“Feeling calm is something new.” That’s senior Azura Fondren’s assessment of the benefits of Northwest Academy’s Sister Circle.  The Sister Circle is part of the SLPS Foundation’s School Innovation Grants Program, an effort designed to seed student and/or teacher-led ideas for improving school culture.   This year, the SLPS Foundation asked for applications and innovations in three areas.  One of those areas invited high school counselors, students, and teachers to think about: “How can we empower our students with the emotional / social skills to be successful in their postsecondary pursuits?”

At Northwest Academy of Law & Social Justice, staff saw their students’ expectations of themselves limited by fear and lack of confidence.  They proposed a series of gender-specific leadership development opportunities AND mindfulness activities to empower their students.  “We want them to develop the confidence they need to venture beyond the world they know,” said Krista Germann, Northwest’s Social Justice Council’s Advisor and Social Studies Teacher.

Over the past year, using funds from the SLPS Foundation Innovation Grants, Northwest incubated a Social Justice Council and created: The Sister Circle (for females) and What About Us? (for males) which met weekly to give students a chance to articulate, explore and share feelings.  They are the connective tissue that accentuates the positive impact of the already existing programs that empower the student body. Since 2011, students at Northwest have been trained to be peer mediators and lead a student court system in which they have the responsibility to restitution for school-based offenses by students.  In addition, this year, with funding from Deaconess Foundation, the Social Justice Council launched a campaign: There ARE Children Here, a student-led effort to engage local policy makers and nonprofits in improving their neighborhoods and addressing youth violence.

Once a week, 9th-12th grade young women meet in the Sister Circle, while the young men 9th-12th grade meet in What About Us. Additionally, there is a yoga and meditation component that is offered once a week.

Darnell Loyd, Azura Fondren, Jordyn McNyrie, and Jaida Howard slip into chairs with arm desks on them to talk with me about their experiences in these programs. We are in Krista Germann’s class room. Ms. Germann has directed this new program since its inception two years ago.

The sun streams in through the large double hung windows and splashes light across the meticulously decorated walls. There is barely an empty space. Krista has collected and hung images of events and people that inspire her. Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, and JFK to name a few. Interspersed are motivating and inspiring quotes that accentuate the social studies, American history and social justice themes that Krista hopes will resonate with her kids.

Ms. Germann explains the value of these programs in this way:

“Cookie cutter public school programs do not help our students deal with the stressful environments from which they come” she says.

“The goal of this program is to address that deficiency and help end the school to prison pipeline…We ask the question: why did the student do X and can we help him/her learn instead of simply imposing punishment.”

“We know our kids come from poverty and violence. Added to the normal stresses of family life these kids deal with unpredictable relocation, audible gunfire, and/or violent crime. They need to learn coping skills to work through the stress and trauma they face everyday, so they can succeed in college and in life.”

She pauses and reflects on her kids.

“I see our students as pebbles being tossed into a pond. What they learn here can cause a ripple effect at home; they can take these new skills into their homes and help alleviate some of their daily anxiety.”

Sister Circle and What About Us try to bridge the gap and provide a space that affords young women and men a safe place to develop cross grade relationships and create a more cohesive school community.

“We count on each other to build each other up,” Jaida says

“I wouldn’t talk to or know some of the people in the group if they weren’t here. Now everyone greets each other in the halls and says hi and everyone is hugging each other,” Jordyn offers.

“The goal is to be together, to be a sister group. Support each other.”

During the meetings the agenda is loose. “It is not all serious, we joke and laugh a lot.”

In this relaxed environment the young women also learn about women’s history and individuals who have made a difference both in the St Louis community and nationally.

The What About Us program also creates a safe space to allow the students to be themselves, but with a different approach. “We talk about whatever we want and know it will stay there. We can talk about anything without being judged, no matter how personal.” Darnell is quick to chime in and is also eager to share that he was skeptical at first, but is now, all in.  He especially likes topics around developing skills for college and career.  Various people from the community come to talk with these young men. A writer, A painter, A musician, A Boeing employee, and Representative Bruce Franks. These guest speakers demonstrate to the young men that there are different ways to express oneself in the community and in life.

“These talks are amazing, they really give insight into what the world is going to be like outside the classroom,” Darnell adds.

When asked about the gender split both the young men and young women agreed that this is a positive. In a gender specific environment no topic is off limits.

“And those boy – girl distractions aren’t there when we are in separate groups.” Darnell observes.   They all agree that this approach leads to more unabashed openness and honesty.

The yoga sessions, however, are all inclusive. And both the young men and young women take advantage of these sessions.  “Yoga helps calm me down, and be more in tune with my inner voice. Yoga reminds me to think before I speak. Sister Circle helps me discover myself and my voice, and my power,” says Jaida.

“Our ultimate goal is to educate the whole child and produce students not only have a strong academic foundation but are also empathetic, change makers,”  concludes Ms. Germann.

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