Restorative Practices: My Experience with Student-Led Healing Circles

Restorative Practices: My Experience with Student-Led Healing Circles

In November of last year, I was invited by Derrick Brown, Principal of the Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA) and a Cohort 3 member of UP Partnership’s Restorative Practices Collaborative (RPC), to sit in on a restorative justice healing circle. Principal Brown began implementing healing circles in his school after a visit to Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) alongside UP Partnership staff and other Bexar County community members.

Going into the visit, he believed punitive discipline – such as in school or out of school suspensions – was how distracting behaviors should be addressed. The visit to OUSD, however, helped him realize there are other ways to think about addressing behaviors and getting to the root cause of why students act the way they do in situations.

I asked him if there was one moment, one thing that made the benefits of restorative justice clear and he told me that no school in OUSD had a security guard on campus.

“That was a real eye opener,” he explained. “We visited OUSD a few months after the Uvalde school shooting and I was shocked that no campus in the district had security guards because they don’t need them. Students have ways to make amends, accept differences and work through difficult situations in a healing manner and I want my school to be that way as well.”

Brown’s passion and enthusiasm about a different approach to discipline is now obvious when you listen to him speak about restorative justice and the impact it has already had on the young men who attend YMLA. He is the same way when he talks about the impact he wants to have on his students and the school itself.

The hallways of the YMLA are a testament to the past and the possibilities of the future. The school building itself was one of the first public schools in San Antonio to open its doors and from 1933 until the end of the 1969-1970 school year, it was known as Wheatley High School, an all Black school. The school went through a few name changes —in 1972, it became Emerson Middle School and was renamed Wheatley High School in 1988 — before the Young Men’s Leadership Academy opened in 2015 and the name was changed to reflect the new school.

Pictures of the school throughout the years, as well as those of Black leaders, both nationally and locally, remind us that we have come a long way, but there is still much to do. Hanging from the walls in every hallway are pennant flags from colleges and universities across the nation — a daily visual reminder that the future is wide open for the young men at the school.

As we neared the door to the healing circle room, Principal Brown explained that he set up his room exactly like a school at OUSD had theirs set up. He wants the space to be inviting, calming, somewhere where the outside world fades away so students can fully focus on being present during circle time.

There are two doors to the room — one you enter through and the other you exit through. The idea is students walk into the room with their anger, hurt, disagreements but, when they exit, they leave all of those negative thoughts and feelings behind and emerge heard, healed and with the knowledge of how to handle difficult situations in the future.

Walking through the entrance door, I was no longer in a school hallway but, rather, in a tranquil oasis of calm and relaxation. The walls of the room are draped with see through white curtains and strings of white lights. There are plants throughout the space and an indoor water fountain that provides the comfort of hearing running water.

“It is a unique and welcoming environment and a calming place because it is filled with positive energy,” said one 6th grade student that participated in the circle.

I have, previously, taken part in healing circles with adults, but none in a space like Principal Brown created and none that included students. The reason that day’s circle was being held was to address an argument that happened between three students during lunch time that resulted in name calling.

In the center of the room, there are twelve pillows arranged in a circle on the floor. In the middle of the pillow circle is a ceramic base topped with a decorative art piece.

As the three students involved in the conflict got comfortable in the circle, Principal Brown started circle time off with a brief explanation of what it means and the outcome he would like to see from the restorative time together. He subsequently introduced two circle leaders, from the 6th and 8th grade, who were there to guide the students through the restorative process. These are also lessons that Principal Brown refined through his training time in RPC.

For the remainder of the session, the two student circle leaders explored the incident in question, the root causes of why each young man reacted how they did, tools and techniques that can be used in future situations that will deescalate emotions and behaviors and how each person would like to the repair the relationships that had been broken.

“I came into the circle because of an argument I had with someone that turned physical,” explained an 8th grade student. “From the circle, I learned what to do better in situations, how to be a better person and how to help other kids who have disagreements.”

For the 6th grade student, “This group is about helping kids that make mistakes to get out of trouble and restore a relationship that was important to them that had been damaged by harm.”

As adults, our emotions and triggers are usually complex and layered that may take a lot of work to address but for these young men, their answers were straightforward, honest, trusting of the restorative process and the desire to return to friendship was real.

