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    Designing a School Culture Built on Restorative Practices
    Posted on 11/09/2018
    Gerald Donaldson smiles for a photo in front of the school building.

    Designing a School Culture Built on Restorative Practices

    Gerald Donaldson’s classroom at Leschi Elementary School is a safe haven, a home away from home, and a respite for students. It is where Donaldson, a family support worker, has invited in young people, learned about them and their families, and waited for them in the early hours of the morning to serve breakfast, if needed.

    Donaldson has invested 25 years in forging deep relationships with students, families, and the community. One of the many ways he maintains these bonds is through the facilitation of talking circles where he checks in with each student’s well-being and their sense of belonging at school.

    Integral to the district’s work in supporting each student by knowing their story, strength, and need, Donaldson sets an example through talking circles, which he leads primarily with African-American boys.

    The circles are a safe space, where Donaldson asks questions such as: “How was your morning? Did you eat breakfast? How is your grandma doing, as I know she’s been in the hospital? What time did you go to bed? Did you have a good rest? How are your parents doing?”

    The practice has now expanded to girls’ talking groups at Leschi. Restorative practices and recognizing each student for their potential are part of what Donaldson reinforces in his circles, but it is through his actions that one can see that the scope of his work is immeasurable.

    “It’s not a hand-off, once they leave Leschi,” says Donaldson. “I make regular visits checking on the babies at Meany and Washington middle schools and Garfield High School. They’re all over. It [learning] means nothing when you don’t have a personal relationship.”

    For many parents and families, Donaldson is the person they dial when they have questions or need help navigating resources. “I’ve been called dad, uncle, and big brother. We’re a family,” says Donaldson. “If I can eliminate any barrier to you getting your baby to school, I will do what I can.”

    The talking circles are a base for the community Donaldson builds around the whole child. He familiarizes himself with the student’s family, their community, and intricate details of their lives. He encourages teachers to call parents before the school year begins. “Flip that script. Call parents up in August, get to know them, ask them about themselves and their child.”

    He also helps teachers around the district introduce talking circles into their classrooms. “Do circles so you can know your students. They’re little people, little human beings, little somebodies.” Through talking circles and daily check-ins with students, Donaldson asks that adults continue to implement restorative practices. “A student may act out, and we assume. Data doesn’t show us the brother driving all the way from Marysville. Parents may be depressed, and the student may be depressed.”

    Donaldson is explicit in his invitation to students, “We want you here, and we love you. We know why you’re here, and it’s for us to provide you with a quality education. To us, you’re somebody.”

    Former students visit him frequently. Some are in high school, and some now have children of their own. “I ask my students for one thing. I ask for an invitation to their graduation. That’s all I want.” But in between those life milestones, a former student will pop their head in to say hello to a man that has followed their progress throughout the years. And when they leave, Donaldson will send them off with a farewell that they’ve come to expect, “Bye, brother. I love you. I’ll see you again soon.”

    Donaldson’s work at Leschi is part of the district’s work in implementing restorative practices throughout all 103 schools and is part of the MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support) approach that attends to the whole child.