School climate

Becoming aware: Nashville schools bring mindfulness into the classroom

Students at USN prepare for a mindfulness practice.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, the sixth graders in Katie Reen’s English class at the University School of Nashville (USN) were chatting at their desks, animatedly discussing the school talent show scheduled for that afternoon.

But when Reen struck a handheld chime, the students fell silent and closed their eyes. Almost no one moved as Reen instructed them to think about what they wanted to accomplish during the day, and about the “jiggles and wiggles” they might feel about the impending show.

The students were participating in mindfulness, a practice of taking time to be aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has taken hold in the corporate world and beyond as a technique to overcome personal and professional stressors and cope with digital distractions, but educators at a growing number of schools have found that it helps children thrive as well.

USN 6th grader during a mindfulness practice.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
USN 6th grader during a mindfulness practice.

At USN, mindfulness is part of the program: Teachers incorporate different form of mindfulness practice in their classrooms throughout the day and year. The school’s between-class bell even sounds like a handheld chime.

USN teachers and students say mindfulness has helped students cope with academic pressures during tests and quizzes, and manage emotions about at-home pressures, such as divorce. Several studies have shown that it decreases behavioral problems and raises student achievement on standardized tests. Proponents say it makes it easier for students to learn and teachers to teach.

Becoming Aware: A Nashville State of Mind

Both public and private educators in Nashville have been focusing on “social and emotional learning,” based on the belief that students need skills to help manage emotions and relationships in addition to the academic skills they learn in class.

USN was the first school in the Southeast to work with Mindful Schools, a California-based non-profit that offers mindfulness training to teachers, focused especially on urban schools. And Metro Nashville Public Schools is the only urban school district in Tennessee to have a director of social and emotional learning. In 2012, the district was one of eight nationwide to receive a $250,000 grant to expand social and emotional learning from the NoVo Foundation and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Organizations like Mindfulness in Nashville Education and Alignment Nashville bring together area teachers from private and public schools together to exchange resources and ideas about how to improve students’ social and emotional learning.

Mindfulness might conjure up language like “emptying the mind,” but an important component of mindfulness is that the “clutter” doesn’t disappear.

“It’s not about clearing your mind; it’s just about becoming aware,” said Mary Agee, the University School’s mindfulness coordinator.

University School guidance counselor Helen Tarleton illustrates mindfulness by shaking a snow globe. “When you shake the snow globe, it’s really hard to see what’s going on in the present moment clearly,” she said.

“What mindfulness does is, your mind is cluttered like [a shaken snow globe], and you stop and pause, and take time to really focus. All that clutter kind of then settles, so you can see clearly what’s right in front of you.”

Journey to mindfulness

The middle school at University School Nashville began its journey to mindfulness about eight years ago. USN has about 300 students in grades five through eight.

Tarleton said she was frustrated that tactics like anger management groups, self-esteem groups, or support groups for children experiencing grief didn’t seem to be effective for her students, who often didn’t want to discuss family issues at school.

USN students during mindfulness practice.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
USN students during mindfulness practice.

Plus, she added, those approaches don’t reach all students. Students without behavioral problems or difficulties at home also have social and emotional needs, but the school’s rigorous schedule didn’t allow time for a wellness class where she could instruct students in stress reduction.

“We needed something the teachers could do,” Tarleton said.

Tarleton learned about mindfulness at a counselors conference in Washington, D.C. in 2006 and recommended that a faculty member attend a conference held by the non-profit Mindful Schools in 2009. Tarleton and Mary Agee, then a photography teacher, flew to Oakland, California to attend.

Agee came back to Nashville convinced that Mindful Schools could be the key for social and emotional learning for the school’s middle graders. Middle school principal Jeff Greenfield also had conversations with the organization and observed mindfulness in an Oakland public school. He agreed.

Sharing the lessons

Greenfield asked trainers from Mindful Schools to come to Nashville and train all of his middle school teachers in the fall of 2010. The non-profit, which also offers online trainings, said they would — but only on the condition that USN partner with a local public school and help foster mindfulness there. Agee and Tarleton connected with Lynn Driver, an art teacher at Rose Park Magnet Middle School who was involved in Mindfulness in Nashville Education.

USN and Rose Park are, in some ways, very different schools: For instance, at USN, middle school tuition is more than $20,000 a year. At Rose Park, about 64 percent students meet the requirements for free or reduced lunch.

At USN, Greenfield asked teachers all to start off their days with mindfulness practice for at least the first six weeks of school. Rose Park’s Driver did not have the formal support of the principal or training. Instead, Tarleton and Agee visited her classroom and gave her feedback, informed by what they had learned in Mindful Schools training.

