One Wednesday in October, Gina Harris, District 97’s new climate and culture coach, instructed the sixth-graders in Kay O’Keefe’s fifth-period class at Percy Julian Middle School on Ridgeland Avenue to sort themselves in a circle and sit on their desktops, so that each of them would be at eye-level with the others. 

For roughly a half-hour, Harris led an open dialogue governed by a few steadfast principles — in addition to students sitting at the same level, they would only speak when they had the talking piece (in this case a small stuffed animal that would be passed around the circle). If they liked something someone said, they would signal with a hand gesture created by class consensus. They would talk about concepts like justice and rightness, as if fireside in a small village. 

“We’re in the process of training the entire sixth-grade at Julian in the process of restorative justice,” Harris said in an interview hours after conducting the peace circle. 

Amanda Siegfried, D97’s communications director, said that the school board approved the hiring of Harris and two additional climate and behavior coaches for D97’s elementary schools last spring, bringing the total number of coaches in the district to four. 

The coaches and peace circles, both of which are new to the district, are linchpins in D97’s attempt to implement what Harris has called a cultural change — a systemic transition from a mindset of discipline and punish to one of preemption and restoration. Over the past year, the district has also updated its student behavior handbook and revised the dress code. 

The new handbook, which will be rolled out next school year, takes into account a variety of factors, such as students’ maturity levels — special education status, previous behavior and willingness to repair any harm they may have caused — when considering how to respond to behavioral issues. 

“The revised handbook reflects a shift in thinking about student behavior responses,” Siegfried said. This includes using restorative approaches to teach effective behavior, applying progressive discipline that takes into account the whole child, using a trauma-informed lens, and ensuring that students are treated fairly and without discrimination.”

It will be a while before data is compiled that paints a clear picture of how the recent changes have impacted students’ experiences in Oak Park schools. There’s only a month of discipline data on hand for this school year and the district, citing that since there are so few infractions releasing the information could violate student privacy, has not made it public.  

A survey on student discipline in the middle schools conducted last year by the Oak Park Teachers Association reported high levels of angst among faculty over what most saw as a decline in student behavior.

Siegfried said anecdotal response to this fall’s efforts are encouraging though. 

“We have heard from teachers and students that the updated dress code has decreased the number of negative interactions between staff and students, resulting in a more positive school environment,” she said. 

“By doing the circle process regularly, relationships are being built in the classroom and it’s actually leading to improved behaviors,” said Harris, who said she often observes multiple classrooms throughout the day. 

But the longtime Oak Park resident, who is also an elected member of the District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School board, had a word of caution for anyone who thinks that cultural change will happen overnight. She said that in her experience as an educator and restorative justice trainer, deep change could take several years. The wait — and the work of getting there — is well worth it, she said. 

“I’m a community member, so I’m highly invested in this community realizing what we hope and expect to be,” Harris said. “For me, this is about ensuring that our students have what they need, first and foremost, but it’s also about us developing community and being who we really want to be.” 

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