Once a week, after breakfast but before classes begin, Freedom Prep students practice the core value of community in the cafeteria.

The ritual begins when two students – a girl and a boy – head toward an African drum placed in the center of the room. The pair strikes the drum, signaling the start of community circle. The students spread along the room’s walls, each class occupying their own segment of the circle.

“We are ready for freedom!” says Julius Cave, dean of students, as he strides around the inside of the circle. His voice fills the room. “Education is freedom through excellence!”

The school doesn’t miss an opportunity to reinforce the college-bound mindset into every aspect of the school, even down to Cave’s greetings to each class, using the name of the teacher’s alma mater.

“Good morning, Central State,” Cave says, referring to the historically black university in Wilberforce, Ohio. “Good morning, CBU,” he says, referring to Christian Brothers University in Memphis. “Good morning, FAMU (Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida).”

One by one, teachers come to the center of the circle to recognize students for good work during the prior week.  One student is singled out for earning the highest score on a difficult quiz. Another is commended for showing responsibility and excellence. Another is praised for following the template on a writing assignment.

Although the focus is on academics, it’s not just A students who stand front and center during community circle.

“The easy thing would be for us to shout out the students who are always doing well, but it’s also for the students who are struggling but are doing better,” Cave says.

With each accolade, students pump their fists in the air.  A first-time visitor might think this is an unusual spontaneous exercise, but this is how students show their silent support. The students being honored can see their classmates’ appreciation, but the absence of loud cheers means that teachers don’t have to waste any time getting the students to settle down.

These silent cheers extend into the classroom. Sometimes students pump their fists to encourage a classmate struggling to read an assignment.

Although community circle is usually an upbeat occasion, sometimes the mood is somber.  Cave remembers an instance in which one student stole a classmate’s phone. The phone was returned to its owner, but that wasn’t the end.  The theft was clearly breaking the core value of integrity, which states that Freedom Prep students don’t lie, cheat or steal.

But another value is community. The theft wasn’t just a violation of the phone’s owner, but also of the entire community, including students, faculty, staff and parents.  “Before the student could return to class, he had to apologize during community circle,” Cave said. “The apology had to be genuine and heartfelt.”

Experts call exercises like this restorative justice, which moves past punishment to re-integrate rule breakers back into the community.

Every week, Freedom Prep students know to expect accolades and accountability all within the context of the community circle.