Some days start with a school bell. Others start with the sound of the steelpan drum.
It's a typical morning at Meyer Levin Junior High in East Flatbush. Students get a chance to dance, celebrate birthdays, cheer accomplishments, and share heartbreaks as part of a daily ritual called "Town Hall."
"We don't know what they went through when they left us yesterday, or on their way to school today," Principal George Patterson said. "So this is our way of putting our students in a good frame of mind to get ready to attack these classrooms."
First Lady Chirlane McCray and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza dropped by Wednesday to spotlight this approach to learning, watching as students took part in a ceremony called "libations," sharing important events.
Good news gets applause. When something sad is recounted, classmates pat their chests in solidarity.
"Town Hall" is part of the school's focus on social-emotional learning. Administrators believe it, along with initiatives like restorative justice, have helped fuel academic gains at Meyer Levin over the last year.
"The math scores have literally gone through the roof," Patterson said. "I think a big part of that is obviously what we're doing in the classroom, but a lot of it has to do with what we're doing outside of the classroom, also."
The idea behind restorative justice is for students to share problems and resolve conflicts. They gather in circles to hear each other out and find ways forward together. That happens once a week, but the town halls are daily.
(One of the steelpan drums students at Meyer Levin Junior High in East Flatbush use as part of "Town Hall." Jillian Jorgensen/NY1.)
On this day, the school's steelpan drum band played the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often called the black national anthem, with the goal of celebrating their culture and identity. Students also sang the South American national anthem.
"I think it was very different because I've never been to Africa or anywhere in that region, so it was very nice for me to learn the different cultures," student Alicia Thomas said.
Some of these approaches have their critics. The principal isn't one of them.
"Look at the data. Let my school be the example," he said.
When it was time to head to class, "Town Hall" finished up with a different kind of anthem, from Whitney Houston.
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