I’ve been working with Superintendent Ken Facin and his Hoosick Falls NY team for several years now. We featured Ken in one of our ERC e-newsletters a few years ago as one of a small band of heroes seriously committed to wellness and social emotional development in schools, despite more than a decade of underfunding and relative de-emphasis in most school districts.
I first met Ken and his team in our home base of Cambridge when they were in town to attend a Harvard School of Education conference on instructional improvement. I walked into their hotel conference room to find test score charts and graphs taped up on 3 walls from floor to above my head. Despite the intense two days their team had experienced at the conference, focused on the minutiae of standards, progress monitoring, feedback on pacing outcomes, etc., we had an instant energy re-set when we began to talk about young people and how best to support their readiness to learn. Ken was quick to embrace the idea of social-emotional support as a prime achievement strategy and since then has been off and running. His district has steadily advanced in state and regional rankings, but more importantly there is a tangible sense of kindness and concern in the schools. He has put his mind to influencing both inside and beyond the schools to create a community that sees readiness to learn as the lever for almost everything else.
Hoosick Falls is a small rural district northeast of Albany, rich in tradition, but also experiencing many of the mental health and family challenges that come with low-income demographics. Add to that the academic pressures and myriad top-down mandates and policies that come with New York state’s heavy testing and teacher rating schema (one that seems to have shown little benefit, I must add) and one wonders at how Facin has so successfully nurtured the growth of a top-flight wellness team that has developed a high level of expertise and works seamlessly with school administrators. Over the past three years a focus on mindfulness has paved the way for a daily meditation session for everyone in the school and just ahead, planning with teachers for a restorative morning meeting for all students and staff in the middle and high school. It was this planning that brought me out to Hoosick Falls for a recent day-long session.
I was the presenter for the first of the day’s four phases, organized by Facin along with Dean of Students Mario Torres. I focused my time on the foundations of building a culture of authentic relationships. I shared with the K-12 team of administrators, counselors and mental health professionals my contention that this kind of work, by its very nature, changes the “atomic structure” of schools, the fundamental relationships and “psychological contracts” between and among students and adults. I reminded the team that every day, each and every student is making a number of calculations about how much their teachers know and care for them, assessing how interested each adult is in their learning and well-being. When you strip away the academics, and along with them the power of the gradebook, the veneer of control, the compliance and teacher-pleasing orientation, it can be an unsettling, even raw experience for many teachers. Kids know right away when things are for real, as we know, and teachers are often already under the gun to cover far too much content and address test items.
I do a good deal of work helping schools tackle “classroom management” challenges and trying to salvage moribund or downright failing advisories. I learned as a school leader that when we attempt to introduce such ideas as advisory, mindfulness, or restorative practices, the success of those initiatives rests squarely on authentic relationships between adults and young people. Schools must provide the structures, opportunities for practice, language and modeling for students in order to learn that all good discipline is self-discipline. This is the “atomic level” work I talk about. Simply using a manual to learn a few group routines or convening kids in a circle does not go deep enough into exploring what adults and young people have a right to expect from each other. Adults must revisit, in supportive, collaborative settings, their personal commitments to the work and the impressions they convey each day, be they intentional or not. I left them with some big ideas to ponder, a number of readings, tools and activities to begin work with the teaching staff, who will also be invited into the planning of what the next steps will be.
I was followed by a presentation from Caitlin McCormack from the PEAR Institute, the Harvard School of Medicine and McLean Hospital initiative that supports schools and community organizations in understanding human developmental needs and employing a common language to communicate the strengths and challenges of children and youth. I was pleased to be the matchmaker between the Hoosick Falls schools and PEAR, and over the past two years the collaboration has grown and provided a centerpiece for the work of the school’s leadership and wellness staffs. Caitlin is a Lead Facilitator for PEAR training and professional development programs and provides super helpful interpretation sessions for PEAR’s landmark Holistic Student Assessment. She shared group development theories and strategies with the Hoosick Falls team, walking them through one of the PEAR group approaches linked to HSA results in a fun, informative and inter-active session.
The last element of the morning was a Skype conference for the participants with Dr. Gil Noam, founder and director of The PEAR Institute and former editor-in-chief of the journal New Directions in Youth Development: Theory, Practice and Research. Dr. Noam has become well-known to the school’s team, hosting them in Boston and communicating regularly as their partnership grows. For nearly an hour, Dr. Noam fielded questions about theory and implementation and shared thoughts about the on-going roll-out of social-emotional programming in the schools.
True to form, Facin had yet another novel activity for the afternoon, a recent added expansion of the restorative programming which has helped the school to raise achievement levels, make the schools safer and more supportive environments for students and staff, and raise its profile in the region as a district on the move. The team adjourned at midday to travel to the Higher Ground Farm where equine specialist Janet Botaish led the group through a version of the Hoosick Equine Connections Program. Janet’s program is affiliated with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) a leading international nonprofit association for professionals incorporating horses to address mental health and personal development needs.
Through their new partnership, the Hoosick Falls schools are developing a program that brings young people to the farm for activities designed to provide a peaceful, purposeful and therapeutic setting in which clients can experience change and growth, often more effectively and quickly than in traditional clinical and psycho-educational approaches. As Janet shared with us, the notion of working with horses is engaging, real time and hands-on. The experience is immediate and fully felt and I can testify that I was thinking of the activities and encounters with my new equine pals for several days.
Next up in Hoosick Falls is a 3-day Summer Retreat this coming July to advance the ideas of authentic relationship, a daily restorative ritual, and continued merging of the skill sets and perspectives of the wellness staff and the academic community. I’m looking forward to working with teachers and staff as we continue to restore to schools the idea that attending the whole child matters at each step along the upward path through the grades. And I’m looking forward to seeing what the next big ideas are from Ken!
Dr. Larry Myatt, Co-Founder