Kyrene initiative: Reaching out to peers seen as key to early detection of distress

By Sammie Ann Wicks

Students returning to Kyrene district classes this month are being introduced to innovative outreach programs, both inside and outside the formal school setting.

“Our big focus entering the new school year is, ‘student wellbeing,’” says Erin Helm, the district’s director of communications and marketing.

“This reflects our belief that, for students to succeed in learning, their social and emotional growth first has to be supported at all levels of their participation, both in and out of school.”

She explains some of the district’s programs will be guided by principles espoused by the statewide organization Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life, which seeks to encourage students to reach out to peers who may show signs of being troubled.

“We want to overcome the stigma of what formerly was regarded as ‘tattling,’ and teach kids the warning signs that a fellow student may be suffering emotionally.” That, it is hoped, would encourage them to speak up and get involved, she says.

Recent National Alliance on Mental Illness data indicates 20 percent of teens 13 to 18 are affected by mental issues, and as many as 50 percent of those 14 and older will drop out of school because of such issues.

The NAMI study also identifies suicide as the third leading cause of death between ages 10 to 24, with 4,600 lives lost in that group each year.

Getting student peers’ help identifying troubled teens and motivating them help proactively has been prioritized through funding and new staffing, Helm says.

“To help with this outreach, we’ve added additional counselors this year— one for each elementary school,” she reports.

In keeping with the outreach theme, during August the district hosted nationally recognized educational speaker and self-described kids’ advocate Collin Kartchner.

Kartchner spoke at assemblies at every middle school in the district, discussing, among other topics, the dangers social media pose to the healthy social and emotional development of students in the middle school age group.

A former TED speaker, Kartchner founded a nationwide movement called “Save the Kids” and spends his time helping students overcome what he calls “social media and screen addiction.”

Other outreach programs will concentrate on bullying prevention and student peer intervention, says Dr. Sandra Laine, Kyrene’s director of exceptional student services.

Sanford Harmony, Kyrene’s new elementary social and emotional learning curriculum, addresses bullying prevention by teaching social skills and building self-esteem, Laine notes.

“This program provides students with the opportunity to learn about diversity and inclusion, empathy and critical thinking, communication, problem solving and peer relationships,” she said. Laine adds that counselors on duty are prepared to intervene in situations involving student-on-student bullying.

“School counselors are equipped to identify instances of bullying and are trained to intervene…to help build and sustain positive relationships between students,” she said.

A new classroom approach to learning, added Helm, encourages even more collaborative activity at Kyrene, combining different-grade age groups in the same setting.

“We’re calling this new format a ‘school within a school,’” said Helm, describing Kyrene’s launch of a large classroom designed to combine several groups of students and multiple teachers.

“We literally took the walls down to create one big space,” says Helm, “and redesigned everything to encourage collaborative learning. Even the furniture has been redesigned for that purpose.”

Inside, she says, “students from all…grades learn together, and several teachers there with them contribute equally in a team-teaching approach.”

Given that both younger and older students are learning together, Helm says there is ample opportunity for older students to mentor their younger classmates.

Curriculum and program methods at the new school are designed and will be supervised by Mary Brown, a certified teacher executive designer.

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