Washington School District plans to implement a new initiative this school year to support students emotionally and socially.
According to Superintendent James Konrad, they want to teach students in every grade about responsible decision-making and building positive relationships through “Social and Emotional Learning.”
“We spent this past school year talking about ways to connect with our students,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re taking the time to listen to the students and hear what challenges they’re facing in and outside of school.”
Erin Fleming, the guidance counselor at Washington Park Elementary, said this initiative isn’t necessarily an established, by-the-book curriculum that all the teachers will follow, though they did attend professional development training for social and emotional learning.
“It’s really just the teachers being more mindful of their daily interactions with the kids and knowing that the students will model that behavior in their own lives and relationships,” Fleming said.
The initiative will look different at different grade levels, Konrad said, but the goals are similar – building positive communication and relationships.
“We saw concerns with school violence across the nation,” he said. “We’re responsible for making sure our kids are safe, and part of that is building relationships with students and making sure they have opportunities to voice concerns.”
As a means of helping to build those relationships, Konrad said, the district hired two school police officers. Previously the district contracted with Washington city police to have a school resource officer at the high school, but now, they’ll have full-time officers who are district employees at the elementary school and the junior-senior high school.
“These two officers embrace the social/emotional learning,” Konrad said. “The reason they’re there is to build those positive student relationships and ensure safety in both of our buildings.”
Both officers, Carmen Molinaro and Bob Cregut, recently retired as South Strabane Township police officers. According to South Strabane police Chief Drew Hilk, Cregut served the township 30 years and Molinaro served more than 20 years.
“They live in the community and are invested in the safety of our kids,” Konrad said.
One way the district plans to implement social and emotional learning is to create time for classes to have “effective circles,” when students can sit together in a circle and talk to their teachers and each other about things they may be going through or their goals. Konrad said it will be a time for the students to express their opinions and support their ideas.
“We need our students to be able to sift through the opinions they’re exposed to and have candid conversations about things that are impacting them,” he said. “We’ll be taking those conversations and tying them back into the curriculum and academics.”
He also hopes these circles will reduce bullying, by helping students relate to each other and by teaching them how to resolve conflicts.
“We need our students to be problem solvers and to be good listeners and good stewards of the way they respond to different situations and people,” Konrad said. “If you disagree with someone, you need to be responsible for the way you respond to people. You don’t need to yell or curse.”
Fleming said her goal for the initiative is that students will be more aware of their feelings, able to express themselves more appropriately and more willing to work out problems or disagreements on their own.
“I expect to see fewer behavior issues,” Fleming said. “I’m hoping that attendance improves because they’ll want to come to school. They’ll like their teachers, their classes and their friends. Ultimately, we’re teaching them to be better humans. We want them to be kind and successful.”
Another means of implementing the program, Konrad said, is “restorative practices,” to reach students “displaying certain behaviors or facing challenges or conflict.”
Traditional disciplinary actions for students in the past have been sending a student to the principal’s office before issuing a detention or suspension, Konrad said. But that doesn’t always reach the problem or the issues that caused a child to “act out” in the first place, he said.
He said that while restorative practices are not a replacement for discipline, as a district, they’d like to get to the root of problems or challenges their students are facing by addressing the behaviors and communicating and monitoring students’ progress.
“A lot of this is restoring the relationship, so the kid is going to be excited to still come to class,” he said. “It’s about working with students more strategically.”
For example, if a student falls asleep in class or displays other types of behaviors that would typically get them into trouble, the teachers and administration want to know why those students are struggling before disciplining them.
“That student may have been up all night caring for younger siblings. Or maybe a student was struggling because they didn’t get a meal the day before,” said Darren Vaccaro, the Washington Park Elementary intermediate principal. “Kids are going to make mistakes and are going to come in with issues. We just need to better understand them.”
Vaccaro said he wants his students to know that their teachers support them and that they’re welcome at school.
“When students feel they have the support and understanding from teachers and staff, they’ll be more willing to communicate,” he said. “If we can change the behavior for the better just a little bit, we’re doing our job to help these students succeed.”