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Keep calm and teach on

Bronx Plan made social-emotional learning a reality at Kingsbridge
New York Teacher
Teachers discussing restorative justice
Erica Berger

Discussing how to incorporate restorative justice strategies in the classroom are (from left) Chapter Leader Andrew Pecunia, Assistant Principal Jessica Perez and ENL teachers Shelley Molina-Rikhy and Alice Jackson.

Juan Reyes is a math teacher at Kingsbridge International HS in the Bronx, but recently he weighed in on something far from his subject area: How can the Kingsbridge staff teach students — especially boys — to master their emotions, handle stress and develop empathy for others?

"We get caught up in society with a macho mentality, and I want the boys to realize we all have issues we have to face to resolve them," he says.

Reyes made his comments at a meeting of the Bronx Plan committee at Kingsbridge International HS, one of 50 schools that joined the Bronx Plan in its first year after submitting proposals to the city and the UFT. Another 70 schools will join the Bronx Collaborative Schools Plan, as it is officially known, later this year.

Negotiated as part of the 2018 DOE-UFT contract, the Bronx Plan is a joint initiative of the city Department of Education and the UFT that empowers educators to drive changes at their school that meet the specific needs of their school community. Kingsbridge identified social-emotional learning as an area it needs to improve.

Participation in the Bronx Plan, which is open to historically underserved schools across all five boroughs, requires collaboration among the principal, the UFT chapter leader and a committee of six to 12 members (half appointed by the principal and half chosen by the chapter leader) to create a plan to meet their school's specific challenges.

Bronx Plan schools receive additional funding for facilities improvements and for pay differentials in hard-to-fill subject areas, as well as strategic support to carry out their plans.

"The additional funding helped us purchase computers and offer pay differentials for math teachers and teachers who are bilingual," says Andrew Pecunia, the Kingsbridge chapter leader.

The Bronx Plan has helped Kingsbridge focus on social-emotional learning. The school has only one social worker and two school counselors for 444 students — many of whom are recent immigrants who live in temporary housing. Kingsbridge has brought in groups such as Ramapo for Children that specialize in training educators in restorative justice techniques — decoding behavior, communicating effectively and repairing relationships — to help students manage stress in the classroom and at home.

Reyes, who was trained in restorative justice as part of the school's participation in the Bronx Plan, has already started working with 12 young men at Kingsbridge, from freshmen to seniors, so they can mentor their peers. "We discuss stress and depression, and how to handle it," he says.

Reyes noted Kingsbridge students come to school with many challenges. "We discuss how you deal with frustration and stress — soft skills that are super important," he said.

Shelley Molina-Rikhy, a member of the Bronx Plan committee who teaches English as a New Language and basic literacy classes, sees the stress students experience as they prepare for the Regents.

"I'm teaching newcomers, including one student who didn't go beyond 4th grade in his home country," Molina-Rikhy says. "How do we address their needs in realistic and effective ways?"

The Bronx Plan, she says, gives the staff the time and structure to meet and talk about those challenges.

Pecunia says staff is also examining how they communicate with each other when a student is in crisis. For example, if a student is homeless or experiencing violence in the home, the school social worker might be aware of it, but not the teacher, who only sees a student suddenly apathetic or failing in class.

"How are we going to create a system of sharing information without violating student privacy?" Pecunia asks.

Students say they are already feeling differences in the school culture.

"We all share our experiences in the restorative justice program and realize we're not alone," says Annabel, a senior from the Dominican Republic. "Combining personal and school life is stressful. And it's OK to be stressed."

Mamadu, a sophomore from Guinea, says the restorative justice program "empowers us to be ourselves and share opinions in a respectful way."

The Bronx Plan, Pecunia says, has focused the school as nothing has before and is making the staff's vision for the school a reality.

"It's energized people," he says. "It's driving resources not just to books and curriculum, but to where the biggest challenge is. That's how it's transformative."

Related Topics: Struggling Schools