Close your eyes

How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, school psychologist Amy Schirm stood before two-dozen fifth-graders in a classroom at Denver’s Munroe Elementary School. Piano music played softly in the background and a string of white holiday lights twinkled on the wall behind her.

“Close your eyes,” Schirm said. “I’m going to ring the bell three times. Just focus all your attention on the sound.” She struck a small metal bowl with a mallet.

“Let your body kind of feel heavy, like you’re sinking down into your chair,” she said. “Just take a minute to check in with yourself. How are you doing in this moment?”

The students were practicing mindfulness — concentrating on their present thoughts, emotions and environment. The concept is catching on in schools in Colorado and nationwide as a way to help students better focus their attention, process their emotions and develop compassion.

Advocates say mindfulness can be especially valuable in high-poverty schools such as Munroe, where many students face difficult home lives and need strong social and emotional skills.

Nearly all the students Schirm was addressing that afternoon followed her instructions intently, some with eyes serenely closed and others with hoods pulled low over their faces. `

“We’re constantly telling kids to pay attention, but we never teach them how, or what that means,”  said Schirm, who spearheaded the school’s foray into mindfulness last year.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A fifth-grader in Fallon Newman’s class practices mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Mindfulness fills that gap, helping kids tune in to instruction and their own emotional lives.

At least 40 Denver schools are weaving mindfulness into the school day, district officials say. Last year, DPS began offering staff trainings on the topic and purchased two mindfulness curriculums: MindUP for elementary students and Learning to Breathe for secondary students.

“We’re definitely moving in a direction where we’re realizing and acknowledging that social emotional learning is essential to academic success,” said Meredith Furtney, supervisor of the district’s department of social work and psychological services.

Munroe teacher Fallon Newman said she’s seen a big difference in her students since introducing mindfulness, both through “mindful minutes” each morning and during Schirm’s Thursday afternoon visits.

They’re more articulate about how they’re feeling and better able to cope with stress. That means more time for learning instead of hours given over to pent-up emotion, Newman said.

She’s also noticed a greater sense of empathy among students. A glimpse of that came during Schirm’s recent lesson when she had students pair up and gaze intently at their partners.

There were giggles and some students said they felt silly, but there were also moments of connection.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Two boys at Munroe Elementary in Denver practice “mindful seeing.”

“I felt like I know the things she knows,” said one girl, as the class debriefed.

Newman said some of her students have also become more attuned to her. She experienced it on a recent day when she temporarily took on seven fifth-graders from another class in addition to her own 26.

One of her students asked a surprising question: Was she feeling anxious about supervising the extra kids?

Newman admitted that she was a little apprehensive about the bigger group.

The boy responded, “OK, I’ll be on my best behavior.”

It was a heart-warming sign that mindfulness is paying off.

“It’s powerful stuff,” Newman said.

For some Munroe students, the practice instills a sense of calm that is often lacking in their lives. Take Chris, a fifth-grader with an impish smile who joined Schirm as she headed to a first-grade class to lead a brief mindfulness lesson last week.

For a long time, he’d been disruptive and noisy during such lessons in his own classroom. When Schirm finally asked why it was so hard for him, he told her he wasn’t used to the quiet.

Chris has an easier time of it now. In the first grade classroom, he stood tall in front of his smaller schoolmates, opening and closing a big expandable ball in time with their slow breaths.

At the 135-student charter school Carbondale Community School, the nudge toward mindfulness came last year from the school’s wellness committee. A teacher who was studying the practice as part of her graduate program led the charge.

Principal Tom Penzel said students and staff circle up in the commons area at the beginning of each week for a 15-minute “Mindful Monday” session. There’s a few minutes of guided meditation and then maybe a discussion about real-life scenarios where mindfulness could come in handy.

Examples include how to react when the least athletic kid wants to join the game or what to do when you feel a flash of anger toward a classmate. Penzel said it was students who asked that more time to be devoted to such scenarios.

“I’ve been amazed over time how much the kids are bought into it,” he said.

How are you feeling?

With plan to focus on teen health, Adams 12 school district opens new clinic

PHOTO: Jasleen_kaur/Creative Commons

The Adams 12 school district, Colorado’s sixth-largest, will open its first school-based health clinic this fall at Thornton High School.

The new clinic will offer routine physicals, sick care and mental health counseling to the 1,675 students at Thornton High as well as another 1,000 students who take classes at the district’s career and technical education center on the same campus.

By providing a convenient source of health care, particularly for low-income students, advocates say school-based health centers help prevent and address health problems that can impede learning.

Statewide, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the last decade — from 40 in 2007 to 59 this fall.

Despite the overall upward trend, not all school-based health centers survive. For example, the clinic at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, a high poverty school in the Jeffco district, closed its doors last spring.

A district official there said the nonprofit organization providing the health services, which were available to Jefferson students and other local residents, decided to depart because district security logistics made it difficult to keep the clinic open during evening and weekend hours.

In Adams 12, planning for the new clinic began in 2015. A district committee chose Thornton High to house the health center because of the high level of poverty in that area and because the campus, which also houses the Bollman Technical Education Center, serves the largest number of high school students in the district.

District spokesman Kevin Denke said the decision to focus on a teenage population stems from the fact that adolescents tend to see doctors less often than younger students and may be starting to engage in risky behaviors, such as sexual activity, alcohol use or drug use.

The neighboring Boulder Valley school district also has a school-based health clinic in the works, though it’s not expected to open until the fall of 2019. That clinic, the district’s first, will be located at the Arapahoe Campus, which houses Arapahoe Ridge High School and the district’s career and technical education center.

District officials said the clinic was originally slated to open earlier, but the launch was pushed back to align with a planned remodel of the career and technical education space.

In the meantime, the district will expand a dental care program that’s gradually ramped up at the Arapahoe Campus. Begun four years ago as a basic screening program that referred kids with cavities and other problems to area dentists, the program last year provided cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants to 42 students at Arapahoe Ridge and two other district high schools.

This year, the program will offer the same services, plus treatment for minor cavities, to students from all district high schools. The goal is to serve 250 students by the end of the year.

Fighting hunger

No more cheese sandwiches: Denver restores hot lunches for students in debt

Students at Denver's Fairmont ECE-8 have a choice of fruits and vegetables for lunch. (Denver Post file photo)

Denver students will start the year off with lunch debts paid off and a new promise that falling behind on lunch payments will not mean a cold “alternative” meal.

The district announced the change this week.

“We will feed every kid, every day,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote. “We know hungry kids aren’t the best learners.”

In some districts, including DPS, students who fall behind on lunch payments may be given alternative meals such as a cheese sandwich, or graham crackers and milk.

Boasberg said all kids will get regular hot-lunch options while payment issues are resolved and the district works on a long-term strategy.

In the last school year, Denver students had accumulated a balance of more than $13,000. The debt would be higher if some schools had not set aside money to help students.

According to the district, schools paid for more than 37,700 meals during the 2016-17 year.

The district said that donations raised by students through a nonprofit called KidsGiving365, and by Shift Workspaces, founded by Grant Barnhill, a parent of an incoming DPS student, will cover all the outstanding lunch debt of students in the district.

In DPS, all students receive free breakfast. Students who qualify for free lunch based on family income do not make payments and do not accrue debt.

For 2017-18, a family of four must earn less than $31,980 to qualify for free lunch, or less than $45,510 to qualify for a reduced price lunch.

The announcement from DPS reminds families that the application for free or discounted lunch can be submitted throughout the year, and that students are eligible regardless of immigration status.