But, Tarleton and Agee say, despite the differences in school culture and student body, mindfulness has worked in both schools. They say that any teacher interested in the practice can incorporate it into the classroom.

Tarleton said she would advise other interested teachers to find resources in their own community.

“It’s developing so much now, especially in Nashville, that it’s not hard to do,” Tarleton said.

Agee is now the school’s mindfulness coordinator. She prepares materials to help guide teachers and students through mindfulness exercises. She hopes to eventually make the resources, like CDs and cards printed with different exercises, available to teachers at other schools.

Student Response

According to last year’s annual student life survey, 56 percent of fifth graders at UNS reported that they use mindfulness in stressful situations, and 58 percent reported they use it to focus and concentrate.

“It just helps you kind of not think about the test and whatever you’re doing, and it gets your mind off of it, and you can focus a lot more and you’re not like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a test,’” said Alexander Haynes, a fifth grader.

Older middle school students are often less openly enthusiastic about mindfulness, Agee said. Only 41 percent of sixth graders at UNS reported using mindfulness in stressful situations, and 37 percent reported using it for focus and concentration.

But a sixth grader in Reen’s class was quick to volunteer how mindfulness was helpful when it came to schoolwork. If you don’t try to settle the clutter in your mind before studying, “you’re going to be thinking about chicken nuggets or something,” the sixth grader said.

And despite apparent waning enthusiasm in the older grades of the middle school, several students have told Agee they rediscovered and regularly employ mindfulness in high school, even though teachers don’t allot classroom time for it.

USN has held several workshops for parents from USN and the wider community that have been at capacity; Agee estimates 100 parents have now gone through the trainings.

Teacher buy-in

Just as important to the success of mindfulness as student support is teacher buy-in, Tarleton said. “Imagine doing what Katie [Reen] did and standing in front of the class if you really don’t believe it. It’s not going to work,” she said.

In the years since USN formally incorporated mindfulness in its middle school, teacher enthusiasm has only grown. Bakari King, the middle school drama teacher, said he’s embraced it from the beginning.  “Sometimes children, and I’m including myself even though I’m 34 years old, we need a reminder to slow down,” King said.

Mindfulness helped his students stay focused during daylong rehearsals before the school musical in August and reduces pre-stage jitters, he said  But he doesn’t always tell the students that they’re exercising mindfulness when he leads them through exercises to help them be, as he puts it, “alive, alert, and aware,” lest they become wary of the term.

“These are vegetables. But, if you say it’s V8 Fruit splash, they might take it,” King said.

Updated: The description of how USN staff decided to use Mindful Schools was edited for accuracy.

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new year

Here’s what Carmen Fariña’s top deputies have on their plates this school year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

As the person responsible for 1.1 million students, 75,000 teachers and 1,800 schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña can’t have eyes everywhere.

She has surrounded herself with a small team of key advisors tasked with executing her vision — a group that has stayed put during Fariña’s tenure. As Fariña’s fourth school year kicks off, here’s what her core group of deputies have been working on, and what’s on their agenda this school year.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson, Senior Deputy Chancellor, Division of School Support

Salary: $225,948

Her story: Gibson has served at virtually every level of school leadership — after starting out as a teacher in Queens over 30 years ago, she rose to become an assistant principal, principal, and a high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, re-empowering superintendents to directly oversee principals instead of the more diffuse system of networks that were created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

She’s also partly responsible for overseeing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $383 million Renewal turnaround program — an ambitious effort to improve schools that have long struggled, which is approaching a key three-year milestone. But despite being Chancellor Fariña’s second in command, she has managed to keep a fairly low profile and rarely appears in the press (except when she does).

What’s on her agenda this year: The education department is dramatically expanding the number of schools with embedded social services — known as ‘community schools’ — this year and Gibson will be responsible for making sure the rollout goes smoothly. She’s also working on efforts to make the city’s specialized high schools more diverse, and oversees the city’s network of field centers designed to provide teacher training and other support services to schools.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Corinne Rello-Anselmi

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, Deputy Chancellor for Specialized Instruction and Student Services

Salary: $216,219

Her story: A nearly 40-year veteran of the city’s public school system, Rello-Anselmi got her start as a special education teacher at P.S. 108 in the Bronx. After a dozen years of teaching, she worked her way up into supervisory positions, eventually becoming the school’s principal and revamping its literacy program. She made the jump to administrator in the Bloomberg administration, and was promoted to deputy chancellor to help oversee reforms designed to integrate more students with disabilities into traditional classrooms.

Advocates have repeatedly pointed out problems with the city’s special education system, including lack of access to key services. But some say Rello-Anselmi tends to be open to criticism, and is receptive to proposed fixes. “She has acknowledged the problems,” said Maggie Moroff, a special-education expert at Advocates for Children. “She’s not closing her eyes and wishing they would go away.”

