"Mental health comes first": A Principal Shares Her Priorities for This Year (Part 3)

Girls present science project

Learn how one elementary school principal is planning for the coming year and the kinds of supports she intends to prioritize for students, families, and staff.

At Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI, more than 90% of the students are English language learners (ELLs). Many are newcomers who have recently arrived from the country of war-torn country of Yemen.

During the summer of 2021, the award-winning Title I school held a STEAM-focused summer "camp" for students. That experience helped give the staff a more complete picture of how students have fared during the COVID-19 pandemic (socially, emotionally, and academically) and where to focus their efforts for the upcoming year. In this Q&A, Salina Principal Susan Stanley shares their "a-ha" moments from the summer program and how that experience has influenced their planning for this year.

To learn more about Salina, see the following articles from Colorín Colorado, as well as our film and interview from the school below.

Interview with Principal Sue Stanley

What were some highlights from your summer program this year?

This summer, with support from district leadership, we had the opportunity to bring all of our students in for a fun, comprehensive, and engaging "summer camp." We had previously been hybrid with half the students for only about 4 hours, two days a week from February until June. Prior to that, students had been completely remote. This was the first time in over 18 months students were able to be with each other.

What made this camp so engaging was that it did not look like their typical school day. We believed that would help ease them in, while creating a really fun environment. We ate breakfast and lunch outside and sang camp songs to build community prior to students entering the building. Students then met with their "Camp Leader" (core teacher) each morning for a story prior to beginning their day. We focused on Social Emotional Learning. We partnered with Camp Invention, a hands-on science program where students invented, discovered, and created projects. Students rotated about every forty five minutes which kept everything lively. They did gardening, cardio drumming, writing, reading, and coding. All of the lessons were focused on discovery learning.

We ended our program with a STEAM expo. Students presented their learning to parents, students, and community members. We did this not only because it is good practice but we noticed our students really needed to build oral language skills. It was incredible to hear students talk about their inventions, share writings, and walk families through the school garden where parents were able to take tomatoes and other spices home!

What do you know about your families' current social-emotional "state of mind"?

We have been preparing and reading about how the stress of this pandemic affected our families, especially children. This summer program allowed us to see firsthand how our students were affected by the interruption in schooling, the isolation from friends, and the overall change in their routines. We saw behaviors in all of our students we hadn't seen before. While we expected it, seeing it displayed through their play was a reality check.

The children were excited to be back in school and did well within the classroom. It was during unstructured play where we saw problematic behavior such as fighting and difficulty getting along. It was as if students were lost and vying for various groups and didn't know where to fit in. We noticed many signs of anxiety. About every other day, we would meet as a leadership team (social worker, lead teachers, physical education teacher, and myself) to tweak recess. We had volunteers and any available staff out on the playground playing games and interacting with kids. We kept our ears and eyes close to the ground to look for any and all opportunities to be there for them.

Our beautiful community also suffered a devastating flood and a two-week power outage in June of this year. It affected not only our families but staff as well. The anxiety was palpable, as we again suffered from these prolonged uncertainties. All of this helped in cementing the belief that no matter what, we need to take care of our own, and our children's, mental health. Mental health comes first and is the number one priority. Despite the pressures of state and national mandates, we must slow down.

How are you encouraging staff to think about the importance of "slowing down"?

With that in mind, as a leader, I must model that behavior for staff as well. They look to me to set the tone. If I display anxiety over what we must do to "catch our kids up," teachers will feel it as well. Yes, our students aren't as strong in certain areas. They have had 18 months where school happened in their homes. While our parents and teachers did an outstanding job, it can't possibly mirror everything that happens within classrooms and our playgrounds. Gross motor development is delayed and if they aren't in place, the fine motor will take longer to develop as well. We just have to step back, observe, and then step in with activities to support them.

We know that teachers feel continual pressure to fit all the academics in. They feel this way not only because they are committed but their performance is measured through results on state and district assessment as well. As their leader, I will be the voice of assurance that the data we collect is simply our starting point. Not everything can be measured. However, what we will do each and every day will be immeasurable. Students cannot learn until they feel safe and connected and that takes time. I will continually be the reassurer and voice for that. I will commit to creating that same type of environment for them through thoughtful and intentional planning. As their leader, I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with them and reminding them of this every step of the way.