Although the circle only took no more than 20 minutes in its entirety, each young man was able to speak for himself, listen to each other and collaboratively create an environment where healing took precedence over anger. At the end of the circle the boys were laughing with each other, truly enjoying the return to friendship.

This is what restorative practices are meant to do. With heavy roots in indigenous culture, restorative practices aim to address harmful behavior in a manner that emphasizes community impact and allows those who have harmed, to have a voice in the healing process.

“RPC is a unique program that addresses the needs of the whole student in Bexar County,” explains Suzette Solorzano, UP Partnership’s K12 and Justice Senior Manager of Coaching and Facilitation, who oversees the Restorative Practices Collaborative. “Our work is one that focuses on building community and fostering a sense of belonging while keeping students in class learning. Through processes like circles, students walk away feeling connected, valued and respected within their school community.”

RPC and the My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio network work is primarily rooted in the equity pillar of Healing which, along with Access and Voice, are the must HAVEs for equity amongst Bexar County’s young people.

Tied to the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, in which more than 90 cross-sector community partners have made actionable commitments toward the equity pillars that prioritize providing young people with the developmental relationships and healing supports they need to reach the plan’s North Star Goal of increasing the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in a postsecondary degree or credential program to 70% by 2030.

If your organization is ready to join in on the Future Ready movement or the Restorative Practices Collaborative, click here to find out more information on how you can become a Future Ready partner. You can also follow our progress by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media.

Meet UP Partnership’s Communications Team

Meet UP Partnership's Communications team

UP Partnership’s Communications team creates messaging and provides strategic marketing and communications guidance to UP Partnership staff and partners. The team coordinates an editorial calendar that shares a cohesive narrative of healing, access and voice in connection to the Future Ready Bexar County Plan using various mediums including written blogs, social media and digital strategies and outreach to traditional media.

The team spearheading the communications team consists of Jeannette Garcia, Director of Communications, Ana Sevilla, Senior Manager of Communications and Carrie Ballard-Bañuelos, Storytelling Communications Manager.

Get to know the Communications Team

Jeannette Garcia is a proud alumna of both Judson High School and the University of Texas at Austin. She is a “recovering reporter” that continues to keep a keen eye out on what the tech, manufacturing and small businesses in San Antonio are doing. A dog mom of two pups, Jeannette enjoys spending time with close friends, her mom and younger brother, as well as being an active civic leader in her community.

As a San Antonio native, Jeannette was drawn to the work of UP Partnership because she wants to help drive positive change for the future of her hometown. Earlier in her career, she fell into economic development and grew an interest in workforce development and believes that it is incredibly important to invest in young people who are the workforce of tomorrow.

Her advice to all is “Don’t bury the lead. Always lead with the news. Also, you have to continuously message the same thing to people in order for it to stick — even if you think it’s overcommunication, it probably isn’t.”

Ana Sevilla is a Texas native, and attended Texas A&M University where she earned her bachelor of arts in English. After getting her start in journalism (specifically copy editing), she transitioned into marketing and communications, with a focus on graphic design. She moved to San Antonio in 2018. Ana is fiercely dedicated towards mutual aid work and building community. She enjoys spending time with her husband and her family, chosen and otherwise, as much as possible, as well as cooking, making art, decorating cakes, reading and watching video essays. Tenchi and Zuko, her two cheddar cats, bring light and laughter to her life.

Ana was drawn to the work of UP Partnership’s focus on helping young people succeed academically through tapping into the community’s existing resources and partner organizations. In particular, the restorative justice work that helps spread necessary harm reduction techniques within San Antonio’s education landscape.

Her advice to all is remember that “Everyone is an artist! Just because you can’t draw, doesn’t mean you can’t paint, sculpt, sing, photograph or otherwise. Creation is inherent to the human experience.”

Carrie Ballard-Bañuelos was born and raised in San Antonio. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with two bachelor degrees and recently received her MBA from the University of the Incarnate Word in May of 2023. Married, she is the proud mom of two boys who keep her busy. In her free time, Carrie enjoys spending quality time with friends, reading and writing, as well as attending comic cons—a favorite family activity.

