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Finding Balance: Wellness at Penn Charter

 

The world seems to be moving at warp speed, especially for young people. Text messaging. Streaming videos. Smartphones placing the Web in the palm of their hands. These constant distractions are changing the very norms of communication and human interaction. Into this vortex add the intense pressure to succeed that emanates from parents, peers and college admissions, and the fear many young people feel from gun violence and the threat of war.

Penn Charter educators working to help students manage stress, find contentment and understand that intellectual engagement can produce happiness recognize the new realities of life for children and teenagers today.

In a darkened room, more than a dozen seventh grade students lie on the carpet with their eyes shut and palms up, following the soothing voice of Lisa Reedich as she guides them through a meditation session as part of a Quakerism class. “Leave the future. Leave the past. Be here right now,” the counselor explains.

Lower School counselor Lisa Reedich leads kindergarten in a breathing meditation exercise.

In an Upper School classroom, 11th and 12th graders explore with instructor Karen Campbell how the “culture of snark” corrodes meaningful debate and dialogue. Students nod knowingly as she explains this “slash and burn thinking, an argument culture of shutting people out.”

In the Lower School that same day, kindergarteners sit in a circle, listening to a blue bunny and pink pig—puppets in the hands of Reedich—talk about hurt feelings. Says Bunny: “I need to tell Piggy how I feel so we can solve the problem.”

All of these moments from a typical day show how William Penn Charter School is broadening and deepening its efforts to address the wellness of students, not only their physical well-being, but also their emotional lives.

The emphasis on health and wellness at Penn Charter aligns with time-honored Quaker practices of reflection and mindfulness, and it is woven into the goals of the 2013 Strategic Vision. “This is very much something that is part of our educational program,” said Beth Glascott, assistant head of school. “We have been steadily doing this work for a long time.”

For Glascott, wellness means having a life in balance. It’s facing stress without letting it cripple you. It’s having time to exercise, to think, and to enjoy yourself. It’s being able to push yourself without overdoing it. And it’s feeling secure and confident enough to take chances.

As an educator with 36 years at Penn Charter, including 16 as director of Upper School, Glascott has seen a heightened anxiety among students today as well as pressure to be “everything to all people and perfect,” which can sometimes translate into an aversion to risk and fear of failing.

“Parents and, quite honestly, colleges want both: They want healthy, intellectually curious kids, but also high grades and the most rigorous schedule possible, with students doing multiple things,” Glascott said. “We need to help students to slow down, to become better problem solvers and to recognize that with most mistakes, you can recover.”

Overseer Mark Hecker OPC ’99, clerk of the board’s Education Committee, led the committee last year on a deep dive to understand the pressures students face and the effort the school makes to help them be well. His takeaway: college admissions and parental demands to achieve are at least as challenging to wellness as social media.

“I think teachers and students struggle between what we know is best for kids and what we feel pressured to achieve for or with them,” Hecker said. “In all the work that we’ve done and the conversations the committee had, I think the tension between outside pressures and internal efforts comes through really strongly.”

Penn Charter's How Far? capital campaign supports a campus transformation that will include a new Athletics and Wellness Center. The facility will provide superior competition spaces and promote fitness for life.

Glascott and Hecker both used the word “tension,” and student conversation on the topics of college and parental focus on grades do convey tension.

One senior said she appreciated that teachers don’t focus on college admissions. “They don’t ask you about it.” But, “Once you leave this door, at the dinner table every single night—even just a stranger, ‘Oh, you’re a senior, where are you going?’ It’s a lot.” Students put pressure on themselves, she said, but “my mom is more anxious than me.”

Junior Ryan Maloney said the pressure is “more like thinking if you don’t go to college, or go to a certain college, you won’t be successful.”

Penn Charter’s college counseling philosophy centers on finding the “best match” for each student, not necessarily the highest ranked institution but the college or university that is the best match for an individual student’s passions and abilities. Parents want that, too, but they often also want a top-ranked school. That’s where anxiety about grades enters the picture.

Penn Charter parents now have online access to student assignments and grades at regular intervals that make it possible for parents to have timely information about student progress. Each time the gradebook is open to parents, the school writes to advise parents to use the information to “engage in healthy conversations with your children about their learning. As always, we want to make sure that our students / your children are placed at the center of the conversation and are encouraged to take ownership over their learning. Teaching our students to advocate for themselves remains a top priority for us.”

Students and administrators observed that parental involvement regarding grades varies with family dynamics and a student’s progress. “Some get really involved,” one student observed about parents, “others say, ‘It’s your responsibility.’”

 

Slowing the Pace

The work of addressing the needs of the whole student is taking place across grade levels and covers many areas—from adding a new fitness requirement in ninth grade to offering classes in meditation and yoga, and providing special speakers on topics like mental health and substance abuse. “Teaching kids to be healthy and well and having an academically rigorous institution are not mutually exclusive concepts,” said Travis Larrabee, director of Upper School. “Those two can coexist.”

To accommodate a better balance, Penn Charter has made significant shifts in academic scheduling, switching from a trimester to semester system and allowing for longer class periods in the Upper School. Both changes were designed to adjust the pace of learning. Teachers say they can go deeper into subjects, which helps students, too. “We have a longer time to situate ourselves,” said Leila Sor, an 11th grade student who entered Penn Charter seven years ago. With the previous system, she added, “You’d be three weeks into a trimester and already in midterms.”

The fast and furious pace of life has ramped up the pressure bearing down on young people. “We operate at the speed of light with everything we do,” said Debra Foley, who is PC’s director of health services and also oversees the school’s concussion management program and wellness programs for faculty, including yoga. “You have to step back and focus on taking care of yourself.”