What’s on her agenda: As the city continues to push all schools to serve students with a range of disabilities, Rello-Anselmi has said she will provide training and support to help schools adjust to the change. Although a working group is responsible for overseeing fixes to the city’s notoriously dysfunctional special education data system, Rello-Anselmi will be watching those changes closely.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose, Deputy Chancellor, Division of Operations

Salary: $197,425

Her story: Before joining the education department in 2009, Elizabeth Rose had a 20-year career in the media industry including at Vault.com, a website that ranks employers and internship programs, and the vacation planning site Travelzoo. After turning to the public sector and cutting her teeth under Kathleen Grimm, the long-serving official in charge of school operations, Rose was elevated to deputy chancellor in 2015. She has frequently been called on to manage difficult problems, including the city’s much-criticized lead-testing protocol, and a controversial rezoning on the Upper West Side.

Joe Fiordaliso — who sat across the table from Rose during the Upper West Side rezoning negotiations as the District 3 community education council president — said Rose was particularly adept at handling contentious conversations with parents. “I’ve never heard a word from her that doesn’t have purpose,” he said. “She’s not someone you’re going to knock off her game.”

What’s on her agenda: Amid a citywide homelessness crisis, Rose is responsible for connecting the one-in-eight students who have faced housing insecurity with social workers and other services. She’ll also supervise the rollout of the city’s universal free lunch program, which began this school year, and would be involved in any new rezoning efforts.

Josh Wallack with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor of Early Childhood Education and Student Enrollment

Salary: $200,226

His story: Before working for the education department, Josh Wallack helped run early childhood programs at the Children’s Aid Society, and worked as legislative director to then-city councilman Bill de Blasio. So it wasn’t a surprise when he was tapped to supervise Mayor de Blasio’s signature effort to provide free pre-K to every city resident — a program that has widely been hailed as a success. Wallack, who was the first administrator to carry the title “chief strategy officer,” was later promoted to deputy chancellor of strategy and policy. But more recently, his title was changed again — to deputy chancellor of early childhood education and student enrollment.

Wallack has also spearheaded other high-profile projects, including the education department’s diversity plan, which some advocates criticized for not going far enough to support integration. Matt Gonzales, who has pushed the city to more aggressively address school segregation, said he respects Wallack (and once had the chance to talk with him in a more relaxed setting when they were stuck in a Texas airport together). “I’ve found him to be really interested in learning about the work that we do,” Gonzales said, “despite it being part of my job to push him as hard as possible.”

What’s on his agenda: For the first time, New York City is offering some families access to free preschool for three-year-olds, with plans to make it universally available by 2021. Wallack will oversee that effort, and will help the education department manage programs for children as young as six weeks old. He’ll also be responsible for carrying out the city’s diversity plan.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg, Deputy Chancellor Division of Teaching and Learning

Salary: $205,637

His story: Phil Weinberg began his career at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years. After rising to principal in 2001, Weinberg ran Telly “like the beloved mayor of a close-knit town” as the New York Times once put it, building “learning communities” within the school that helped shepherd students to graduation. In 2014, Chancellor Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

His tenure got off to a rocky start, with some early staff turnover under his watch. But he was seen as a key hire to advise Chancellor Fariña on the high school world, where she has less direct experience. He’s also managed many of the mayor and chancellor’s highest-profile initiatives, from universal literacy to making computer-science classes available to all students by 2025.

What’s on his agenda: Weinberg will be responsible for making progress on many of the mayor’s key “equity and excellence” programs, including making sure more high school students have access to AP classes, expanding algebra instruction to students before they reach high school, and ensuring students are reading on grade level by the end of second grade.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Milady Baez

Milady Baez, Deputy Chancellor, Division of English Language Learners and Student Support

Salary: $198,243

Her story: A veteran educator and native of the Dominican Republic, Milady Baez started as a bilingual teacher before rising to assistant principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 314 and principal at P.S. 149 in Queens. She rose to the role of superintendent under the Bloomberg administration, and oversaw more than a dozen schools and bilingual programs. Chancellor Fariña pulled Baez out of retirement to run a new office dedicated to English Language Learners, roughly 13 percent of the city’s student population, and was promoted to deputy chancellor in 2015.

The city has been under pressure from the state to expand bilingual programs, where native English speakers and English learners take classes in both languages, and Baez has been working to reach an ambitious goal of making those programs available to all English learners by 2018. She has earned praise from some, including Teresa Arboleda, president of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners. “I think she’s sensitive to the needs of that population,” Arboleda said. “She gets it.”

What’s on her agenda: Baez will be responsible for continuing the expansion of bilingual programs and helping train principals to better serve English learners.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”