This week’s post shares the first part of a conversation between Thomas Hatch and Keptah Saint Julien about the development of a Whole Child School Model at the Van Ness Elementary School, a District of Columbia Public School. The school was closed in 2006 due to under enrollment as the surrounding neighborhood was re-developed, with the school re-opened in 2015 under the leadership of Principal Cynthia Robinson-Rivers. Under Robinson-Rivers’ leadership and in partnership with Transcend, an organization that promotes school innovation and helps spread innovative school designs, Van Ness designed the Whole Child Model which prioritizes student wellbeing and socio-emotional growth. Currently, the school serves a racially diverse group of over 375 Preschool-5th grade students, with approximately 50% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch and 15% classified as having special needs. The redesign has been so successful that Van Ness received the District of Columbia Public School district’s (DCPS) Standing Ovation Award for excellence in school innovation in 2017-18 and schools across the district and country are beginning to adopt and adapt the approach. Keptah Saint Julien is a partner at Transcend with over a decade of experience in urban education. Saint Julien now works with her colleagues at Transcend to share the model in a Whole Child Collaborative in D.C. and in schools in Transcend’s national network. To support that work, Transcend recently received a $4 million dollar grant to study and scale the model in the DCPS and in Aldine ISD, in Texas.
“Our aim is to cultivate critical thinkers and develop a generation of confident, curious, and compassionate members of society.” – Van Ness Elementary School
Thomas Hatch: The work going on at Van Ness is really fascinating, both for the development of the model there and for the way you and your colleagues are working with other communities to adapt it. Can you start by telling us what was the problem that the Van Ness model set out to address?
Keptah Saint Julien: It started off with the idea that all students deserve a school that supports their overall wellbeing. Just as students need academic skills, they need social and emotional skills. The Whole Child Model is rooted in the belief that children’s academic success is inextricably linked to their social, emotional learning, and overall well-being, and the belief that we can and must attend to the whole child while achieving academic excellence as well.
TH: My understanding was that while some of these key ideas and the impetus came from Cynthia, she also began with a community engagement initiative, essentially to find out what people in the community were concerned about. Is that right?
KSJ: That was definitely an important part of setting the vision for the school and a key part of the partnership with Transcend. We lead through a community driven research and design process. What that looks like is that we’re going out and talking with key stakeholders, learning from them and coming together to create graduate aims and learning experiences that work for all students in meeting those aims.
TH: Who were the stakeholders that you reached out to as part of that work with Transcend?
KSJ: Families. It’s our philosophy and it’s Van Ness’ philosophy that families are integral partners in this work. The vision for Van Ness was shaped through early conversations with families. You can think about our approach to wellbeing as consisting of three parts:
- One part is a set of family engagement strategies that we call Family Circle. Van Ness prioritizes home visits for every student. Families receive regular updates through weekly newsletters and text updates, and participate in events like coffee with the principal to ask questions and share ideas.
- The next part of the model is CARE, which is a cohesive set of Tier 1 supports that every student receives to help them feel safe and a sense of belonging. We worked closely with teachers at Van Ness to test and codify strategies that worked. Then we also have CARE plus strategies designed to support students whose past experiences and personal histories suggest they may benefit from a deeper sense of safety and connection at school.
- Finally, we have Boost, which includes what are often termed Tier II and III supports and provide the additional boost and targeted interventions that some students need.
TH: Some of the things that are really striking to me about the model are the very specific and explicit structures, practices, and routines – what I would call the “micro-innovations” – that create a real, tangible infrastructure for supporting student wellbeing. Can you highlight a few of those?
KSJ: As I mentioned before, everything starts with CARE. CARE stands for Compassion, Assertiveness, Routines, and Environment. One routine is a set of strategies for what we call a “Strong Start” in the morning. Strong start begins with greetings and breakfast in the classroom. In fact, every student is greeted by two or more adults before they even enter into the classroom, and students have the autonomy to decide what kind of greeting they would like to receive, whether it’s a handshake, a high five, a hug or something else. We’re very much empowering students and putting them as decision makers. The whole purpose of Strong Start is to help students start the day feeling a sense of safety and connection to their classroom community, in addition to providing them with strategies they can use throughout the day. Another part of Strong Start, for example, is ‘Breathe and Focus,’ where students learn how to breathe deeply, release stress they may be carrying, and center themselves – things that help with executive functioning and self-regulation. They use that strategy throughout the day. If they’re having a moment of tension or frustration later on in the day, they can use the skills that they learned from Strong Start to enter their reasoning state.
Then there are strategies like using intentional language and tone, which helps teachers speak with students and issue directions in clear and consistent ways. Classroom jobs is another routine which I personally love. It relies on teachers who deeply know their students and their unique goals. So if I’m a student who struggles with organization, for example, my teacher knows this about me and might give me the intentional, meaningful job of being the person that organizes our classroom library. That’s my job.
We’re also very intentional about classroom design. We know that if we are in spaces that feel beautiful and safe and clean our behavior automatically shifts. I think about going to a museum or the library. There are certain behaviors and ways that we feel when we’re in spaces like that. Teachers are very thoughtful when designing their classrooms. One of the tenets of care in classroom design is having natural elements, like green leaves and plants, as well as natural lighting. The classroom walls are free from clutter.
“We’re also very intentional about classroom design. We know that if we are in spaces that feel beautiful, safe and clean our behavior automatically shifts.”
Students also actively shape the design of the space. Student work and pictures of them and their families are prominent throughout the classroom, enhancing the home to school connection. School should feel like a space for healing and an extension of home. There are also “centering spaces” in each classroom as part of the classroom design. It is an intentional space where students can go and collect their thoughts and get back to a calmer, “ reasoning” state through breathing and reflection. This is especially important for students who have experienced trauma.. All that is part of CARE, the first tier which every student gets. Additionally, there is a focus on adult wellbeing. A beautiful thing right now at Van Ness is that Cynthia has partnered with some therapeutic services provided by the Georgetown Center for Well-Being in School Environments (WISE) so teachers are able to receive therapy.