Colin and Mary Moore are a husband-and-wife team of St. Paul educators with a history of working with gang members.
“Meet them where they’re at” is their motto: Find out what people are up against, no judgments, then help them with the skills they need to succeed.
So when the state’s second-largest district erupted last fall in brawls, and a new school board pressed Superintendent Valeria Silva for answers, the couple raised their hands. Would the district be up for a program similar to what worked on the city’s East Side?
They got the go-ahead, along with a request: Could it be ready in two weeks?
Last week, C3 (Choice-Chance-Change) wrapped up its first year with signs of promise. It’s the latest in a series of district moves to turn around problem behavior not just by kicking kids out of school but by helping them learn self-control and to make amends. It is an example of the “restorative practices” that will expand to six St. Paul schools this fall thanks to a new teachers contract.
For students, the main draw to C3 is it allows those who’ve been suspended at least three days for fighting to stay in their current schools rather than be transferred.
Whether they appear on a given day is another matter. C3 runs after-hours, after all. Vans go to schools. Cabs are sent to homes. But sometimes the kids refuse to come.
Mary Moore’s mood can rise and fall with the arrival of each vehicle.
“Here’s Bao!” she said one recent sunny afternoon as she looked outside Journeys Secondary School, the program’s home.
Students are escorted through security doors. When they arrive at the classrooms, they are checked for weapons and directed to put cellphones in lockers.
“Are you trustworthy?” Colin Moore asked a girl on her first day. “Maybe?”
Students spend four days learning how to confront their impulses with the help of administrators, teachers and assistants — all of whom wanted the assignment.
The lessons are loose, built on the presenters’ interests and Colin Moore’s guidance. The key is to connect, and all avenues are pursued.
“Anyone here like Justin Bieber?” Jessie Redmond, a creative arts specialist at RiverEast, asked a group of students. “His new album is tight.”
At C3, students get to the root of their fights. An 11-year-old girl who attends Humboldt Secondary School said she’s prone to getting swept into the drama of others. For a fifth-grade boy from Frost Lake Elementary, the issue was more complicated: “People keep on bullying me,” he said.
Colin Moore huddled with the boy in a hall during a break to suggest a person he could go to at school when he sensed trouble. The kid was agreeable. “So far, so good,” Moore said to a visitor.
When lessons resumed, Charles Coleman, a special-education teaching assistant at Washington Technology Magnet School, walked students through an exercise, “The Mental Tattoo.” It requires them to pause before they act and to focus on the words, “Is it worth it?”
Many of the 60-plus students who completed C3 this year were the subject of deliberations by a districtwide transfer committee. Typically, students have no say in where they may be headed. Some are sent elsewhere, some stay where they are, some are referred to C3. For the committee, those conversations are not easy and can get heated, said Dan Wolff, principal of Journeys Secondary School and a leader with the Moores of the C3 project.
Elsewhere in his building, students caught up in even more serious behavior — drugs, weapons, beatings — attend another after-hours program called Alternative 2 Expulsion (A2E).
Steve Aeilts, a middle-school administrator at Humboldt, said he prefers that students go to C3 so they can stay at their schools with their new behavioral skills.
Students transferred elsewhere arrive with packets detailing their academic and behavioral histories, but those documents tell just part of a student’s story, Aeilts said. It can take time to unravel the reasons behind discipline problems.
Humboldt was the scene of the school year’s first major brawl. Police called it a “riot,” but Aeilts, who was caught in the middle of it, said it was more like a “mosh pit.” C3 was not yet in place, he said, and many of the participants were transferred to other schools.
Now at year’s end, C3’s behavioral lessons appear to have taken hold. Only two kids sent to C3 have been referred back to the transfer committee, records show.
Creating a team
When it came time to assemble the C3 team, Mary Moore enlisted Aeilts and Devron Mitchell, a behavior intervention specialist, for a session about self-esteem and bullying that ends with a yoga and breathing lesson taught by teacher Theresa Behnke, also of Humboldt. The trio advises students to be calm, and to stop and think, because it “only takes six seconds to make a different choice,” Behnke said.
Como Park Senior High teaching assistant Shaun Ross has emerged as a program leader. On a Monday recently, Ross, who is black, told the kids that too many of the students suspended “look just like y’all. They’re all people of color. And I have a big issue with that.”
The presenters, who earn hourly pay, remind students they don’t have to be there — they’re there because they care.
When the students’ four-day stint ends, Colin Moore brings it home.
Armed with a contract that the students have signed, he accompanies them to meetings with administrators at their respective schools. The agreements specify people the students can reach out to and what steps they will take to get back on track.
At Humboldt, Moore learned that the 11-year-old who finds it hard to resist drama backed away recently from a possible scuffle.
“Do you remember the Mental Tattoo?” he asked.
“Is it worth it?” she replied.
“There you go,” he said.
At Washington Technology Magnet School, he asked Anton McDaniels, 12, to thank his mother for attending the final C3 session.
His final visit of the day was with Takeela Wood, 17, also of Washington Technology Magnet. Her problems, it turns out, were more about truancy and its impact on her chances of graduating. With Wood hoping to play catch-up in the summer, and the Moores overseeing summer school for special-education students, he pledged to have an aide “bug you, chase you, make sure you’re staying on task,” he said.
She promised to never again be in C3.
“There we go,” he said.
She began to rise.
“I can go now?” she said.
“Can you?” said Moore.
“May I go now?”
“You can,” he replied.