By Denise Bray Hensley
Yellowstone Schools got a jump on the pandemic with a concept planned even before the world changed.
Community Circles is a program started last school year for middle-school students, teachers, and staff to meet every
morning and jump-start the day focusing on common goals. It builds on the skills students learn during their Bible
classes and in school-family time in elementary school.
The result of the first year of Community Circles is a close group of students during an isolating time, and teachers
who are more knowledgeable about what’s going on in the lives of their young scholars.
“We are proactively giving our scholars the space to learn from one another and giving them tools to deepen their self-awareness,” says Mesha White, who just completed her first year as Yellowstone’s middle school principal.
“It’s been a year for adapting, and this program helped all the students—and us—weather what’s been thrown at us,” she adds.
Ivy Dolf, school social worker, said the program was developed last summer with an eye on starting students
and teachers off strong every day.
“We knew we would need a total reset because of the way things have been since Covid.”
Students and teachers sit in circles when they meet. They check-in with themselves and one another. Then, they discuss lessons around the school’s PRIDE values—positivity, responsibility, integrity, determination, and excellence.
Community Circles is designed to last 30 minutes. Lessons were made digestible for all grade levels, so everyone has a united concept for their focus.
“I was so impressed by how the teachers hit the ground running with it and how the kids got nitty-gritty with it,” said Ms. Dolf, who started her career at Yellowstone as an intern.
Jorván Butler, Yellowstone’s music teacher who sees students for multiple years, said Community Circles helped create continuity during a year that would have been a challenge for most choir teachers.
“Dealing with the pandemic this year, we wanted to make them more engaged. We made it fun, asked questions, and allowed them to express themselves freely. We got to know each other, to connect and learn some things and learn about each other,” he added. “We didn’t want to see walking zombies just cruising through life.”
“They draw on character traits they already have inside of them. Then, they get to see their peers working on the same thing. We all had a clear understanding of that day’s goals and had open-ended questions so other teachers could relate and put their spin on them,” added Mr. Butler.
Mrs. White and other program leaders say Community Circles helped the kids handle themselves during this year of struggle. It also improved their empathy so they could see how fellow students were doing under unusual circumstances. The result was that almost half the student population would tune in together most days. Next year’s goal is for 100 percent participation.
“Creating strong student-leaders doesn’t happen overnight. We don’t want leaders doing it because we’re saying so. We want them to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers and recognize how they can help others,” Mrs. White said.
She said she frequently uses the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote as her guide and motto: “Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.”
“Community Circles work well at Yellowstone in part because they mirror what students experienced as they moved through our lower grades,” said Candice Lapid. She recently finished her first year as the principal of Yellowstone’s elementary school.
“Starting in Pre-K, our students get used to meeting each morning. They begin with a Bible lesson, then talk through
a specific character virtue, and end by sharing their feelings and prayer requests with one another,” she adds.
“Staying consistent in who you are. It gave them some kind of balance and some kind of structure in a very unstructured year,” added Mr. Butler.
“Every day is a fresh day for every child,” said Mrs. White. “We can’t afford that ball to drop. Every day is important to our scholars, even under unusual circumstances.”