educational journey in order to ensure that our practices benefit them in ways that are purposeful and meaningful. In fact, more investment and connection will only lead to stronger academic and civic outcomes for our scholars.
What we have learned from our pilot schools who have implemented restorative practices within their curriculum is that scholars and teachers have cultivated a beautiful school community that everyone feels connected to because each individual feels seen, heard, valued, and respected. Restorative practices are the vehicle by which we see the whole person, educate the whole person, and connect with the whole person. It provides a robust and sustainable framework to examine the scholar experience, how we deal with conflict, and how we ensure that we are providing an equitable educational experience for all.
Democracy Prep is a network of schools that believes in safety, structure, high expectations, high supports, and restorative practices. All of these components can and will mutually exist in our schools, so that we may provide a holistic and transformational educational experience for children.
As we continue with this work and build in restorative practices throughout our network, we hope that more schools will feel the positive impact of restorative practices. After all, the work of an educator is human work, and what does it mean to be human if not having the ability to connect with and learn from one another.