Vista Charter Public Schools, a group of schools serving K-12 students in Los Angeles and Santa Ana, California, have been members of the ISSN since 2018. Like schools across the country, Vista schools shut down during the height of the Covid pandemic. Despite an effective pivot to online learning, the reopening of Vista campuses has brought significant challenges.

According to Brian Bailey, Assistant Principal at Vista Heritage Global Academy (6-8) the students “lost skills about being around other people… they’ve lost a sense of community, of being connected to each other and the school.”

Bailey and other Vista school leaders took a variety of steps to respond to this disconnect, including creating flexible spaces for students to “hang out” together between classes, and repurposing school culture committees to focus on rebuilding a sense of school identity.  But they relied most on the Way of Council, practices to build rapport and deep interpersonal relationships that were woven deeply in the fabric of school life well before the pandemic.

A signature practice in all Vista school classrooms, the Way of Council builds on principles of speaking and listening without judgment and allowing everyone a chance to be seen and heard. The Way of Council gathers participants face to face to tell stories that reflect their true selves and from that develop a sense of empathy and deep respect for each other.

Dr. Collin Felch, Principal at Vista Heritage Global Academy, says that the Way of Council is very closely aligned with the core principles of global competence – especially communicating with others and recognizing different perspectives. Like these essential ISSN practices, Way of Council activities to promote positive relationships and emotional development are integrated into academic learning.  For example, an American history lesson on slavery and human rights might begin with a Council circle where students are asked to “tell a story about when you felt free.”   Michael Rosner, Principal of Vista Horizon Global Academy (K-5) notes, “Heightening students’ awareness of their own independence and what it would be like to lose it helps connect them viscerally to the systematic denial of freedom for slaves.”

Way of Council not only creates new relationships but helps restore broken ones.  At Vista Horizon Global Academy, playground barbs escalated to a fight between two girls.  In a Council session just for them, each of the girls revealed that their mothers were not present in their lives and how that made them feel.  Connected through their personal stories, the girls became fast friends and their behavior and grades in school improved.  Don Wilson, Superintendent of Vista Charter Public Schools notes, “you can’t expect restorative practices like “harm circles” to work if people don’t trust each other or trust the process of connecting to each other.”

The Way of Council builds trust and respect for others as the core of school culture. Felch adds, “We’ve always done Council but after the pandemic teachers emphasized it more because of the need.  Now, It’s essential.”