Lutheran Services Florida: Saving Jacksonville’s Head Start Program and Strategizing to Transform Its Culture

LSF Duval has partnered with Pure Edge to build on its Head Start program’s incredible turnaround.

Five years ago, no one would have believed that the Head Start program in Jacksonville, Florida, would one day receive a glowing write-up from the New York Times or a feature on NBC Nightly News. A visit from federal authorities had found numerous health and safety violations, with conditions unsuitable for young children. They removed the nonprofit that had been running the program and enlisted Lutheran Services Florida (LSF) to attempt a turnaround. Since then, LSF has achieved that turnaround, and perhaps even a total transformation. Praised by local and national news outlets for its cleaner facilities, better-qualified teachers and stricter standards, LSF has improved outcomes for children. Much of the staff has experienced major structural changes and witnessed harsh criticism of the program through its history, and LSF leadership is now determined to create a positive climate for both employees and learners.

“In the next grant cycle, we want to focus on physical and mental staff wellness and do the same for our children in the classroom,” shared Maria McNair, Deputy Director of LSF Duval Head Start, the branch serving the Jacksonville area.

Partnership with Pure Edge has been part of a broader strategy for staff wellness, and the potential impact extends beyond LSF employees to the thousands of children they serve. LSF Duval directly operates 11 sites, with another 21 operated through childcare partners and school district sites throughout the city. They serve approximately 1,400 children and their families, and LSF statewide serves over 5,000.

When Pure Edge visited Jacksonville to present Educator Self-Care and Brain Breaks Implementation for LSF employees, “it was a very timely partnership, because we are implementing mindfulness in the classroom and transitioning to a brand-new curriculum,” said McNair.

“Pure Edge has provided an intentional focus for teachers to implement Brain Breaks throughout the day and for staff to be conscientious about their self-care and ensuring their overall wellness.” Now, whenever the staff meets, they include a Pure Edge strategy such as a Brain Break in the agenda.

McNair has found that an understanding of basic neuroscience and the ability to consider why learners behave in certain ways have been important takeaways for educators and staff. In her view, the major highlights for her team have been “the tangible strategies that they can easily remember and implement to de-escalate situations and calm themselves.” Team leadership has noticed the early impact of educators using those strategies and sharing them with learners. “The teachers have seen a difference in some of the behaviors with children,” said Catherine Penton-Gooch, Early Childhood Education Program Manager.

“When they start this process at the beginning of their school time, they are ready to learn and able to relax and connect.”

She and other staff members have employed the breathing and movement techniques at home as well. McNair has personally integrated a favorite posture into her self-care practice at home and shared it with her nephew and sons. Penton-Gooch also introduced the techniques into her family life. “I went home and did the Starfish with my two-year-old grandson,” she said. “Not only did I like it professionally for our staff, but I was also able to do it personally and implement it in our house. In today’s world, we need that time.”

Now that LSF has turned the Head Start program around, it must consider where it goes from here and what its vision for the future looks like. Leadership understands how important it will be to have classrooms where adults model social-emotional skills for young learners in their interactions with each other and in the management of their own emotions. They want to design new spaces where staff can break away for quiet moments of reflection and regulation. McNair hopes for a “shift in energy” in the classrooms and to achieve the fewest possible negative incidents between educators and learners. She acknowledges that that adverse childhood experiences, trauma and challenging behaviors will always exists. But she knows that a group of teachers who can remain compassionate toward learners and access a toolkit of strategies will make a major difference in the lives of the young children they serve.

“I am a firm believer that if we have staff who are strong, confident, knowledgeable and taking care of themselves,” she explained, “in turn they are going to bring the best versions of themselves into the classrooms, and children’s outcomes will be affected in a positive way.”

With Teri Lawler as a Champion, Delaware Commits to Trauma Awareness in Schools and Beyond

The Delaware Department of Education is taking on trauma state-wide through partnerships with organizations like Pure Edge, and Teri Lawler is at the helm.

A decade ago, while Teri B. Lawler was working in one of Delaware’s most vulnerable zip codes, a student told her he had seen a body in the street on his walk to the bus stop. Reluctant at first to believe the story, Lawler called up a friend in law enforcement to confirm. This was the moment she recognized the significant role that trauma was playing for the children growing up in her community. She is now a key part of Delaware’s push for universal trauma awareness, mindfulness practices and social and emotional learning, recognizing that these are all components of creating a whole-child education and compassionate environment for learners.

“Innovation” is Lawler’s favorite word. All of her career accomplishments, she feels, have come from her ability to innovate, problem-solve and enthusiastically experiment with new projects.

