That point was driven home over and over on Tuesday night, Jan. 7, as parents and educators at the State of the Schools event at Fargo South High School talked about how that learning is becoming a key part of the way schools operate today.
Rather than just calling out the “naughty kids” at school and disciplining them as was done not too many years ago, teachers and support staff in all of Fargo’s 23 school buildings are making a concerted effort to be more compassionate and understand what’s going on behind the scenes with the district’s 11,410 students.
In other words, they are building deeper relationships.
From Superintendent Rupak Gandhi to support staff who made a podcast to parents and teachers in focus groups, the Tuesday event focused on how that works and how it can possibly be done better.
Carly Gaddie, a student and family wellness coordinator for the north side schools who does a podcast with elementary school counselor Cassie Larson, told the gathering of about 200 parents and educators that a safe and supportive environment in the schools is key to facilitating learning and having students want to come to school.
“We can’t ignore it,” Larson said.
Students need the tools to cope with traumatic experiences that about 75% of them will go through at least once before turning 17, she said, and it starts with building positive relationships at school.
Gaddie said the issues that some students face at home can be “scary,” including divorces, illness, alcoholism, lack of food and housing and domestic violence.
And as the Fargo schools head into the new decade with a growing student body that could add 500 more students in the next five years, Gandhi said the school board and administrators have determined addressing social and emotional issues among students will be a priority.
They will urge the North Dakota Legislature, which provides 62% of the district’s budget, to offer more funding, he said.
Parents and educators in a focus group following Gandhi’s address and the podcast presentation couldn’t agree more.
“The positive interaction is needed to build kids up,” parent Celeste Carlson said during the focus group discussion.
Lisa Grossman, another parent, said she was “blown away” when she first learned that the issues were actually being addressed in all of the schools.
Special education specialist Rebecca Campbell said in her research there’s evidence that as far as behavior issues a “safe, secure environment is what’s needed before we do anything else.”
As discussion in the focus group turned to what could be done to improve behavioral issues, parents and teachers said that priority needs to carry over into homes.
Parent and teacher Todd Spellerberg suggested parent-teacher conferences focus more on the social and emotional learning than just on the “ABCs” so parents know teachers are making efforts to improve the social and emotional well-being of students and that they can help by making an effort at home, too.
Another suggestion was to make videos showing some of the work being done in schools as teachers and support staff try to better understand and build deeper relationships with students. The videos could be sent to parents or shown at school events such as concerts or athletic events.
Some teachers in the focus group suggested they needed more training, too.
Janelle Helm, dean of students at Lincoln Elementary School, said teachers went through training recently on recognizing trauma and seeing students through a different lens. She said the impact in some of the schools has been dramatic.
Gandhi in his address to parents and educators said he recognizes that there are “higher expectations” for schools to deal with these mental health, social and emotional issues.
“We also know that no two learners are the same,” he said. The mission of the district is to make sure all students succeed, and helping with social and emotional issues is a “matter of equity.”