As a mom to elementary grade students, she was drawn to UP Partnership’s work toward creating equity for all young people in the community and ensuring they all have postsecondary opportunities after high school graduation. Young people are the future leaders and workforce in San Antonio, so it is important to support them through their educational journey.

Her advice to all is “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zones. Those experiences generally lead to self evolution that can have lifetime impact. Also, always, always advocate for yourself. You know yourself better than anyone.”

Future Ready partners guide local high school juniors and seniors with options for their post-high school success

Future Ready partners guide local high school juniors and seniors with options for their post-high school success

On Jan. 19 and 26, partners in UP Partnership’s system’s change networks Diplomás, Excel Beyond the Bell San Antonio and My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio, in collaboration with Workforce Solutions Alamo, hosted the annual Future Ready Youth Summit which brought together approximately 800 high school students from CAST Schools, Edgewood, East Central, Harlandale, Judson, Northside, San Antonio, Southwest and Lytle Independent School Districts at Northeast Lakeview College. Programming at the summit provided college and career planning guidance to students in attendance.

Future Ready Partners from local school districts, colleges and universities and youth development organizations came together to co-create and facilitate the summit’s programming, which included career and degree pathways, college 101 and financial aid guidance.

With a diverse student population in attendance, many had some idea of what careers they wanted to pursue and the dream colleges they wanted to attend. Some professions mentioned by students in attendance included business, book editor, construction, mechanic, medicine, plumbing steganography, teaching and video game design.

According to student interviews, attendees had college and university aspirations that varied from in-state institutions such as the University of Texas at San Antonio, to out-of-state institutions, and even international elite schools such as Oxford University in England, according to young people interviewed at the event.

Some attendees didn’t yet have any college or career plans after graduation. For one student, they didn’t feel future ready “when I go outside my family and home.” For another, they felt like they are “walking alone in trying to figure out a plan for after high school graduation and the person [they] want to be in the future.”

Still others accredited not being ready for life beyond high school to their lack of general knowledge like how to get a credit and/or debit card, how to prepare for college, the possible financial burden of student loans or not having enough details about career pathways.

Career and Degree Pathway sessions offered insights about career possibilities, degree options, setting career goals, internships, paid work experiences, apprenticeships, diversity and cultural differences in career choices and the importance of professional networking.

“I learned that the highest paying jobs are currently those in the engineering field,” said one high school junior. “The presenter also spoke about his own personal experience with trade schools which made me realize that there are other educational options I can explore aside from only attending a college or university.”

College 101 explored college course opportunities, which included topics such as degree plans, general courses, major and minor selection, electives and course load; college beyond the classroom, which included information on activities such as student government, community activities, club, societies, extracurriculars, greek life and studying abroad; as well as information on funding a college degree, which included topics such as scholarships, loans, grants and general financial literacy.

“In College 101, I learned about all the possible degree pathways and all of the extracurricular activities that are offered,” one junior said. “I didn’t know that you could take college courses for fun.”

For one senior, learning about the opportunity to study abroad was exciting. “I didn’t know that colleges offered students the chance to study in another country,” he said. “That is definitely something that I am interested in exploring when I go to college.”

For other seniors, the importance of time management and making a sustainable schedule was an important insight they gained. As one explained, “College is very different from high school. You get to make your own schedule, choose what classes you are going to take, and it is important to think about time management as well.”

Other students took away different lessons from the summit.

“I learned that it is important to focus on yourself first- I need to know what career I want to pursue and the best postsecondary options to reach that goal,” explained one junior..

For another junior “ I still have time to figure out the best college or university that fits into my needs. I don’t need to rush into any decisions right now.”

One major insight for a senior was the importance of having a mentor. “For me, having a mentor who can help guide me through this process is extremely helpful,” they said. “That way, if there is something I don’t know or understand, I will have someone who can help me.”

In addition to sessions they attended, the students listened to inspiring stories from Keynote Speakers that included San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg; Dr. Tangila Dove, Northeast Lakeview College’s Vice President of Student Success; Warren Hurd, Northeast Lakeview College’s Vice President of College Services; Gable Crowder, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas’ Director of Community Engagement; Dr. Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, UP Partnership’s CEO; and Dr. Emily Calderón Galdeano, UP Partnership’s Chief Impact and Strategy Officer.

