This article originally appeared in the Ahwatukee Foothills News on February 21, 2018.
By Paul Maryniak, AFN Executive Editor
Less than 24 hours before the Valentine’s Day slaughter at a Florida high school, Kyrene School District administrators were rolling out their plan for identifying and reaching troubled grade school and middle school students before they hurt someone or themselves
It aims to instill in them a lifelong sense of responsibility to treat others respect and encourage them to alert a trusted adult when they see a classmate who appears in need of help.
The multi-tiered plan addresses “social-emotional learning” for Kyrene students and is part of Superintendent Jan Vesely’s comprehensive plan for improving students’ chances of success both academically and in later life in the workforce.
Presented to the governing board on Feb. 13, it promotes “an inclusive culture of respect, high expectations, collaboration and shared responsibility for student success.”
When board member John King asked Vesely why a K-8 school district needs to worry at all about that, Vesely replied:
“We really do believe social-emotional wellness is a strong contributing factor to their success academically and in all contexts of job and life.”
The plan includes a data-driven component to help administrators and teachers not just measure academic success but students’ emotional needs and growth as well. That component is slated to be discussed in March with final board action in spring.
The plan in part seeks to “cultivate partnerships with staff, families, businesses, faith-based groups and community organizations to provide a sustainable system of support and care for all students.”
“We really believe for a child who is really ready for high school, college and beyond – for life – they need cognitive knowledge, they need content knowledge, they need transitional knowledge and they also need social and emotional wellness,” Vesely told the board.
She said Kyrene was stepping into a vacuum in Arizona when it comes to students’ emotional and social health.
“We would propose state standards,” she told the board. “A lot of states have adopted state standards for social and emotional learning.
“We think that’s the kind of movement we need in Arizona, but without those state standards we’re going to move forward in Kyrene and invent our own standards for social and emotional learning.”
Educators and other experts nationwide are focusing more attention on students’ emotional and mental health, especially because of social media’s impact on teens and even grade school pupils.
Tempe Union High School District is similarly focusing more attention on the emotional well-being of students.
Recently a mandatory meeting for all district personnel was the first in a series of professional development workshops on social-emotional wellness, said district spokeswoman Jen Liewer.
“This training was very unique because it was done in partnership with the city of Tempe,” she said, explaining that an expert discussed “how children’s brains are impacted by childhood trauma and how to develop resilience in our students.”
“The information was fascinating and really touched on just how much our students are struggling emotionally and why,” Liewer said, adding staffers also “participated in group exercises and discussion, developing strategies to better connect with students and address their social and emotional wellness.”
“The staff is really excited about what took place and the direction we are moving to provide our teachers with tools to help students with more than just their academics,” Liewer added.
Vesely referred to her strategy the day after the Florida massacre in a letter to parents, telling them:
“We have assigned counselors and school psychologists to each of our campuses to work with students who need help with feelings of isolation, bullying and depression. There is much more that needs to be done, but we are taking steps to create a web of support to ensure our students successfully navigate their way to a healthy future.”
She also provided guidance for parents whose children may have been traumatized by news of the school shooting.
At the board meeting, Vesely explained the overarching goal behind her plan.
“We want a comprehensive approach to social-emotional learning” she said, that will improve “their ability to problem-solve, their ability to have positive relationships and learn how to deal with conflict. We know students aren’t born resilient, but resilience can be taught.”
Board member Bernadette Coggins lauded the plan, recalling how a 2015 suicide by a Corona del Sol High School student and the death of a student from Aprende Middle School in Chandler “ripped through our community and tore a lot of hearts.”
Coggins said Kyrene’s plan addresses a question that many educators and parents are asking: “How can we start to get deeper with our students? We’re not doing enough.”
While much of the plan focuses on sixth- through eighth-graders, parts of it will be aimed at children all the way down to first grade, when, Vesely said, kids start recognizing that others have feelings.
One piece of the district’s strategy is already being tested at Aprende with the help of the Speak Up Stand Up Save a Life movement led by County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s office.
Hundreds of students and adults met last month at a conference that reflects that movement’s goal: to bring law enforcement, government and the community together and help students devise their own ways of teaching their classmates how to relate to others constructively and how to help those who appear troubled.
Eight Aprende student leaders and some from Akimel a-Al Middle School in Ahwatukee attended that conference.
Students were led to “come up with their own ideas on the best way to communicate to a trusted adult when they hear or see cries for help such as bullying, cyberbullying, drug addiction, depression and ongoing threats against others,” according to the movement’s website, speakupstandupsavealife.com.
“We’re in the second month of implementation and we’re getting positive feedback from teachers, kids and parents,” Vesely told the board. “The messaging is coming from the student leaders, which is so much more impactful and powerful than from us.”
The student leaders are attempting to break down their classmates’ resistance to reporting a particularly troubled youngster to teachers or administrators.
“We asked them why kids don’t report,” Vesely told the board. “Nobody wants to tattle. They don’t want their friends to be angry with them.”
“The student leaders are stressing the importance of reporting,” she added, noting “the majority of things we investigate comes from students.”
Vesely said sixth- and seventh-graders have been particularly responsive to the program, while eighth-graders are more resistant.
The district has ordered several thousand bracelets for the third quarter that will be distributed by the student leaders to all students at Aprende and possibly Akimel as well.
The bracelets’ exterior bears the words, “Stand Up! Speak Out” while inside is a texting address that students can use to report a classmate they think needs adult help.
“The student leaders will create a video to explain what the bracelets’ meaning and begin handing them out to individual students, making a face-to-face and one-on-one connection to emphasize the importance of the message,” an aide to Vesely said.
Before the end of the year, students from Aztec Strong, a campus organization of Corona del Sol students dedicated to raising an awareness of teen suicides, will also work with the student leaders at Aprende.
Students from Aprende generally go to Corona after they graduate from eighth grade. “It’s just super-cool that Aztec Strong can be involved with our leadership group in extending suicide prevention to students,” Vesely said.