May 2022
School Is Where the Heart Is
Area Schools Turn to Safety and Connection to Promote Learning

When I was six years old I flunked the first grade. My main crime was a congenital inability to sit still, and my father’s solution at the time was to send me to Catholic school for my second year of the first grade. It turned out to be an inspired decision. There a collection of nuns freshly primed with Vatican II lavished a bewildering amount of love on their young charges, and while I was still perpetually missing recess, that love filled me up.

When it was time for my similarly weird kid to go to school — he precociously flunked out of preschool twice by the time he was three — we enrolled him in Discovery Gardens preschool, an organ of the Prescott Unified School District. In what has to be a cosmic echo, the teachers there embraced both Ellis and us, his parents, with enthusiasm and acceptance. It was not unusual for Ellis and his teachers to profess their love for each other on the daily. So for a couple of years I was giddy with relief.

But then it was time for kindergarten.

This time, with history as a guide, I was properly terrified for Ellis. I shopped around for months before settling on La Tierra Community School and its diminutive, parrot-owning, Disney-loving kindergarten teacher, Tricia Arnts. Again — I get a little misty in the retelling — we were awash in a tsunami of love and learning.

Miss Tricia loves Ellis, not despite his fidgety and endlessly questioning nature, but because of it. This year I figured we were just about the luckiest parents of the luckiest kid in the whole world.

But here’s the secret. The nuns back in 1981 might have been a fluke but, as it turns out, fostering love and connection among children, teachers, and their parents is just good for the business of educating kids.

If you ask Julie Jongsma, La Tierra’s director, she’s adamant that kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Using a framework called Conscious Discipline, they start the kids early with lessons like “kindness is the most important thing,” and “you’re in charge of you and I’m in charge of me.”

“We really wanted to build a community family so kids know, ‘When I'm at school, this is my school family; they all know me and they know my family.’” And when the kids have big feelings, La Tierra’s staff is ready for that, too. As one cotton-haired third-grader named Mae put it, “We can express our feelings with the teachers, and they will help make it better.”

“They help you find a solution to whatever problem that makes you feel bad,” chimes in another third-grader, Mabel. These kids point out that this not only helps them in school; it also helps them at home. “I have been more helpful,” said Mabel. “And I normally would get angry at my siblings a lot, especially my brother. Now I don't do this much. And I play with them more.”

The point to all of this isn’t (only) to help kids feel safe and loved, though. It’s to get them in the mode of learning. “My goal is for children to come here, and learn all these skills that help them be who they are. And I think that we do really well,” their teacher, David McNelly, told me.

That a small school with a whimsical name like La Tierra has embraced the kind of classroom management that resembles a group hug might not be so surprising. What is perhaps more surprising that the school district is doing it.

PUSD, with Student Wellness Director Jessy Stickel at the helm, is using a different program from that of La Tierra, but the outlines are the same: encourage self-awareness and self-regulation in a supportive setting, and you’re going to have kids with better outcomes. As it turns out, what the nuns at Sacred Heart were doing back in 1981 is an excellent road map to reduce fighting, increase attendance, and support academic achievement.

“What we all need to understand, both pre- and post-pandemic, is that kids need to feel loved before they can learn,” said Stickel. “If they don’t feel loved, they won’t be able to sit in a chair and learn.” In the case of PUSD, with a sprawling network of schools, the logistics of a programmatic approach to supporting kids and fostering connection can be a challenge.

Some schools, such as Abia Judd, have enthusiastically opted in to the district’s student wellbeing program, Capturing Kids’ Hearts; others are still in the process. To address this, Stickel is working to implement a trio of initiatives to achieve a consistent kumbaya: roll out a standard version of Capturing Kids’ Hearts district-wide, increase parent education and engagement for students' wellbeing, and implement small groups where kids can safely share difficult feelings.

These happen by way of group circles facilitated for boys by The Launchpad’s Boys 2 Men program and for girls by trainer Beth Dunn, who is partnered with Matforce. Through a series of weekly meetings, kids become accustomed to sharing their feelings and finding solutions to have their needs met in productive ways.

“People have needs, and if those needs aren’t being met, we go to a default destruction setting,” Stickel told me. “We need to meet those needs so we can learn better and be better to each other.”

As the mother of a kid who has been coming home from kindergarten and teaching me to be better, I must say I agree. Thanks, Tricia.

Erica Ryberg has been a journalist since 2003 but is nevertheless known around town as “Brandon Montoya’s wife.” She also thinks he needs to do something about the roads.

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