A tree can only grow if its roots receive water. Each of us has our own individual root system. This foundation has the ability to help develop strong individuals and communities. We, as a community, need to water our roots in order to grow.
Imagine walking into a school, an institution based upon educational growth, and being met by an environment that encourages the expansion of knowledge and interests of diverse content. Imagine a structure that focuses on and supports the individual perspectives and voices that make up the school. Imagine trusting relationships creating the parameters for people to come together and create a holistic community. These systems of support and collaboration are essential in developing individuals who are able to emerge from their education with passion and engagement and who have the drive to improve their expanding community as they grow. Last January, the Rowland Steering Committee, a group of faculty and students focused on improving the health and well-being of students and faculty at Harwood Union High School, experienced firsthand the transformative impacts of schools that integrate teaching and environmental methods focused on establishing strong root systems that support students and their shared learning community.
The Rowland Steering Committee is a collaborative teacher-student group with the goal of creating a holistic wellness environment at Harwood. The general goal is to build a school environment and educational structure that effectively addresses all aspects of the well-being of the members of the school community. These factors include the exterior focuses of wellness: physical, financial and academic, and the interior focuses of wellness: emotional, mental and spiritual. This group exists due to the Rowland Foundation, which supports transformative initiatives in Vermont schools and has had great and lasting impacts on Harwood in the past. Tara Cariano, a Harwood counselor, applied for and received a grant from the Rowland Foundation and formed her steering committee to help implement her mission of holistic wellness at Harwood Union.
The Rowland Steering Committee traveled to San Francisco to view methods that schools use to infuse wellness practices into their culture and environment. More specifically, we were interested in the concept of social-emotional learning and found it beneficial to view this practice’s active implementation. Systemic social-emotional learning is the complete immersion of social and emotional skill sets integrated alongside the academic structure of schools. These systems build empathy and connections for students and faculty to provide supportive learning environments and intentionally focus on skills necessary for the future. This region of California has shown a specific interest in the practice of social-emotional learning as well as other effective wellness and school climate enhancement approaches. The San Francisco Wellness Initiative is an active wellness-based approach used at 19 high schools in the region and became effective in response to the Columbine school shooting. Implementing wellness awareness practices was based on perspectives that viewed focusing on mental well-being as a method to increase school security. These practices support the idea that students are able to learn more effectively and safely when their health and well-being are part of the environment they are educated within.
VISITED FIVE SCHOOLS
We visited five schools in the San Francisco area with diverse perspectives and functioning practices focused on schoolwide wellness. These schools include Ida B. Wells High School and Abraham Lincoln High School, both based in the structure of the San Francisco Wellness Initiative, the Keys School and the Nueva School, which have integrations of social-emotional learning in their academic structures, and Gunn High School, which has incorporated similar structures as the San Francisco Wellness Initiative in response to the school’s high suicide rates. We could feel a sense of destigmatization of mental health and wellness needs on these campuses, which really stood out to us.
From these school visits, we were able to draw some essential takeaways from each school’s wellness implementations, some of which we are considering as possibilities for Harwood over the course of the next three years. Three of the schools incorporated a Wellness Center, an area designated as an intentional, safe space accessible to students throughout their day. The area was welcoming with snacks, approachable staff, health resources and an area to sit. Emotional health and well-being were a center of focus and could be addressed by counselors or concerns expressed in a safe area. The space held open arms to all students throughout the school and was accessible whatever the reason for any student to experience a 15-minute maximum break from their busy day.
The integration of wellness in the academic structure within the schools we visited created a safe and engaged community. Many of these schools followed practices that gave higher priority and importance to personal and communal restorative practices than to punitive recuperations. The focus was centered on methods of growth and the importance of respecting and giving back to your community. Many schools had recurring themes of trusting relationships between all members of the school which allowed for increased freedom and opportunity for diverse educational explorations. There were also high levels of community collaboration and parent involvement providing support for the school’s wellness and the integration of social-emotional aspects of learning for their community’s students.
Currently, the Rowland Steering Committee is particularly interested in engaging community perspectives in the communal growth which is beginning to spark. The perspectives of students, faculty, parents and community members are essential in transitioning the communal environment to one that acknowledges the importance of wellness. On top of schools, these spaces exist in homes, towns and the larger Waterbury–Mad River Valley community. Wellness work is beneficial to the entire community. This work moves in a continuous cycle. Healthier individuals will build a healthier and more engaged community and, as the community grows, it will give back to the cycle of students who continue to learn, change and grow. We, as a whole, are responsible for watering the roots in order for our community to grow.
Brookens lives in Waterbury and is a junior at Harwood Union High School.