Providing access to information and resources about college readiness, the college admissions process and career pathways, aligns with the Access pillar of the Future Ready Bexar County Plan. This community-wide plan brings together more than 90 cross-sector partners working toward the plan’s collective North Star goal — to increase the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in postsecondary degree or credential programs to 70% by 2030. It focuses on three equity pillars of Healing, Access and Voice — the must HAVEs for equity amongst Bexar County’s young people.

A BIG thank you to everyone that made the Future Ready Youth Summit a success:
Alamo Colleges District: Dr. Christina Cortez, Bridgedette Garza and Miriam Magdaleno; American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions: Viviana Gorena Guillen and Robert Bruce Prior; Bexar County: Amy Halstead; Communities In Schools of San Antonio: Darla-Nicole Acosta; Girls Inc. of San Antonio: Tyla Oliver and Karina Ortiz; Good Samaritan Community Services: Patrice Owens; Northeast Lakeview College: Rebecca Alejos; SEE to ACT: Hayden de Maisoneuve Yates and Donna Hunnicutt-Rodriguez; San Antonio College: Dr. Samuel Byndom and Bertha Castellanos; San Antonio Education Partnership: Salvador Acosta and Aliaha Austin-Holmes; San Antonio ISD: Andrew Cervantes, Dustin Nieto and Dr. Jessica Perales; Texas A&M University San Antonio: Alissa Meyer; Trinity University: Nicole Fratto Garcia; Trinity Advising Corps: Eduardo Reyes Acosta, Joshua Anaya Karina Calderon and Fatima Perez; University of Texas at San Antonio: Nallely Castillo, Taylor Cole, Victoria Gorena, Maricela Luevano, Victoria Margo, Mike Rubio and Chanell Williams; University of the Incarnate Word: Jessica de La Rosa and Dr. Diana Sanchez; Workforce Solutions Alamo (WSA): Sandra Rodriguez, as well as WSA’s Hire Ability and YES! Program; and YWCA San Antonio: Crystal Ellis and Abigail Teveni, as well as representatives from: Bexar County Sheriff Department; BiblioTech; Big Brothers and Big Sisters of South Texas; Boy With A Ball; Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas; DreamSA; The Dream.US; greater:SATX; Northwest Vista College; Our Lady of the Lake University; Palo Alto College; St. Philip’s College; Southwest Research Institute; Students of Service – San Antonio.

If your organization is ready to join in on the Future Ready movement, click here to find out more information on how you can become a Future Ready partner. You can also follow our progress by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media.

New initiative saves a spot at UTSA for high-achieving SAISD juniors

New initiative saves a spot at University of Texas San Antonio for high-achieving San Antonio ISD juniors

UP Partnership facilitated connection through Equitable Enrollment Collaborative and Future Ready Plan

The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) today announced a new pathway that will provide high-achieving students from SAISD high schools with direct admission to UTSA as early as their junior year. The new program aims to remove barriers for SAISD students who want to pursue a college degree, helping them feel confident that they have a top-quality institution secured to pursue their bachelor’s degree once they graduate from high school.

The direct admission program is open to all SAISD students who are in the top 25% of their high school graduating class at the end of their fifth semester—the fall semester of their junior year. UTSA will accept the first cohort of students in Fall 2024.

“UTSA is deeply committed to growing the workforce and positively impacting the economic development of San Antonio by preparing students to succeed in the jobs of the future,” said UTSA President Taylor Eighmy.

“We have enjoyed a strong partnership with SAISD for many years, but this new program is especially exemplary of UTSA’s keen focus on student success and its desire to make higher education more accessible, especially for those from underserved communities.”

Nearly 75% percent of SAISD’s students come from families that are economically disadvantaged.

“We are committed to providing transformational learning experiences for our students, and this partnership with UTSA will help our students more easily access the life-changing tool of postsecondary education,” said SAISD superintendent Jaime Aquino.

“We are proud of this partnership that offers our students exceptional support as they enroll and persist in their studies at UTSA.”

Many SAISD high school graduates who matriculate to UTSA will be eligible for UTSA Bold Promise, a tuition and assistance program for eligible Texas residents with annual household incomes of $70,000 or less. The program covers 100% of UTSA’s tuition and mandatory fees. This financial aid is crucial in eliminating one of the biggest barriers for students striving to obtain a college degree.

