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A school’s unique response to COVID-19

Commentary by Fabiana Casas |
May 25, 2020
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Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy (IJLA) response to COVID-19 Chicago

Chicago, IL - Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy (IJLA) is a small two-floor building that rests on the corner of Western and Blue Island Avenues in Pilsen, Chicago. At first glance you would notice the mural that decorates the wall - women of color with fists in the air, “La Lucha Sigue.” You might ask yourself, “Is this a school?” and the first answer is: yes. Though, the more accurate answer is: “It’s a home, a safe haven.”

First, some vital context. IJLA (more commonly referred to by its original name, Rudy, after the socialist Rudy Lozano) is an options school. This means that our students are 16 to 21 years old and typically are pushed out of the traditional school system, whether that be because of home responsibilities, mental health that impacts attendance, pregnancy, gang affiliation, or ‘behavior.’ We are a small school - our enrollment is currently at about 108 students though that is ever growing as we have accumulated a waitlist and have several students who refer their friends to enroll. However, what’s arguably most notable about IJLA is that we are a Restorative Justice school.

Restorative Justice is the philosophy that believes that in order to repair and heal, all parties affected need to come together to discuss the harm that was caused and a way to resolve it. In other words, believing in Restorative Justice means genuinely believing that people are capable of changing, but at the same time understanding that change takes time, patience, love and accountability - the difference is that under restorative justice, accountability is never, ever punitive.

At IJLA this Restorative Justice looks like a united staff that prioritizes the health and safety of students. This means building relationships with students to the point that we consider each other family (yes, they call us all by our first names). It means student circles, community circles, and staff circles (what we ask our students to do, we need to do ourselves). It means understanding and accepting that there are times when a student, community or staff will need multiple circles for the same behavior. It’s going back to the drawing board to see what happened and what we can do moving forward.

This emphasizes the fact that we are equals. There is no “because I’m the teacher” at IJLA. That phrase will not survive here and that’s good. Everything we do at IJLA needs to have a purpose, and that purpose should focus on dismantling the systems of oppression that are embedded in our country. If we feel challenged as teachers, we need to ask ourselves why and admit that students are right to question us, and at IJLA, we try our best to provide the tools for students to question effectively beyond our walls.

Even during a global pandemic that has pushed us to remote learning, we are embodying these beliefs. Remote learning is inherently inequitable, but if we are left with no other choice, the only thing we could do was try to find the least inequitable solutions. So, we got to working. And we found a way to communicate with each and every one of our students. We distributed laptops and hotspots to each student who needed one along with any other supplies students might need (masks, hygiene products, food, baby products, gift cards, nearly anything that could be necessary) almost immediately.

Academically, we’ve established cross-curriculum classes that are relevant (especially during COVID-19) that make it significantly less stressful for students and staff to function during this time. That means collaboration between the subjects of history and science, and the subjects of English and math to create a total of two classes that include each subject’s core competencies. This not only reduces the amount of time students are expected to log in, but it creates a unique opportunity to conduct a truly interdisciplinary project that asks students to research a different aspect of COVID-19 and create or re-write a current policy that exists. The topics can vary, from researching the lack of testing sites in communities of color to researching the stimulus check and who it really benefits - it’s all up to the students and their interests.

Nonetheless, at IJLA, we understand that because of our size, we have the opportunity to establish these practices without the barriers of a traditional school. But the traditional school system is failing our youth, especially our youth of color. This pandemic and remote learning are bringing these injustices out of the woodwork and making themselves obvious to those who have had the privilege of being blind to them. Students at IJLA have not had the privilege of ignoring these inequities; in fact, they are the exact people the school system has failed.

It is because of this that the staff of IJLA has worked passionately to create a space where our students are allowed to feel safe, to feel loved, to feel respected. It is a space that prioritizes their voices and their needs, whether that be through practicing restorative justice or reworking curriculum in the face of a global pandemic; students will always be put first - a foundational and essential right that should be given to all students at all schools.