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Commentary: School safety means physical, intellectual and emotional safety – How Jordan High School in Watts is transforming school culture

Carlos Montes | October 25, 2017

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Carlos Montes (Courtesy)

Six years ago when I became the principal of Jordan High School (part of the Partnership for LA Schools), in Watts, I walked onto a campus where 20 percent of students were suspended, 34 percent graduated, and 62 percent felt they were safe on campus.

In 2016-2017, we had a 2.0 percent suspension rate, we anticipate an 84 percent graduation rate (based on preliminary data), and 87 percent of students reported feeling safe on campus.

I attribute much of this growth to our school culture transformation focused on Restorative Communities, and as we celebrate America’s Safe Schools Week across LA Unified, I hope that our progress helps others understand that transformational change takes shared vision, shared ownership, and shared stories.

First, the vision: We envision Jordan High School as a learning community in which parents, guardians, teachers, and staff work together to help all students attain their personal best. Jordan High School is committed to providing a safe learning environment that prepares all students to be college and career ready. We understand “safe” to include physical, intellectual and emotional safety, and we know that we must be trauma-informed, committed to social and racial justice, and champions of identity, diversity and human rights.

We promote a positive and healthy school culture by building, strengthening, and (when harm occurs), repairing relationships through social emotional learning, circle practice, and restorative dialogue. We revisit and reaffirm this vision often through circles with staff, meetings with families, and our everyday interactions with students.

Second, the ownership: For our vision to come to life, it is crucial that all adults and students share a deep belief in what’s possible and lift each other up to reach our goals. During my first few years, I would often hear students say, “Why try? I’m gonna fail anyway,” and parents say, “I’d never send my child to Jordan.”

Through repeated exposure to growth mindset activities, students now persist through challenges and embrace error analysis to try as hard as they can. Staff call each other “in” (instead of call each other “out”) when they need support to maintain high expectations for all students, regardless of their previous behavior, trauma, or challenges.

And finally, families are sending their students back to our traditional public school such that our growing enrollment caused us to unexpectedly grow a teaching position this fall. We all have a role to play in our collective transformation story and we encourage (rather than force) all stakeholders to be willing participants.

Third (and throughout), the stories: We know that relationships are the foundation of any effective growth in the classroom, across an entire campus, or within a community, and that storytelling – just like circle practice – is our most ancient form of relationship-building.

Years ago, students would use their fists to express their troubling emotions; now, they ask for circles because they know they’ll have a fair chance to tell their story, to be heard, and to contribute to solutions. Staff also ask for restorative practices to tell their stories.

At the end of last semester, one of our teachers wanted to share an important story with students. The teacher was nervous that the students’ religion, culture, and first language might be in conflict with the teacher’s need to be heard and to belong, so the teacher asked me for support in facilitating a bilingual circle to ensure clear communication and that all needs were able to be shared in a safe space. The students and teacher walked away from that circle more compassionate across lines of difference and much closer to each other than we ever expected.

At Jordan High School and across the 18 schools within the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools’ network, safety means physical, intellectual and emotional safety, and through Restorative Communities, we are transforming our school culture.

Carlos Montes is principal of  Jordan High School, one of the schools under the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.


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