A generation ago, students didn’t have Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to stoke anxiety over FOMO—the dreaded fear of missing out. Today, their cellphones deliver instant reminders. “You’re constantly comparing yourself,” said an 11th grade student. Depression is on the rise among young Americans ages 12 to 17, exacerbated by inordinate screen time on phones and tablets, according to recent research.

“I don’t think you can talk about anxiety and depression with young people without including the impact of social media,” said Elizabeth Coombs Hitschler, the Middle and Upper School counselor. “That’s a real, real issue for students, and there’s a disconnect because most adults cannot fully comprehend and understand what life is really like living in this instant, judgmental world.”

In this age of social media, our ability to communicate and build relationships has deteriorated. It’s why Karen Campbell, an Upper School learning specialist, created an elective, Interpersonal Communication in the Digital Age: Friends, Following and Feuding, which is designed to blend communication theory with practical strategies and skills. “I felt like they don’t get enough opportunity to practice just being with each other,” she said. “Social media has made it so we don’t have to listen to each other anymore. That contributes to anxiety and isolates us.”

Karen Campbell with Upper School students enrolled in her new elective, Interpersonal Communication in the Digital Age.

It follows that if students are overwhelmed by fear, insecurity or anxiety, they will not do their best learning. “Teachers need to be better attuned to the social and emotional health of students, and not narrowly focused on content anymore,” said Wilson Felter, director of the Middle School. “It means asking, ‘How can we help you get where you want to go?’ rather than just ‘Suck it up and learn.’”

 

Quieting Mind and Body

At Penn Charter, looking at the whole child begins from the moment a student enters the Lower School. “We don’t just think about, ‘How’s your reading and writing, your academic skills,’ ” said Reedich, a Lower School counselor. “We’re thinking about the whole child, and a comprehensive education would include giving them wellness practices that are going to serve them throughout their lives.”

In the Lower School, Reedich is known as the “feelings teacher.” She meets with students from pre-K to fifth and works on things like expressing and identifying feelings; peaceful conflict resolution; methods for self-care and self-soothing; and mindfulness although she doesn’t call it that. Instead, she breaks it down for children, explaining that it means, “My mind is full of the present moment of what’s happening now, and whatever is happening, I’m trying to bring kindness to it.”

In kindergarten, students use a “breathing ball,” a toy that expands from baseball-small to beachball-big, to learn the mechanics of controlled breathing. By fifth grade, they are experiencing guided meditation through an exercise called a “body scan.” “It’s a way to experience being calm in your body,” Reedich said. “They are learning how to soothe themselves.”

It’s an idea that is appealing to parents, too. Every Tuesday morning, Reedich offers them a meditation class. “Practices like mindfulness are so popular nowadays because people recognize that we never slow down in our lives, we never stop,” she said.

You can find smartphone apps that teach meditation methods, and you can follow #mindfulness and #meditation on Twitter. But this pop culture trend actually dovetails with the foundational Quaker practice of silence. All Penn Charter students experience a time of silent meditation in the weekly Meeting for Worship, which can extend for five minutes for the youngest students to 40 minutes for members of the Middle and Upper Schools. To have 40 minutes each week for prayer, reflection, meditation or just to hit the “pause” button “is incredibly powerful,” said Lee Payton, chair of the Social Studies Department. In a world fraught with social and political strife, he added, “meaningful worship is one of those places where kids make sense of things.”

In seventh grade, when students take a required course in the Religious Studies and Philosophy department—the course is titled QUADS, short for Quakerism, Art, Design and Service—they begin to delve even deeper into how to quiet their minds and bodies.

“We’re living in a society that’s so fast-moving, quick-witted and reactive,” Felter said. “Sometimes the best, best medicine for middle school students is for them to be able to wrestle with that silence, and they’re not good at it yet. But it’s the first place they’ll go to when they have a really challenging decision to make in their lives.”

In Middle School, students continue to work on life skills in a new advisory program. In groups up to 10, students meet their advisor each morning and at the end of the day; during Tuesday advisory lessons, they work on exercises and lessons to build relationship and communication skills, or to explore ideas like how to be a responsible digital citizen or how to better manage time. “So much lightning-fast change is happening in their lives,” Felter said. “We want them to have a safe place to talk about those changes and to work through friendship challenges.”

 

Working Toward Balance Together

The Strategic Vision, introduced in 2013 and shaped with in-depth input from the Penn Charter community, puts wellness front and center in the Penn Charter mission. Consequently, there are new resources for professional development for teachers, as well as funding for expert speakers to address students, parents and faculty on topics like suicide prevention, mental health and substance abuse. The process of creating the Strategic Vision “confirmed for me how students are dealing with different levels of stress, and not all from school,” Larrabee, the Upper School director, said.

That became painfully apparent after the recent tragedy in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Eight Penn Charter students knew one of the victims, Scott Beigel, a 35-year-old geography teacher who also worked during summer vacations at Camp Starlight in the Poconos. Meredith Bernstein, a senior who has attended the camp for many years, said the morning after the shooting, counselors approached the students “the second we got to school.” They were given a separate meeting room to gather, talk and grieve, and offered help and comfort from counselors. “They handled this tragic event the best way that they could,” Bernstein recalled. “The school is extremely aware of the mental health of students.”

David Garnick, a junior who started at Penn Charter in kindergarten, said the tone comes from the top. “Whether it’s sports or family or school work,” Garnick said, “teachers make it clear that you need to find balance in your life.”

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