She has been fortunate, she said, to work for people “who really appreciated an entrepreneurial spirit.” Now serving as Education Associate for Trauma-Informed Practices and Social and Emotional Learning at the Delaware Department of Education, her commitment to innovation is one of the driving forces of Delaware’s mission to take on trauma state-wide. She is also a member of the Compassionate Schools Learning Collaborative and the Wilmington Advisory Council on Youth Gun Violence, which was formed in response to the Center for Disease Control’s report on youth gun violence and the creation of a predictive tool that worked backward to discover root causes of why children were most at risk for committing gun violence. As it turned out, the tool predicted the same early vulnerabilities that Lawler and colleagues were already monitoring in their early warning systems for school success: third-grade reading levels, school attendance and disciplinary records. Explained Lawler, “School success makes you less likely to commit gun violence, and I believe connection and belonging, as well as hope for the future, are big contributors.”

In 2016, Lawler developed a partnership with the Office of the Child Advocate, and shortly thereafter, Governor John Carney created the Office of Innovation and Improvement. In October 2018, the governor signed an executive order declaring Delaware a trauma-informed state. The Department of Education was the first state agency to create a position to lead that mission, and Lawler was the one who earned the opportunity to jump in and expand the work throughout the state. After state leadership met with Pure Edge, Lawler was tasked with crafting a way to implement Pure Edge’s work into the state’s strategic plan. “I feel strongly that incorporating mindfulness as a universal practice in our schools supports social and emotional learning,” she explained.

After Pure Edge visited the state to host the first Culture of Care training and an all-day session for educators around educator well-being, the mood changed. Lawler described educators and support staff as “more engaged and more hopeful.”

She recounted the many emails she received from educators, telling her what they had learned and how understanding basic neuroscience and mindfulness practices had impacted them.

“Throughout my life, some of my biggest cheerleaders have been family members,” Lawler shared. “My mom and grandmother have helped me think outside the box and realize that I bring a different perspective to education.”

Perhaps that support is one reason for her belief that the state must layer supports around learners through every organization that impacts youth and families, in order to strengthen the sense of family and community. Lawler and her colleagues are working to provide professional learning on trauma awareness for all such organizations. The work of the Wilmington Advisory Council on Youth Gun Violence, for instance, resulted in a handbook for fostering connection, protection and respect in afterschool programs, community centers and other youth-serving organizations. The goal is to engage everyone from bus drivers and facilities employees to hospital systems and faith-based organizations. The team of course seeks to build capacity within the Department of Education, but the vision expands much further, aiming to create learning opportunities that inspire districts to implement mindfulness and make it part of their own practices.

“We realized it doesn’t just stop with us,” stated Lawler. “Schools cannot do this work alone.”

And what will be the ultimate outcome of implementing mindfulness practices in schools through partnership with organizations like Pure Edge? “We believe we will build more resilient children,” she said, “and ultimately more resilient families and communities.”

Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE)

Location: Puerto Rico

Potential Impact: 29,000 teachers, 75,000 total staff, 380,000 students

Website: www.de.pr.gov

 

Reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and still suffering from a lack of resources, Puerto Rico became a vital territory for Pure Edge to support.

We partnered with the PRDE in July 2018. In 2017, legislation, Law 85, passed that every student attending a PRDE school would be required to have 5 minutes of reflection (Fomentar la autoevaluación e introspección en la comunidad escolar al iniciar los trabajos con cinco (5) minutos de reflexión en todos los planteles educativos, conforme a la Ley 60-2009.”). Citing this law, Pure Edge has trained over 15,000 educators in brain breaks, mindful movement, the neuroscience of stress and Pure Power Prevention and Cue Centered Therapy Intervention Tiered System of Supports. Pure Edge has worked with all site principals, teacher leaders, health and wellness teachers, school counselors, social workers and school psychologists. The island continues to rebuild, and we continue to serve its educators.   The teachers on the ground understand the necessity of caring for themselves and their learners.

Due to this ongoing relationship, the PRDE team is now a part of CASEL’s Collaborating States Initiative.

 

 

 

 

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CMNI): Saipan

Location: Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands

Potential Impact: 400 teachers, 800 total staff, 10,000 students

Website: https://www.cnmipss.org/

 

In September 2018, we received a heart-rending email from a school counselor in Saipan, the largest island in the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. She sought Pure Edge’s help for Saipan’s students, emphasizing that being an island in the middle of the ocean makes it nearly impossible to convince organizations on the mainland to offer professional development of educators.

Not only was Saipan fighting to recover from a devastating typhoon, but it had recently seen a 17% increase in teen suicides.

When two teenage best friends died from suicide within one week of each other, the close-knit community knew they had to act. They hired the territory’s first ever child psychologist and searched for other resources to support their youth, ultimately leading them to Pure Edge. The commissioner of education invited the team to CNMI to implement a three-day Culture of Care training. Over 250 educators, community members and administrators attended the training days.  Two of the three training days were paid work days for CNMI employees.  Day three was scheduled for a Saturday and would therefore be an unpaid day for the participants.

Incredibly, 94% of participants showed up voluntarily.

The educators of Saipan were highly invested in accessing the knowledge and resources to care for themselves and their students, A ballroom full of educators showed up eager to equip their students with mindfulness techniques and took a proactive approach to caring for the mental health of Saipan’s youth.