Creating Supportive Learning Environments

How Hopkins Public Schools is creating a culture of wellness to make sure every child succeeds.
December 22, 2017

Hopkins Public Schools is focused on a world-class education for all students. But what does this mean? Of course, strong academics are part of the equation, but equally important is helping students develop the resilience they need for lifelong success.

To accomplish this goal, the Hopkins Education Foundation (HEF) and leaders from across the District are developing a series of strategies and programs that address anxiety, stress, and trauma — all of which can be barriers to learning. This fall, HEF announced six wellness grants that span across all age groups, from preschool to high school, and cover a range of topics from creating a support center at the high school to helping students understand the importance of nutrition. The programs described below are all part of this work and funded by HEF. The foundation is also making wellness the theme for its biggest annual fundraiser, the Royal Bash.

"The Hopkins Education Foundation wants to help our schools break down barriers to create an environment where all children can excel," said Jennifer St. Clair, executive director of HEF. "This funding allows the District to provide more opportunities that will positively impact the academic growth of each and every student."

Stress and high school students

According to the 2016 Minnesota Student Survey, the percentage of students self-reporting a long-term mental health, behavioral, or emotional health problem noticeably increased among students in grades eight, nine, and eleven. This trend was reflected both at Hopkins and across the state.

In response to these results, Holly Magdanz, coordinator of the Hopkins One Voice Coalition, is partnering with Community Blueprint, a local social marketing agency, to create a mental health awareness campaign at the high school. This youth-driven campaign will empower students to identify and get help for emotional and mental health challenges, either for themselves or for a friend.

"The campaign will tread a careful line between destigmatizing, yet not overly dramatizing, emotional and mental health challenges that are prevalent with teenagers," Magdanz said, "and help them understand why getting help now is so important for their health and well-being."

Magdanz describes the peer-to-peer messaging around the campaign as critical, as students need to have a sense of normal stress and what might be crossing the line, and what to do if that occurs. The campaign covers topics around early prevention and coping techniques, as well as provides students with the skills necessary to identify and support a friend who might not recognize their own unhealthy behavior. These are all lifelong skills that students will use throughout their lives. 

Student Recharge Center

Students who feel they are experiencing an unhealthy level of stress or who are struggling with other mental health issues will have the opportunity to go to the Recharge Center, which will be housed at the high school two to three times a week after school.

Hopkins High School, the special services department, and HEF are working together to develop this cutting-edge space, which will be staffed by social workers and counselors who can support students around a range of issues from relationships and depression to stress and test anxiety. The idea is to give students a proactive approach that empowers them to be self-reliant. The center will be open to junior high students as well.

"We want to make it possible for all adolescents in the District to have access to the Recharge Center; using activity buses, we can help students access the center and also get home," said Linda Gardner, special services director for Hopkins Public Schools.

Understanding trauma
Hopkins' focus on wellness includes a deeper look into issues like trauma. Although the word sounds intense, its implications are universal, as all of us will, at some point, experience a loss or tragedy that will disrupt our normal lives. Educators are just beginning to understand trauma and the role it can play on students' ability to learn. With this learning comes a lot of hope that a basic understanding of how to recognize it can improve the learning outcome for the students who are experiencing it.

"Trauma physically changes the brain, but it can be remedied," said Becky Allen, staff development coordinator for Hopkins Public Schools. "You can start to make little shifts with kids, and you can teach them how to calm down or focus themselves."

Last year, 180 teachers enrolled in training designed to help students manage their emotions, which in effect helps them become better learners. According to Allen, the professional development piece is important because this is not training that teachers typically receive in. Recognizing a child in crisis and having strategies on hand to help is becoming more and more relevant; however, it’s also important for teachers to know when the situation requires intervention beyond the classroom.

"Teachers can be an important first intervention," Allen said, "but we should not expect them to have the skills to be therapists."

Healthy body, healthy minds
Another component of the wellness initiative is giving students access to nutrition and helping them understand the link between the food choices they make and their overall health. Barb Mechura, director of nutrition at Hopkins Public Schools, describes making healthy food choices as a critical lifelong skill.

“We want to create an environment where students will be successful,” Mechura said. “And health is a strong indicator of your lifelong ability to achieve.”

Hopkins promotes a healthy environment in a variety of ways. The nutrition department goes beyond just serving food. Nearly every school has a garden, which students help tend over the summer. However, with long winters, these gardens have a limited impact on students.

To expand the growing season, HEF has purchased four quick-growing gardens that will rotate through each elementary school. Students can grow 

produce like lettuce, herbs, and kale year-round and can experiment with the different ways herbs can enhance the taste of certain foods without using sugar or salt. All of this pairs well with the school lunch program, which promotes foods that are made from scratch and minimally processed. Healthy food habits are important to develop in childhood, as they carry on through adulthood.

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