The first thing you notice is the focus.
Walk into any classroom at Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s southwest side and you see every student, whether in 5 or 12 years old, locked into the task at hand.
Whether it’s kindergartners going around in a circle sounding out words with remarkable fluidity, or seventh-graders in an advisory class checking in about how they’re feeling that day, every student in every classroom seems engaged, as if he or she wants nothing more than to be in school.
Namaste has been in operation for 13 years and in that time it has become a pillar of the charter school community, not only in Chicago but nationally. And it didn’t take us long when we visited to see why.
The school was founded on six pillars, or core values, which have held steady throughout the school’s life. “It hasn’t required a lot of tweaking, because it works,” said Kathy Argentar, Namaste’s development manager.
Unlike some schools, which post their values on every available wall but don’t live them, at Namaste you can see the pillars in action, everywhere, almost all of the time.
Here’s a rundown of four of the six the pillars, and how we saw them enacted.
Nutrition, health, and wellness: Namaste is rightly proud of its delicious school lunch. The day we visited we built a salad from the salad bar, had a bean burger, jicama fries and fresh fruit. It was satisfying and delicious, but didn’t leave us feeling weighted down. On other days we might have had red beans and rice, turkey lasagna, or southwestern corn salad.
As you might expect from a school named Namaste (which means, roughly “the light in me sees the light in you”), mindfulness meditation and yoga start each day. From 8:30 to 8:35, all classes begin their day with “morning movement.” What that looks like depends on the age of the kids and the mood of the class on a given day.
As a general rule, Argentar said, first thing in the morning “middle-schoolers need to wake up, and kindergartners need to calm down.” Morning movement reflects those needs.
“It’s a tailored routine to get them ready to learn,” she said.
There’s a wellness focus for teachers as well. “Teachers need to develop social-emotional learning skills not only as teachers, but for themselves as well,” said Shannon Feeney, an instructional leader at Namaste. “Knowing how difficult and demanding teaching is, they need to know how to monitor themselves, to have the self-awareness to engage in self-care.”
Acting head of school Stephanie Bloom said teachers are also encouraged to “find 5” at least once a day. That means setting aside five minutes for some mindfulness meditation, or to take a walk. “We care about keeping our staff healthy,” she said.
Movement: This pillar is arguably the most unique aspect of Namaste’s program. See the accompanying article for a detailed description.
Peaceful school culture: Working with faculty at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, Namaste teachers have become experts in restorative justice and peace circles. This is one of the main areas where Namaste engages a student’s whole heart.
Restorative justice is an approach to conflict resolution that re-integrates erring students into the school community through problem solving, face-to-face dialogue between conflicting students and alternative sanctions. It teaches kids to accept responsibility for their mistakes and to make things right with people they may have wronged.
Peace circles are part of the restorative justice process. They combine victim reconciliation, offender responsibility, and community healing.
Namaste staff also have a system, called Namaste Noticings, for reinforcing positive behavior. Kids can save up their noticing coupons for rewards in the school store – rubber balls, shirts, and other small items.
A bulletin board in the school hallway lists positive behaviors that will earn students noticings, categorized by the six pillars.
Under movement, for example, active participation in morning movement, picking up recess equipment, and “making safe choices” during physical activity can earn an affirmation.
Language and culture: This pillar aims to aims to “create a learning environment that increases knowledge, respect, and appreciation for the languages and cultures of the world for students, teachers, staff, and parents.”
This is especially important at Namaste because the vast majority of Namaste students are Latino, and a significant percentage of them come from households where parents speak no English.
Namaste operates as a dual language school, which means that Spanish-speaking students start kindergarten in a class taught primarily in Spanish, and are gradually transitioned into English, while maintaining their Spanish skills in reading, writing, and speaking.
The goal is to have all Spanish-speaking students fully bilingual in spoken and written English and Spanish by the end of elementary school.
The other two pillars, collaborative practice and balanced learning, have a more purely academic focus.