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Minnesota districts focus on mental health, school climate early in new year

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At Prior Lake High School, the first day of classes started with a pep rally. The marching band played, there were speeches, games and orientation activities.

It’s the loud start to the school year. But in other ways, the first day was intentionally quiet. In high school, only ninth grade students were invited to attend on Tuesday. And in middle school, only sixth grade students showed up.

“We know the importance of that transition from sixth into middle school and from ninth into high school,” said Dan Edwards, Prior Lake’s director of teaching and learning.

The district, in a suburb south of the Twin Cities, is among the many in Minnesota spending extra time and care at the start of this academic year focusing on mental health and social emotional learning. For Edwards, it’s a focus meant to address the difficulties students and educators experienced last year when schools attempted to return to full time in-person learning.

“COVID created a lot of disruptions, disruptions to routines and we don’t necessarily know the value of those routines until they’re taken away,” Edwards said.

Last year was difficult for most Minnesota districts. Across the state, students, educators and families raised widespread and consistent concerns about mental health, as well as student behavior while at school.

Tyler Koonce, a science teacher at Prior Lake, said his students last year struggled.

“A lot of anxiety stuff, a lot of social anxiety, working with groups and just more of being a student and that organizational skill which was lacking,” Koonce said.

A high school teacher smiles for a portrait

Prior Lake High School science teacher Tyler Koonce poses for a photo in the school gymnasium on Tuesday.

Ben Hovland | MPR News

He’s planning to spend a lot of extra time taking his students through time management, mental health and relationship skills. He’s also an advisor for LINK Crew, an initiative the district has championed to get freshmen connected to older students.

Ryley Nordin, a senior at Prior Lake, plans to spend a second school year helping mentor younger students.

A student smiles for a portrait

Prior Lake High School senior and Link Crew member Ryley Nordin poses for a photo in the school gymnasium on Tuesday.

Ben Hovland | MPR News

“The freshmen just really, I could tell, appreciated having someone there to talk to,” Nordin said. “Last year one in my group said hi to me every time he saw me in the hall for the rest of the year. And that made my day and I could tell it made his day — just having a [familiar] face around the school.”

Like Prior Lake, the Richfield district has a mentorship program connecting upper class students with ninth graders.

But they’ve also invested extra time this summer training the adults in their schools to lead lessons in social emotional learning.

Students play games in a school gymnasium

Incoming freshmen compete in icebreaker activities at Prior Lake High School during a welcome rally.

Ben Hovland | MPR News

“We are teaching our adults that our young people need to feel safe, loved and cared for, and only when those two needs are met literally in their brains can they awaken that frontal lobe to activate learning,” said Christina Haddad Gonzalez, Richfield’s director of student services.

Richfield is one of many Minnesota districts to receive a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education to address disciplinary practices. In the Richfield district, there’s data to show students of color are targeted for discipline at higher rates than white students.

In addition to funding professional development for staff, the district has handed out “safe space” kits to teachers at the start of the school year to encourage them to make a place in their classrooms for students who are overwhelmed to go calm down, regulate themselves , chill with a Rubik’s cube for a bit. New curriculum aims to teach kids how to handle conflict, make friends, and develop self-regulation skills.

Richfield’s lead social worker Chantelle Vaughn said the early focus and investment this year on developing social and emotional skill may lead to a big payoff.

“The hope is that being really intentional about those things will overall just make for a better school year,” Vaughn said. “The kids feel safe and heard, the staff feels safe and heard and everyone has the skills and the tools they need to be supported in this work.”

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