Gratz Partners with Cheltenham to Strengthen School Climate

After one year of engaging teachers in restorative practices, Gratz and Cheltenham leaders are optimistic about positive changes in school climate.

Fifth grade students at Elkins Park School practice listening techniques that foster positive relationships and a caring classroom environment.
 

In classrooms throughout Elkins Park School, an upper elementary school situated on 10 acres in Elkins Park, Pa., students are gathering in circles where they are learning to “speak their truths.”

The school, which serves students in fifth and sixth grade, is a melting pot of students matriculating from the four lower elementary schools in Cheltenham School District. For incoming fifth-graders, the transition can be a shock, Principal Gerry Fitzpatrick-Doria said.  

“There’s lots of newness, lots of strangeness,” she said. “It’s a new school. Lots of students are riding a school bus for the first time. For all of them, three-fourths of the students are people they’ve never met before.” 

The setting is ripe for strategies that build communication and teamwork, Fitzpatrick-Doria said. That’s why the school partnered with Gratz College a year ago to introduce professional development workshops aimed at equipping teachers and students with tools of healthy communication and conflict resolution.

The partnership began in May 2017 after a violent fight between two female students left eight teachers injured and resulted in the arrests of four girls. The fight didn’t occur at Elkins Park School, however, but at Cheltenham High School. 

Gratz College reached out to the school district with an offer of help. Gratz offers both a master’s degree in education and an Ed.D., and it proposed a customized program of four workshops that began last fall at Elkins Park School, which serves the fifth and sixth grades.

“Elkins Park is where the students from all of our elementary schools come together for the first time so we thought it was a good place to start,” Cheltenham School District Superintendent Wagner Marseille said. “By focusing on Elkins Park, we were trying to address root causes of behaviors that tend to manifest at an earlier age. By doing that, we’re able to mitigate some of the challenges we’re facing with adolescents.” 

Workshops led by Gratz educators “fit perfectly with the elementary experience,” Marseille said. “Focusing on the high school situation would've been a reaction to an immediate crisis. Our focus on elementary was preventive.”

The strategy calls for teachers to lead “talking circles” with students, which create open dialogue in the classroom. The goal is getting teachers to be more proactive and address the foundation of certain behaviors.

Teachers can use the circles as a way to resolve conflict between small groups of students, or to engage the entire class. Often, they pass an object around the circle, giving each student the opportunity to share. 

“The focus is on pausing and listening,” Fitzpatrick-Doria said. “Teachers act as facilitators, creating situations where kids feel safe to share. It’s a great way to check the pulse of a class at the beginning of the day or at a transition. It’s also a great way to talk about biases or other topics that can be awkward or uncomfortable. This is about helping students speak their truth.”

Dr. Rosalie Guzofsky, dean and vice president of academic affairs at Gratz, is tentatively calling the partnership a success. Gratz College and Cheltenham Schools will continue working together to improve teaching environments.

“As we work with teachers, we’re helping them be more positive and proactive in the classroom,” said Guzofsky. “The talking circles were just the beginning. We want to introduce leadership models that help teachers be more positive in the way they interact with students.”

 

Students pass the "talking stick" in a restorative circle, in which each student has the opportunity to share while others listen respectfully.

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