What kinds of ideas are you considering to support families' social-emotional health?

We always begin the school year with an annual parent meeting. At that time, we are going to spend about 10 minutes on change, stress, and dealing with uncertainties. I don't want to spend too much time at the first meeting as there is always so much information given. I'll plan to allow extra time to be "with" the parents, just staying around after the meeting to say hello. This also allows time for me to get the feeling of how everyone is doing.

Two weeks later, we will have another parent meeting. The agenda will be determined by our observations and discussions from the initial parent meeting as well as observation and feedback from staff. Perhaps we will do a presentation, for example, on the importance on structure and positive discipline with ample time for parents to get into groups to talk and share. Allowing space for people to talk is the first step in connecting. My focus will be on providing time and space and planning from there.

What will social-emotional learning look like in the classroom?

Before the COVID shutdown, we implemented Calm Classrooms in our building. Teachers and students start their day with short scenarios, calm breathing and classroom affirmations. All teachers started it, but not all of them kept it going. When we revisit it this fall, it will be an expectation for all. At the first building meeting before school, our social worker will lead a PD on trauma-informed instruction. This will lead to WHY the calm classroom is so important. We will continue to keep SEL learning as our focus for PD meetings throughout the year.

What are your priorities for instruction this coming year?

We will be focusing on the essential standards for each grade level during our PLC and SEL lessons daily. We will collectively discuss how to move students forward and accelerate their learning rather than "catching up." If you have the mindset that students need to "catch up," you will in fact slow down their learning. The idea is to accelerate the learning through intentional support. That is where the art and science of teaching comes into play. Think of the support as the "seat belt" for that train ride moving them to their next destination.

At the end of last school year, each grade level PLC team completed a chart showing which Essential Standard they were concerned their students didn’t accomplish. The first PLC meeting, the incoming grade level team will match those up with the current grade Essential Standard. This will then be the guide for creating lessons which have been front loaded with specific skills needed for success. There is no going back. Only moving forward.

We will prioritize our instruction as we do each year by teaching the grade level Essential Standards. Teachers will need to be laser focused on building specific skills for success. Now more than ever PLC teams will need to create smaller and more timely assessments to ensure they are reaching the intended target. I have no doubt that will happen.

What are some ways to highlight student accomplishments and what they have gained this year?

We have a Celebration Wall in front of the office where students showcase a piece of work. New this year will be a bell they will ring whenever they accomplish any type of accomplished goal. In front of the bell there is this saying: "I rang the bell so all can tell, I did something really well."

We all need affirmations and celebrations. Building from what students know rather than what they don't is the only way to create a learning environment where students feel safe to take chances and grow. When you focus on the negative, such as a loss, you miss seeing the the beauty of what else has grown in its place. Perhaps that is even bigger and better than what we thought they missed. In addition, our school theme this year is Celebrating Differences. As a school family we have lots of activities planned for students to highlight what makes them different and stand out. Those differences are gifts to us all.

We have learned so much about ourselves and our students these past 18 months. We have learned students can do much more than we ever thought possible and so can we. For example, we learned technology skills that prior to the pandemic would have taken us years to learn and embrace. We have learned our students are much more independent than we believed. We can let go of their hands a little sooner. We saw small children take control of their own learning, managing zoom times and independent work. We saw the power of older siblings mentoring the younger ones. These are lessons and gifts we will take into this new year.

You Are Welcome Here: Supporting the Social and Emotional Health of Newcomer Immigrants

You can learn more about Salina in our award-winning film You Are Welcome Here, produced in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers. The film also includes a section on Salina's hands-on learning activities and STEAM expo.

You can also see the film with Arabic subtitles, a preview version, and additional videos from Salina in our related resource collection.

Interview with Principal Sue Stanley

A warm welcome for immigrant families in the front office

Norieah Ahmed, the Child Accounting Secretary at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI, talks about her role in welcoming newcomer immigrant families to the school from the moment they walk in the door.

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