“Please don’t ever change the love for these beautiful girls.”

“Please don’t change the student to teacher ratio. The close attention from teachers was very beneficial to my learning.”

“Please don’t change the learning curriculum and how we learn.”

~WSG 8th grade students, 5/25/22

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to understand how a school is doing is to ask the students. Students in the right environment will just tell you what they think! It’s why I’ve always hosted a lunch with our 8th graders shortly before they graduate and move on to high school. It’s been a tradition for me as a school leader and one that I was excited to continue to do at WSG. How our students experience WSG beyond what we, school leadership, say their experiences are, provides context for the ideas we put in place each year. Most importantly though, it is moments like these that ground me in my work here.

I was devastated that the COVID pandemic and remote learning interrupted this plan for the past two years, but I, along with our Head of School and Principal, recently joined our 8th graders for the 8th grade luncheon.

Graduating 8th graders are in a particularly unique position related to their school journey. As they prepare for their transition to high school, their maturity in thinking about their current school becomes more evident. At WSG they’ve been the oldest students in the school for a full year now told by adults in the community to take their place as role models for younger students. They have enough classroom, teaching and learning experiences in school to offer insight. And while they are also excited to go to high school they are also nervous to go to high school. So, WSG continues to be their familiar and safe space after they leave our classrooms. They can share their feelings, their insight, their hopes and dreams for the future and it is all grounded in their own personal perspective of being a student here.

As I threw out questions and they shared their responses, I was delighted to hear them repeat some of what we say are the best parts of WSG:

  • Small class sizes,

  • the student/teacher ratio (truly the words from one girl) and

  • the inclusion of prayer every day

were among the aspects of WSG that they felt we should never change.

Not surprisingly, the “strict” uniform policy, the lunch program (always the lunch program) and the addition of a prom were among the suggestions of changes for the future. But even within these predictable school life criticisms, the girls shared what they would see as a meaningful change.

In discussing why the uniforms feel so restrictive for example, they mentioned a desire for more self-expression in small areas (more earring choices or an option for acrylic nails) and not necessarily a complete revamp of the school uniform. It is exciting to see them at a stage in their maturity where they are able to both express understanding for aspects of WSG while also offering their suggestions for improvement.

When we are all done listening, it is a treasure trove of student feedback for me, allowing us to put words and thoughts beyond the data measurements we use to evaluate our school program. It helps to see if in fact the mission statement that we have on paper really does come alive. I appreciate the suggestions for improvement and feel a sense of pride on behalf of our staff for the positive memories they share. It brings me personal joy to see the pursuit of joyful learning alive and well at WSG.

In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) joined together to declare a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.

Think about that for a moment. A National State of Emergency is primarily used in situations when there is a clear need for additional visibility and resources in order to save lives and protect citizens, such as natural disasters. By acknowledging the mental health crisis impacting children today, this group of health care providers and experts recognize the need to elevate this concern in our national consciousness in order to pay attention to our children and their overall well being.

Understanding the mental health wellness of children requires an appreciation of the overall state of a child’s thoughts and feelings; their whole person being. It demands that we as adults and their caretakers admit that anxiety and depression are important indicators of wellness, and “having the blues” can perhaps be the sign of a larger problem.

Nationally there have been reports on increase in suspected suicide attempts among adolescents and a significant increase among emergency room visits for adolescent age girls since pre-pandemic times. As someone in a school serving girls in grade 3 - 8, this is alarming. Our overall school experience also indicates an increase in mental health concerns for our students. Our school counselor in particular notes that student mental health concerns come into our hallways and classrooms, resulting in disruptive behavior at times. In addition, the pandemic has led to some of our students with an over-reliance on technology and social media and a resulting increase in anxiety.

As a school, we continue to prioritize the attention given to our students’ mental health through intentionally focusing on it as part of the school day. This is done through:

  • Scheduled time for social emotional learning, highlighting the important skills students need to be part of a community

  • Office hours for the counselor, allowing students to receive support at school, both individually and in small groups

  • Connecting with families to create a circle of support around our students

  • As a faith based school, prayer and reflection opportunities throughout the day provide spiritual nourishment

  • Peer time together with team building

  • Curriculum and a school climate that supports our students in being their authentic selves every day

Additionally, If you are reading this and want to know what else we might each do, following are a few suggestions:

  • Acknowledge that mental health concerns in children are real, and should be taken seriously in order to find support that works for each child.

  • Children need caring, trusted adults in their lives, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be their parent. Are you that person? Let them know you are there to support them. Keep communication open and talk often and openly about your concerns.

  • Promote respect and positive relationships between children and their peers. Help them to see the importance of both being respectful and being respected in their peer groups.

  • Normalize personal challenges to offset the social media “perfect life.” Children need to learn how to bounce back the inevitable bumps in the road of life. They need help in understanding that setbacks are temporary. By honestly acknowledging the challenges that we all face, children are better able form a realistic view of what it means to persist through a problem.

  • Know when to be concerned and develop your own awareness of social-emotional wellness. Be aware of what may indicate a change in behavior, lingering anxiety or depression, articulated mental health concerns from a child, and engage a professional accordingly.

The current state of our children demands that we pay attention to their overall wellness and help them continue to grow and mature into balanced lives.

Physical Education. The terminology implies teaching students the subject of being physical, much like Spanish education or Math education teaches students the subject matter. In the past, this interpretation of physical education has led to instruction dedicated to motor skills and knowledge, reinforcing to students the benefits of physically active behaviors. Over the past decade however, the focus on physical education in many schools, including WSG, has shifted towards helping students embrace a healthy lifestyle and overall wellness for their lives, in addition to physical activity. It is thought to be a way for students to learn habits and skills that will benefit them over the course of their lives, establishing a pattern of well-being. In addition, The Hunt Institute in 2021 shared the following regarding Physical Education “P.E. [physical education] has been one of the most challenging subjects to teach online, but the irony is, students need P.E. now more than ever, not just for physical health but mental health.” ( Patricia Suppe, president of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance). Living through the stress of a pandemic is exactly the reason why we want our students to embrace healthy habits. What does physical education look like during a pandemic, with remote learning or hybrid learning?

At WSG, Physical Education teacher Coach Lawhorne knows just how important it is to continually adapt the program to keep students engaged and moving, despite the challenge with learning spaces on campus or while remote learning from home. As a result, she embraced this opportunity to creatively think about physical education, creating a curriculum and overall wellness focused program that encourages students to be physically active while at home, creatively uses any available space while at school, and also incorporates spiritual and mental nourishment. During remote learning, students were challenged to create their own fitness tutorials and learned exercise and healthy movement methods that they will be able to utilize throughout their lives. She offered opportunities for mental health check-ins with students (and WSG graduates, now in high school), creating spaces for them to share concerns about isolation at home. Through an overarching commitment to student wellness, WSG counselors, teachers and staff collaborated on supporting student’s overall emotional health. When students returned to campus this school year, the challenges to offering physical activity were different due to social distancing requirements, limited outdoor activity space and a lack of a dedicated physical education space. Coach Lawhorne adapted the program again, leading the girls through an incredibly successful step and dance program, held in classrooms. The students’ enthusiasm and engagement in the step routines provided a needed continuation of physical activity at school. Their classroom routines were shared in a school wide showcase in December (featured here), and instilled a fun aspect to their learning.

One of the challenges since the beginning of the pandemic however has been finding ways to get students to still embrace physical activities and wellness each day, even while away from the school building. With a focus on healthy eating, physical movement and activities, combined with spiritual nourishment and balance throughout the pandemic, students at WSG have been encouraged to develop the habits and perspective needed for them to build and maintain a healthy lifestyle.