By Dr. Larry Myatt, Co-Founder, ERC
It’s the biggest no-brainer in K-12 public education –match the high demand for academics with equally high levels of social-emotional support. It has proven itself true repeatedly as a core strategy to raise student achievement, but more importantly, as a way to create the kinds of environments in which young people and adults can grow and thrive.
As Robert Evans pointed out in his thoughtful book Family Matters, for a generation we’ve been, and will continue to be, in the throes of social and economic upheaval that call for us to dramatically re-think relationships between home and school, as well as the services and outlook schools must offer. Levels of anxiety and depression astound us in affluent school communities, as does the impact of trauma and neglect that plague poorer environments, undermining safety and well-being, and, understandably, students’ readiness to learn. Sadly, budgets for this critical aspect of schooling have withered over the past decade in almost every district I work in, especially the urban and rural. What money there is flows more readily to academic programming and technocratic fixes for our schools. Ironically, it’s happening just at the time when our knowledge of brain development and the availability of tools and practices to do powerful resiliency work have crescendoed, yet remain largely remain untapped or inaccessible in our schools.
My own understanding of these issues intensified as I followed Richard Rothstein’s seminal reporting on the impact on children of factors such as eyesight, dental care, diet, and home influences related to child-rearing and mental health in schools in New York City. As a sitting principal, I saw how our own school’s early investments in social-emotional support, gender and racial equity, and personal and family wellness paid off. Ultimately, we learned we had also sparked a growth in the percentage of graduates seeking out careers in the helping professions. Now, as an ERC leadership coach and re-design consultant to schools, networks and boards, I believe more strongly than ever that schools have a clear and compelling obligation to do better to provide for all students the benefits that come with the right ZIP code.
In this issue, it’s my pleasure to cite three individuals, consummate humanists, who energize me, sustain my faith in the power of social-emotional care, and can be guides for school communities who are considering where and how to invest their time and resources: Superintendent Ken Facin from Hoosick Falls, a rural district north of Albany, NY whose commitment to what he calls “mindfulness” has begun to transform his schools; Ray Smith, often known as Brother Ray, who calls himself a “people builder” at Providence’s Alvarez High School; and Dr. Gil Noam, whose PEAR program’s resiliency-building research and “Clover” model are providing schools with state-of-the-art tools that provide a portrait of young people’s strengths and challenges and guide programming to meet them. Each, in their own sphere of influence is contributing in novel ways to shaping perspectives and practices in resiliency and positive youth development.
Facin, in his 8th year as leader in Hoosick Falls, brings vision and a high level of personal visibility to his schools. He candidly acknowledges being a bright, yet very challenging student back in his own high school years, and uses those recollections to emphasize the importance of relationships and the need to understand what lies beneath students’ behaviors and attitudes. He brings many of the lessons from his personal life into his public school leadership philosophy. Facin comments, “The more research I did, the more it became apparent that our young people’s needs were not being met across the social-emotional spectrum. And beyond that, the proliferation of social media without clear boundaries about use is causing an adolescent crisis that schools have been slow to understand and confront”.
In his communications and interactions, he has been relentlessly positive about the need for students to see teachers as people, and for all members of his school community to make time for and develop an attitude of “mindfulness”. With trust and resources from Facin, the social/emotional team – counselors, social workers and psychologists, administrators, resource officer, and interested teacher volunteers- have been provided with time to meet, and support from ERC, to develop a long-term plan to raise the level of mindfulness in the schools. That includes building adult and student skills, and establishing rituals and routines that make hallways and bus rides, as well as classrooms and assemblies, safe and welcoming.
Hoosick Falls students are performing academically and attending high education at increasingly higher levels, and through Facin’s efforts, a mentoring program to help students succeed and stay at college and to prepare for the workplace and citizenship is expanding rapidly, yet thoughtfully. Facin shares his enthusiasm and ideas with other regional leaders and has convened a conversation about more seamless partnerships to undergird schools’ resiliency efforts for families and children. For what to some may seem a small community, Hoosick Falls is more and more “on the map” for its smart investments in students’ readiness to learn, both during and after their years in the schools.