“Graduates who earn college degrees are consistently shown to have more career possibilities, higher earnings overall and a better quality of life,” said Lynn Barnes, UTSA senior vice provost for strategic enrollment. UTSA is committed to providing high-quality, affordable education for anyone who wishes to pursue a degree. We’re excited to help the San Antonio ISD students and families understand the educational opportunities available to them and how to make them a reality.”

Last fall, 62% of students ages 16 to 24 who graduated from U.S. high schools were enrolled in colleges or universities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Fall 2019, prior to the pandemic, the college enrollment rate in the United States was 66%.

SAISD has experienced similar trends. This fall, 80% of the district’s 2023 graduating class applied to college, 50% of those students were admitted and 64% enrolled in either a two-year or four-year institution. By contrast, prior to the pandemic, 94% of the district’s 2019 graduating seniors applied to college, 74% were admitted and 52% enrolled in college.

“This is one of the strategic partnerships we are proud to have as we continue to grow our postsecondary enrollment numbers past our pre-pandemic rates,” said Dustin Nieto, coordinator for postsecondary services at SAISD.

To launch the new direct admission program, SAISD notified more than 700 high achieving SAISD juniors about the opportunity to be offered direct admission by UTSA. More than 400 of those students indicated they were interested in joining UTSA’s Fall 2024 entering class. Of those, 282 have already completed or are completing UTSA’s admission application.

One of those students is Angie Martinez, a senior at Brackenridge High School. Martinez, who is the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend college, was overcome with the opportunity her admission offer provided.

“When I had that message last year about the direct admission to UTSA, I started crying,” Martinez said. “It was the first school that accepted me. I got so excited. I cried, and I told my mom about it, and she cried as well. UTSA was a first choice. I wanted to be near home and it’s such a good school. For financial stuff as well, they give a lot of good opportunities.”

In addition to their direct admission, SAISD students who choose to matriculate to UTSA would also earn direct admission to the UTSA Honors College, which is home to 2,000-plus high-achieving students across all majors. The college is home to one of the most unique experiential honors curricula in the nation.

That possibility is extremely attractive to Yasmin Perez, a Jefferson High School senior, who will major in mechanical engineering.

“It interests me just being in a tight-knit community,” Perez said. “In high school I’ve been in the IB program, which is also a really small program. Having a smaller group that I can interact with more, maybe have more interaction with my professors, that’s something that I really value.”

At the same time, SAISD students who accept their invitations to the UTSA Honors College will receive a $1,500 stipend each semester if they choose to live on campus, independent of financial need. First-year students in the UTSA Honors College live in Guadalupe Hall, one of the university’s newest living-learning communities.

The new early notification system allows the institution’s admissions staff to have additional touchpoints, support and communication opportunities throughout the enrollment process with SAISD students, many of whom, like Perez, are among the first generations in their families to attend college.

“They’ve been really helpful showing you the process of the steps,” Perez said. “UTSA sends me a lot of emails. They’re very precise on what they send you, so I really benefit from that. It has not just been emails. They’ve also called, whether it is reminding me about the scholarships, the honors college or dorming — just them checking up, reassuring you.”

SAISD and UTSA began discussing the concept for the direct admission program in August 2022, including how they might collaborate to pre-qualify SAISD students for automatic admission to UTSA by streamlining processes and removing barriers to data sharing.

Aquino and Eighmy are members of the board of directors of UP Partnership, a San Antonio nonprofit that aims to increase economic mobility for young people through higher education. UP Partnership created opportunities for UTSA and SAISD to conceptualize, discuss and design their direct admission program as the lead driver of a communitywide strategic plan called Future Ready Bexar County.

Through the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, UP Partnership works with more than 90 institutional partners to create equitable, data-driven solutions that prepare Bexar County students for the future with an aligned North Star goal that calls for 70% of Bexar County high school graduates to be in a degree or credential program by 2030.

“As the driver of the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, we consistently challenge our institutional partners to think differently about how they work in order to set our community’s young people up for a better future,” said Briana Hagalgans, UP Partnership director of K12 and Postsecondary.