After a fight at a Philadelphia area high school left eight teachers injured and four students arrested, the dean of a nearby Jewish college approached the local school board with a plan to work with younger pupils in community building and relationship skills.
The Jewish Exponent reported that the early morning fight at Cheltenham High School in May 2017 began between two female students and quickly escalated when two more girls jumped in with punches.
Rosalie Gurofsky, Gratz College dean and vice president of academic affairs, offered Cheltenham District Superintendent Wagner Marseille a proactive plan, using restorative justice practices aimed at getting to the root of violent outbreaks. Because the college offers a master’s program in safe schools, Gurofsky also pitched the idea to other Gratz faculty members. Ultimately, it was decided to start the training at the lower grade levels. In October 2017, a customized program of four contracted workshops for 5th- and 6th-graders began at nearby Elkins Park School.
Gratz now is training teachers, as Gurofsky says, as “a natural extension of the Jewish identity of Gratz.”
The School Cultures and Student Formation Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture investigated the particularities of distinctive schools—and Jewish schools were among those unique schools. Was it possible that their unique and strong moral sources could equip them to strengthen a community—rather than splinter it along religious, ethnic, or class lines? Dr. Jack Wertheimer, the lead researcher of Jewish day schools writes in The Content of Their Character: “For all their distinctives, Jewish day high schools share a good deal in common with their public and private school counterparts when they address matters of private virtue.”
In the case of Gratz, it is the combination of a unique Jewish identity and broad commonality with the public schools that catalyzed this partnership. Such collaborations underscore the vital role that distinctive institutions—religious, civic, and educational—play in forming character.
That partnership is helping teachers on the frontlines of forming school culture. At Elkins Park School, “more than 86 percent of the teachers surveyed rated the training highly impactful to their classrooms.” With sustained effort, the district trusts that this hard work in the earlier grades will shape the skills and dispositions of students before they reach the pressures of high school.
To learn more about how to use classroom circles—as the Elkins Park School teachers are learning—the Open Society Institute in Baltimore offers this guide.