AN EQUITY JOURNEY WITH NATURAL CIRCLES OF SUPPORT
Henry David Thoreau Elementary School, Madison Metropolitan School District
2017-18 NCOS Team
- Jeffrey Lewis, Project Director
- Jeremiah Jackson, Co-Director, Facilitator Support, and District Liaison
- Marian Slaughter, Curriculum Development, Facilitator Support, and Site Coordinator
- Shelton Evans, Lead Facilitator, Facilitator Training and Support
- Eunhee, Kim, Evaluator and Project Coordinator
- Rhonda Lee, Editor and Communications
- Izzy Vang, Administrative Assistant
Natural Circles of Support (NCOS) is a flexible approach to addressing racial and other disparities that draws out and builds on the strengths and aspirations of African American and other students of color to promote social and academic success. Since 2011, our work with schools confirms that those most affected by racial and other disparities have an indispensable role to play in finding solutions. African American and other students of color and their families have important knowledge, ideas, experiences, and insight necessary for positive school change. NCOS centers the voices and perspectives of students and their families, and adds those of staff and others who touch the lives of students to foster relationships of trust and caring that help shift school climate and culture for lasting equity in schools.
We begin the NCOS approach tapping into the collective wisdom that students, families and school staff already possess—the often unperceived, unacknowledged and undervalued knowledge, experiences, and insights held by those in the school community that can serve as the basis for finding workable solutions to racial and other disparities that exist in their school.
Implementing Natural Circles of Support
The NCOS approach generally involves a three-step process to achieve enduring and sustainable equity, centering the experiences of students who experience racialized disparities, while building the capacity of staff to work effectively with these students. By virtue of their numbers and length of time in school, teachers and other school staff play a central role in producing and reproducing the climate and culture of a school. Thus, we give particular attention and focus to supporting staff in assuming leadership in the development and integration of NCOS into their school—aligning NCOS with other efforts to eliminate disparities and making it curricular.
The three phases of NCOS include:
- Implementation and Sustainability
Schools do not have to implement all phases to derive benefit from NCOS, although all must complete a planning and assessment process. However, we have learned that lasting shift in school climate and culture (trust and relationships, and our shared values, beliefs and ways of working together) requires an investment in all phases of NCOS.
The NCOS planning approach involves building a foundation for working together and enlisting the creative energies of all and coming to a shared understanding of the presenting issues, identifying gaps and opportunities, and establishing shared goals and outcomes for the NCOS process.
- Organize a planning team that includes those in the school community who touch or are touched by the focus issue.
- Participate in a facilitated process to map and develop a rich, shared, and data informed understanding of the nature of the disparities in the school, as well as challenges, gaps in knowledge or understanding, and opportunities
- Identify existing school efforts that aim to address disparities to coordinate and align NCOS activities.
- Review and analyze school policies and practices relevant to disparities.
- Preliminary circle activities for students and start the process of identifying and strengthening support, creating mutual support among students, and increase connection to school.
Outcomes and Benefits
- A theory of change (pathway to success) and focused outcomes for NCOS students, staff, and families
- A map of existing support for students; alignment of activities
- Developmental benefits for students (e.g., collective problem solving, help-seeking skills, improved self-efficacy)
- Increased school engagement; reduction in behavior-related disparities
- Continuous development of the school’s NCOS planning team including participatory leadership training
- Shifts in staff knowledge about and perceptions of NCOS students and their families, some behavioral change (culturally responsive practices), and improved relationships and school climate
NCOS Pilot Phase
After the initial planning and identification of focus, theory of change, and goals, we work with the school planning team to develop a NCOS pilot program at their school.
NCOS cohorts and regular circle practice for students are at the center of every pilot, which also serves to align and coordinate circles with related school efforts or programs that aim to reduce disparities. The pilot also serves to connect students with classroom teachers and integrate circles into the mainstream school culture.
The pilot includes professional development opportunities for staff that helps them shape NCOS in their school as well as supports them in working with NCOS students. The pilot should also provide opportunities for meaningful family participation and facilitate school-family relationships.
Finally, the planning team received guidance on development and implementation of an evaluation plan that supports their ongoing learning, and provides formative feedback to monitor and improve the NCOS process, and respond to changes in the school setting and conditions.
- Use of school’s theory of change to develop a customized NCOS program
- Provide continuous professional development for facilitator-mentor, possibly extending this training to other support staff (e.g., behavior specialists and SEA’s)
- Provide professional development and support for staff, and participatory leadership activities for planning team
- Provide support and coaching to classroom teacher and facilitator to connect circles to the classroom in a mutually supportive way and help improve teacher practice
- Continue to consult with and support the leadership of the planning team and establish ongoing communication and sharing with school staff
- Design and conduct two “World Cafés” or “Pro-Action Cafés” that serve as opportunities for continued assessment, “collaborative dialogue,” sharing of ideas, and finding solutions together.
- Evaluate the process and program and make adjustments based on feedback.
Outcomes and Benefits
- Continued improved developmental outcomes for students (individual and group), improved school engagement, reduction in behavioral issues and disparities, and improved academic outcomes
- Improved relationships between classroom teachers and NCOS students
- Improved teacher knowledge of students
- Improved school climate, and outcomes for NCOS students
- Participatory leadership development for planning team and facilitator-mentors
- Improved ability of support staff to work effectively with NCOS and other students
- Growing community of practice among support staff and support for their professional development
Full implementation and Sustainability
At the full implementation and sustainability phase, the school planning team uses lessons and outcomes from the pilot to expand NCOS, usually by increasing the number of circles and student participants. Staff has additional capacity building and professional development opportunities that helps them take full ownership of the NCOS project as the basis for programmatic sustainability. The school may begin to innovate, developing new or spinoff programs or activities related to NCOS or using lessons from NCOS to inform other programming efforts.
Full Implementation Activities
- Formally implement NCOS and all elements relevant to the school based on lessons from pilot
- Incorporate curricular content or strategies that address academic disparities experienced by NCOS students (e.g., literacy, numeracy, etc.)
- Design and conduct at least two World Cafés or Pro-Action Cafés that include families and others whom students name as supportive to explore ways to continue and improve support for students, and build relationships and foster improved communication between staff and families
- Continued assessment of school policies and practices that affect equity
- Continue the process of alignment and coordination of NCOS with other school equity efforts
- Continued development of the support staff community of practice, training in participatory leadership practices, and the integration of NCOS into school culture and practice
- Continued staff development that guides staff through a process of fully owning NCOS, including addressing needs identified in earlier phases, deepening staff knowledge of the everyday cultural experience of their students (cultural responsiveness), developing medium and long-term goals, and, building staff capacity to facilitate the growth and maintenance of NCOS at their school.
Outcomes and Benefits
- Improved school outcomes and decrease in disparities for NCOS students
- Higher rates of NCOS students with a sense of belonging and connection to school
- Reductions in students referred for special education with EMD classification
- Productive and supportive teacher-NCOS student relationships
- Other students receiving indirect benefits through effects on classrooms, due to training of support staff, and school-wide professional development
- Continued alignment and coordination of equity efforts and assessment and refinement of school policies that effect equity
- Improvement of school climate and early shifts of school culture (e.g., broadly shared, sustained changes in perceptions, values, and behaviors)
- A strategy for sustainability