Special Report
Student Well-Being

At an L.A. School, Carving Safe Spaces to Share and Learn

By Evie Blad — December 30, 2015 4 min read
"Talking pieces" decorate a blanket in the middle of a discussion circle in teacher Raquel Williams' 5th grade class at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School in Los Angeles. Students bring in objects to represent themselves as they take part in discussions aimed at building trust and support.
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Students at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School walk past a makeshift sidewalk memorial where a 16-year-old boy was gunned down on a Sunday afternoon last fall as they start each day.

In October, the school excused students early one day so they wouldn’t get caught up in gang-related tensions that flair up on what’s known as “hood day,” 5th grade teacher Raquel Williams said.

“Some of these kids have PTSD,” she said. “This is their reality.”

The school sits at the well-known intersection of 103rd and Grape streets, squarely in Watts, a poor neighborhood in south Los Angeles that is densely packed with poor households and public-housing projects that are known for violence and gang activity.

Children who live in neighborhoods such as Watts can’t help but bring their trauma with them to the classroom, where it often manifests itself in the form of behavioral problems, unruliness, or a sense of disengagement from academic work, child-well-being advocates say.

That’s why schools like Joyner Elementary have taken extra steps to ensure students feel supported and connected to adults and have replaced traditional forms of discipline, including suspensions, with approaches that teach students how to talk through problems with their peers.

School Climate Factor

To position such efforts as a priority in their schools, Los Angeles and the five other districts organized under the California Office for Reforming Education, or CORE, are including school climate as a measure in their first-of-its-kind local accountability system. On a national level, such measures may also be included in state accountability systems under a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December.

Through surveys of parents, staff, and students, schools in the CORE districts will gauge whether children feel safe in school—emotionally and physically. Starting in the 2016-17 school year, those measures, along with gauges of suspension rates and students’ social and emotional skills, will make up 40 percent of a school’s score on an index the districts have partnered to create.

The work builds on existing state-level initiatives to measure and monitor school climate in California. School leaders in the districts say the new measures may also help draw attention to the success of efforts already underway. Traditional accountability models, centered on standardized-test scores, overlook the barriers some schools must address before they can engage students in academic work, they say.

“Children don’t care to learn until they learn that you care,” Joyner Elementary Principal Akida Kissane-Long said, quoting an oft-repeated phrase that has come to define the work that staff members are doing to turn around the Watts school.

That work includes clearly defined behavior expectations for students and staff and the use of what is known as restorative circles to build support and trust in classrooms.

Throughout the CORE districts, many schools, even those with students from higher-income households, are utilizing similar tactics.

On a Monday in November, Williams’ 5th grade class quickly formed a misshapen oval of chairs at her command. “I’m just gonna stand back and watch the magic happen,” she said.

Sitting in the circle with her teacher, a girl led her classmates in a breathing exercise, instructing them to place their hands palms-up on their knees.

“When we inhale, we inhale positive,” she said. “And when we exhale, we exhale the bad things.”

“Negative thoughts,” several classmates interrupted in unison.

From a piece of royal-blue fabric spread out in the center of the circle, students picked up “talking pieces"—small toys and objects they’d brought to represent themselves—and passed them around the circle as they answered questions from Williams. What is something they’ve said or done that made someone happy? What’s something they’ve done that made someone hurt? How could they “set an intention” to fix it?

Still excitable from celebrating Halloween over the weekend, students shared about the candy they had collected and the haunted houses they’d visited with family.

A Place to Talk

Such conversations may seem frivolous to some, but learning the ordinary things about each others’ lives makes it easier to talk about more difficult things, students said. Once, while talking about where they like to play, a girl said she doesn’t like to go outside because of gangs in the alley outside her home.

Joyner Elementary started its school turnaround and school climate work under the supervision of the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools in 2010. In the time since, suspension rates have dropped from 15 percent of students to 1 percent of students in 2013-14. During that period, California also passed a state law that restricted the use of suspensions for broad infractions like defiance.

There are some critics of initiatives to rethink discipline by capping or eliminating suspensions. Some Los Angeles teachers have said the district has changed its policies too quickly, without giving them the training and resources to implement alternative forms of discipline.

Although students at Joyner can still be quite challenging, Williams said she has seen the effects of the work in her classroom. Last year, when her students were in 4th grade, one of their teachers had to be replaced midyear after she left because of the stress of classroom management.

This year, Williams says she hasn’t made one office referral. Once, when a conflict emerged in the classroom, an unprompted student stopped her classmates and asked them to take a deep breath. “Inhale positive, exhale negative,” she said.

“There’s so much chaos happening in this community,” Williams said. “They really do need that moment.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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