On a recent Tuesday at St. Paul's Johnson Senior High School, students met in small circles in the gym, some more fired up than others. When asked to describe in one word what it was like to spend a year striving to inspire their peers, they replied, "Wonderful." "Tough." "Chill."

Then came Kaung Win's turn: "Exhausting," he said.

At the East Side school, named after one Minnesota governor and alma mater of another, Johnson is three years into a "Govie leader" program built on the premise that "adults should not do for students what students can do for themselves." The leadership effort has paid off.

When the gym cleared, a new group of student leaders entered to train for next year — and there were 178 sophomores on the list.

"Go Big!" is a mantra for the Govie leaders, and the program's ambitions have grown. At the school level, students have secured changes to policies involving grading and a ban on hats and caps — the latter no longer enforced so as to remove what had been a "battleground" between staff and students, said program coordinator Kurt Blomberg. This spring, students hosted a leadership summit filled with weighty subjects and a strong purpose: "Growing leaders for tomorrow's challenges."

Jeremy Maas, a student who helped lead a talk on social injustice, police brutality, social media and relationships, also is one of 12 Govie leaders who make themselves available to classmates in need of private one-on-one conversations covering a range of personal issues. An exception to the confidentiality rule is if the student requesting the talk discusses harming themselves or others.

"I will assume you told me so I can get you help," states a ground rule for the "Talk With Me" conversations.

The Govie leader program formed the basis of Johnson's successful application to be one of the St. Paul school district's restorative-practices pilot sites, earning the school $170,000 in funding this year. Restorative practices often are associated with discipline, but in the state's second-largest district it's become more about building relationships and community ­— that is, improving school climate. Johnson does it through student-­led circles during the first 15 minutes of each lunch period.

Senior leaders come up with the games and activities, but not everyone follows the written directions, which can elicit groans, too.

"Please acknowledge one thing your fellow leader has done that you think was just awesome," Win, a senior leader wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt, recited to a group of juniors, before catching himself and looking up from the sheet. "I'm not kidding. It literally says 'awesome,' " he said.

Last week, Sara Gutierrez, a junior leader, set aside a suggestion on how to run her activity because, she said, she was "feeling spicy" that day.

It is a common occurrence, apparently.

"I think I was born with a little jalapeño in my hand," Gutierrez told the group.

One of six pilot sites

Four years ago, Johnson had a 40-member student council that met outside the school day.

Then came a "Hands Up, Walk Out" protest by students after the killing of a black teen by police in Ferguson, Mo. Principal Micheal Thompson had warned the students of consequences, and the punishment he chose was a viewing of a documentary called "The Rule." It tells of a unique student leadership program at a prep school run by Benedictine monks in a low-income neighborhood in Newark, N.J. The kids help run the school, and Thompson felt Johnson's students could do more to help themselves, too.

He had 15-minute advisories carved into the day. A call then was issued for student leaders.

Teens stepped up by the hundreds, "and we kind of jumped in the deep end," said Paul Schmitz, who teaches critical reading and writing for college credit at Johnson and has helped oversee the Govie leader program since its inception.

That first year coincided with the beating of a teacher by a student at Central High and an ensuing strike threat by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers if school safety wasn't addressed in contract talks. The restorative-practices program was created, and Johnson was one of six schools selected then as a three-year pilot site.

The school's application listed among its challenges a mistrust of adults and institutions by students grappling with pressures at home and in the community. The school also had a problem with fights — a majority of them between girls — occurring on Mondays following weekend conflicts via social media.

Last week, Thompson stepped into Schmitz's office to tell a visitor that there have been just four fights this year. Also, he said, suspensions were down from a year ago, with 86 reported thus far this school year, compared with 142 at the same time a year ago.

Work at the restorative-practices sites is being tracked by an evaluation consultant, Kara Beckman of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. She has kept statistics on the number of teachers trained and hours spent by students in community-­building circles at each school. During an interview, she also spoke favorably of a senior leadership class and advisory that she observed at Johnson in December.

Last week, in Room 1205, Gutierrez's spicy take on the day's activity was to have students ask each other questions — "mild spicy, not too spicy," she added — rather than ask them herself and have each of the 13 students answer in order.

The questions came quickly: Why do you wear your hair that way? Why do you play soccer? When's the last time you were in a fight? What was your ACT score?

When Gutierrez was asked whether she was on track for graduation, she said: "I have everything to graduate except for motivation."

Later, in a conversation with a visitor, she said she thinks Govie leaders can be too serious, at times, and that she has been able to connect with kids by telling jokes. But her parting advice to them was pretty firm: Check out Childish Gambino's video to "This Is America."

Schmitz, when told of how Gutierrez broke script, said she certainly had the leeway to do it.

He also was not surprised that it worked.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109