Treasure Mountain Junior High aims to build community in the classroom
In the Maasai tribe of Africa, it is common for members to great each other with a phrase that translates to, “And how are the children?” At Treasure Mountain Junior High, the phrase is becoming more common among teachers who are trying to change the culture of the school.
The culture shift stems from restorative practices, which assistant principal Amy Jenkins introduced to the school in the spring of 2017. A handful of teachers launched a pilot program during the most recent school year by holding community-building exercises during class time and managing discipline in a different way. Last month, a group of employees in the Park City School District went to a weeklong workshop in order to start spreading the methodology throughout the district.
Jenkins first heard about restorative practices while searching for alternatives to suspension as a means of discipline. She and the principal, Emily Sutherland, were intrigued by the focus on strengthening relationships. Jenkins attended a conference at the University of Utah about restorative practices and brought what she learned about methods to build and repair relationships to Treasure Mountain. She learned about community circles, during which a group discusses an issue in a circle, and mediation during conflict so both parties can come together for a solution.
She asked a handful of teachers if they would be interested in adopting the practices in their classrooms and not long after, the first team formed. The Park City Education Foundation and the district helped fund the training for the pilot program.
Meghan Zarnetske, an Earth systems science teacher at the school, immediately jumped on the opportunity to be a part of the team. She said that the fall of 2016 was tragic due to the death of two junior high students, and she wanted to find a way to go about teaching differently.
She started using restorative practices by removing structures from her classroom, both physical tables and desks and the “structure of discipline,” she said. Rather than punishing her students when they broke a rule, she would sit down with them and help them learn from their mistakes.
During community circles, which she practiced once a week, she would ask the students how they were doing on a scale of one to five and then ask them questions such as “What are you grateful for?” and “What is something you wish would change?”
“It became a thing that kids kind of wanted,” she said. “They realized that, ‘Hey this is different. We don’t have to come in and just sit down at a desk. We get to be humans first and then do science.’”
In other classrooms, students started asking if they could sit in circles to talk about current events, such as school safety and the #MeToo movement, Jenkins said.
Zarnetske said that it took a while to see the effects of the practices, but she did start to notice a difference. Her students started speaking up when there was name-calling, even when she was out of the classroom.
“They held each other accountable for being good people,” she said.
She saw a change in herself as well. When she met with other teachers for community circles, she found support and a community with her colleagues. They met to ask “How are the children?” and also “How are you doing?”
“That is very literally what got me through this year,” she said. “It provided an avenue for that kind of communication where you could be vulnerable in a safe space and you know somebody has your back.”
Jenkins also felt better about how she was disciplining students with restorative practices. When possible, she would sit down with the offenders and help them see how their actions affected others, then develop a plan together to fix it. She said that students have started to take more responsibility.
“This is better for kids in the long run,” Jenkins said. “I think we’ll start to see a reduction in the number of repeat offenders, like a pattern of behaviors. I think we can start to see things turn around.”
Jenkins said that restorative practices could be difficult for teachers to implement school-wide because they will have to restructure their time, but she said that the benefits will pay off.
“You do have to hit the pause button on teaching math for a minute, but that is OK, because you will get more math in after you do it,” she said.
She believes restorative practices could also improve the safety of the schools and the students. If teachers are having community-building activities in the classrooms, they will get to know their students better and be more aware of red flags. Plus, students might be more willing to speak up about problems they are dealing with or they have seen or heard about with others.
“It is improving the sense of community with all of the humans that are together for six to seven hours a day,” she said.
But, she expects that it will take a few years to fully adopt the philosophy at Treasure Mountain, and even longer for the whole district to start practicing it. She is hopeful that it will eventually happen though, especially after the weeklong training last month. About 25 teachers, counselors and administrators attended, and she said that it was well received. Those who attended are now tasked with piloting it at their own schools.
At Treasure Mountain, Jenkins said that the next phase is to have some type of community-building activities during advisory time, and later work on restricting the way the whole school views teaching and discipline.
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A district spokesperson said six students were removed from an area in the school as police conducted a search.