Helping students be ready to learn also comes naturally to Ray Smith, a Chicago native who moved to Providence 17 years ago. “Brother Ray” has been a presence on the streets and with the families of the city, especially those who may struggle to avoid the perils of tough neighborhoods. Energetic, quick-witted, thoughtful, and relentlessly positive and welcoming with all he meets, Smith has brought the wisdom and positivity of his own experiences and those of his community organization, the Young Leaders Fellowship, into his work at Alvarez High School. Young Leaders seeks to restore and revive the passions and dreams of young people, a mission that Smith embodies in his approach to daily life and work.
Only two years ago, Alvarez was a likely candidate for closure or take-over, but as part of her own wellness plan, new principal Zawadi Hawkins-Gladstone, who knew of Smith’s work, made it a priority to get him into the building on a permanent basis. Paperwork snafus delayed his arrival last year, but once he arrived on scene, his welcoming touch, ability to connect with all students, and skills in defusing potential conflicts made a huge and immediate impact, according to faculty, students, and Hawkins-Gladstone.
As often as possible, Brother Ray begins his day by greeting every possible student at the school’s front door with a joke, a positive reminder, a wise saying (often about the value and good use of time), making their first interaction at the school a pleasant and welcoming moment to set the tone for the day.Smith also serves on the school’s Wellness Team, frequently volunteering to serve as touchstone and mentor to students experiencing family challenges or struggling in school as well as adding his inside information on families, neighborhood history and relationships that help to paint a broader picture of students for others on the Team. Well-known across Providence, he has been a key part of the 300 Men initiative, which has invited and challenged men across the city to get involved, volunteer and lend a hand to support young people in a variety of ways, keeping the peace, and “building people” as he likes to put it.
Smith’s ways of working includes citing timeless metaphors and important life lessons that help students to see the big picture, make better decisions, and distinguish between short-term gratification and more productive, helpful plans for the future. “To watch him work is to be reminded of the power of the human touch”, says Rick Schwartz, head of the communications and non-profit advising firm, StraightTalk, and a member of the Friends of Alvarez advisory group, “There’s so much genius evident in his work”.
Dr. Gil Noam founded PEAR (the Program in Education, Afterschool, and Resiliency) in 1999 as a collaboration among Harvard Medical School, McLean Hospital and the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a number of strong community partners. In the years since, the program has flourished, and has a growing staff and list of initiatives.
During his earlier work in youth mental health, says Noam, he began to recognize that the school experience has a huge impact on how young people view themselves, and that education itself is an important marker of mental health. He shared, “I see the fostering of social-emotional skills as a natural meeting point between clinical and developmental psychology and education. And in schools I saw unnecessary suffering despite the availability of more and more tools to address student needs. Knowing that the emergence of mental illness can overshadow a whole life, I decided I needed to go beyond individual patient work to focus on larger systems”.
Dr. Noam sees a very important need for what he calls “translational centers”, like PEAR, in education– a place that facilitates easy movement between practice, policy and research – and where the research field conducts continuous scanning for best practices and innovations in the field to share with practitioners. We’re able to show results more rapidly because we don’t have to wait years to get much-needed resources into school communities. We can also more readily address the need for useable tools and trainings that update the knowledge of those in the field. PEAR strives to go beyond the typical short-lived or short-term professional development to create deeper communities of practice and to create tools like the Holistic Student Assessment (HSA) that can be used widely.
Noam is quick to express the personal and professional benefits of PEAR’s work. “At the end of our PhotoJustice program, students are asked to write about their photos of their school and environment –the stories ranged from a school bathroom that had been vandalized to photos of a memorial for a youth murdered in the school’s neighborhood. At the final ceremony, you could see that this program took youngsters who were angry at the world and gave them a way to channel their voice collectively and creatively. They learned that their voice has power and it’s up to them to choose to use that voice in a way that benefits their community, instead of disrupting it. That’s the kind of story that can happen when we provide the right opportunities.”