This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mora-Lee Moore, an 8th-grade class representative at Gompers Elementary School in Wynnefield, put it succinctly: Mental health is the “most deeply cared-about issue in our community,” she said.
Student Council member Roger Stone added his own take. At Gompers, he said, “Everyone’s always on edge and can’t let loose because they’re afraid that people won’t like what they have to say or won’t listen to them.”
Because of this, the Student Council, advised by counselor Akeesha Washington, hosted a Youth Mental Health Week dedicated to supporting students and raising awareness of this crucial issue.
Besides daily special events, teachers implemented mental health exercises into their everyday rituals. For instance, they began each day during the week with a lesson from Second Step, which “provides instruction in social and emotional learning with units on skills for learning, empathy, emotion management, friendship skills, and problem-solving,” according to its website. At the end of each day, teachers chose a closing reflection; the options included journal writing, group discussion, or practicing a coping skill.
For kindergarten through 4th grade, the week began with building a coping toolbox. Inside are coping tools to help with regulating emotions and calming down students at school. The students add to the toolbox throughout the week, and they will be stored in the classroom for students to use to help cope with emotions.
The younger students and parents were invited to create coping toys such as stress balls and inspiration stones, do yoga, and create a coping plan for the upcoming state standardized tests. At the end of the week, the kindergartners through 4th graders were featured in a talent show.
Gompers 2nd grader Nyla Casey with her coping toolbox, which includes a stress ball and other objects that can promote calming activities. (Photo: Kelsey Green)
All students also participated in creating the Inspired Wall, modeled after the Paris Padlocks of Love. Instead of love messages, the wall was festooned with ribbons, stars, and padlocks with inspirational messages on them.
The culmination of the week was the reveal of the Inspired Wall, which actually is on a gate that separates the Gompers playground from the campus of St. Joseph’s University.
The 5th through 8th graders started the week by participating in a High School and Resource Fair. This was not Gompers’ first fair of this kind, but it was by far the largest. At last year’s fair, 20 different schools and organizations were represented, and this year there were 30, according to Washington.
Heather Marcus, a school counselor at Masterman High School who attended the fair, said she was really excited to reach out to students from different sections of the city. According to Marcus, Masterman is trying to be representative of Philadephia, so fairs like the one at Gompers are a great opportunity to talk to students from different zip codes.
Organizations that attended included summer camps, community centers, and other programs meant to aid students with their mental health. Some of these were Jewish Family Community Service, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, Center for Autism, YMCA West Philly, and Eat Right Philly.
The school fair included public, charter, and private high schools so that 5th through 8th graders could get a jump on thinking about their futures. Eighth graders should already know where they are going next year.
The rest of the week features activities that follow key themes such as “What is Mental Health?,” “Coping with Mental Health”, and “Test Anxiety and Kids’ Health,” culminating in a community celebration.