In Robyn Gulley’s class at Success at Thurgood Marshall charter school, students gather around for their daily morning circle which includes meditation and positive affirmations. Credit: Jasmine Crittendon

In Robyn Gulley’s third-grade class at the Success at Thurgood Marshall charter school in Mid-City, students sit together for their daily morning circle. 

They begin with what they call “True North,”  a meditation practice in which students close their eyes and take deep breaths. They are encouraged to think about the emotions they may be feeling at the time, acknowledge those feelings, and allow themselves to be fully present. 

One by one, students say their names and express how they feel that morning. One student feels  “mad” another is “frustrated” and another feels “confused.” Others are having a better morning, feeling  “good,” “excited,” and “calm.” 

The daily morning meditation ranges from 30 minutes to an hour and is part of the school’s  Social Emotional Learning program. The goal is for students to work through challenges and regulate emotions, said Adam Meinig, the executive director at Success at Thurgood Marshall. 

For the first several months of the school year, some students sat in the circle silent. But listening to other students is still learning,  Meinig said. 

“They are learning and growing in terms of emotional intelligence because they’re seeing what vulnerability looks like,” he said.

In New Orleans, where 59% of the population is Black and 4% Latino, the predominantly Black and brown children in the city’s charter schools have sometimes been stereotyped as being angry, aggressive and hostile. 

Traditionally, schools have not focused on how to address emotions that could lead to negative behavior, said Jasmine Crittendon, the third- and fourth-grade assistant principal at Success at Thurgood Marshall. 

“This breaks down the barriers of giving these kids the emotional language, and it allows a safe space for these kids to be able to express themselves in the way that’s needed,” Crittendon said.

The Social Emotional Learning program at Success at Thurgood Marshall charter school in Mid-City uses meditation to help students navigate challenges and express their emotions in a positive manner. Credit: Jasmine Crittendon

Success’ SEL program is part of a partnership with Valor Collegiate, based in Nashville, Tennessee. Valor’s Compass Model focuses on a comprehensive approach that “systematically addresses the development of core habits and disciplines within each of the core domains of our humanity: mind, heart, body and spirit.” 

The Mid-City charter school is one of 64 schools that use the Valor Compass Model. According to the program’s website, 82% of faculty using the program said it changed their approach to students’ emotions and 87% said the Compass Circle helped them focus. 

One educator described the Compass Model as a paradigm shift, noting that suspensions have decreased 87% at his school and that “our scholars no longer resort to violence as a way to resolve their issues.”

The Social Emotional Learning program has been a part of Success at Thurgood Marshall for three years. School leaders trained with Valor Compass to prepare staff, and this year is the first year that the students have engaged in the program.

Over the past few years, Success at Thurgood Marshall has faced many challenges — from the pandemic to Hurricane Ida and losing multiple students to gun violence. Some students say they have come to like the morning circle meditations with some describing it as “calming.” 

Amos Dolliole, a third-grade student in Gulley’s class said the morning circles make him feel, “real special because all these people that’s in there are [listening] to me.”

“I love doing circles because people express their feelings in front of others, they’re not just saying false things,” Dolliole said. “They are just speaking from the heart. They’re telling me how they feel.”

The morning circle ends with three students in the center. One student speaks about a particular challenge the student is experiencing, the other students say something positive to uplift the student. Gulley closes out the circle by asking students to say what they appreciate in their lives.

Crittendon and Meinig say they have seen a transformation in their students since introducing the SEL program. 

“Challenges will go down, academic results will go way up because kids get the courage to ask for help and know how to advocate for themselves,” Crittendon said.

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New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...