Among the social-emotional stressors for staff and students in East Saint Louis School District #189, the coronavirus pandemic “has just been one more thing,” says Tiffany Gholson, the director of parent and student support services.
Students suffer the trauma of living in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation. Nearly two-thirds of them live below the poverty line and they all eat free- or reduced-price lunch.
“For people and students in poverty, COVID has been just one more burden,” Gholson says. “In some ways, I have seen COVID be this abstract thing whereas not being able to find a job is more concrete.”
When the coronavirus shut schools down, the district’s response began not with e-learning, but with meeting students’ basic social-emotional needs as well.
East St. Louis staff served 4,000 meals a week and provided homeless families with hotel vouchers.
The district also established a text-help line to assist families with unemployment paperwork and make sure they received their stimulus checks.
Students and families can also use the text line to connect with teachers and social workers, who can provide referrals to other community services. When a 14-year-old student was murdered, Gholson had to activate her crisis response team remotely.
Social-emotional learning, remote and in-person
Over the past few years, driven by Superintendent Arthur Culver’s focus on the whole child, the district has placed nurses and truancy/homeless specialists in every school over the past few years. The district has also reached the recommended ratio of one social worker for every 250 students.
District staff are also coordinating with community groups to expand social-emotional supports into family’s homes.
The district no longer suspends students because of substance abuse. Gholson has partnered with a local agency that will instead provide counseling to these students. The district also uses a curriculum called Ripple Effects that allows students to explore culturally responsive, social-emotional topics on their own.
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Heading into the new school year, Superintendent Culver, Gholson and the team will continue to further integrate social-emotional learning into everyday school operations, including an expanded bullying prevention curriculum and cognitive behavioral therapy for students in greater distress.
Her team is flexible enough to do the social-emotional work whether school is held in-person or remotely. Staff can do home visits and participate in virtual class sessions, she says.
She is advocating for teachers to start in-person and virtual classes with an advisory session or morning meeting to check on students’ well-being and provide interventions when necessary.
“If a child is focused on survival, they cannot focus on education,” Gholson says. “A district can roll out an amazing academic program to boost academic achievement and college readiness, but you’re going to be stuck at a certain achievement level if you don’t take care of their social-emotional needs.”
Peace Warriors promote SEL
Allowing students to have a voice in their daily lives is a key way to improve social-emotional health.
Over the summer, Gholson’s team along with Dunbar Elementary School has sponsored the Freedom School literacy and cultural enrichment program. Each week, students read and receive books by black and brown authors while also learning about voting, Gholson says.
Also, the district’s Peace Warriors—a program created by another Illinois school—encourages high school students to learn and practice the principles of peaceful nonviolence inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King. These students practice living nonviolently and encourage their peers to do the same.
“Most of our Peace Warriors have experienced a tragic loss in their own families,” Gholson says. “Now, they’re reaching out to others to try to intercede and mitigate the violence.”
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The Peace Warriors serve as mentors for middle school students and as unified athletes who pair with students with disabilities to participate Special Olympics sports.
Over the last few years, bullying incidents have dropped while fewer students have reported having suicidal thoughts, Gholson says.
“Our goal is for every school to be a safe haven no matter what’s going on at home or in the community,” she says. “School is a safe, welcoming place where there are trusted adults.”
DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.