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Living Well: Educating the whole person more than a mantra at SI

Above: SI’s counseling staff is on the front lines of the school’s wellness efforts. 

Imagine the perfect child.

According to those on the front lines of student health, that image does more harm than good and is just one of the reasons why so many schools, including SI, have launched a multi-pronged effort to address wellness in the classroom, in the counseling office, in the lunch line and at home.

To address issues of stress, nutrition and health education, this year alone SI has changed its schedule, restructured the counseling office, hired a wellness coordinator and a team of wellness educators, offered a weekly Wellness Seminar to sophomores and a weekly formation program to freshmen, hosted experts to speak before parents and changed the food offerings so that students have access to healthy meals from morning until they head home at the end of the day. (See story in this issue on the changes to SI’s food program.)

For years, Michael Thomas ’71 (now head of the counseling department), Carole Nickolai (assistant principal for academics), Michelle Levine (former counselor and current dean of discipline), Carol Devincenzi (religious studies chair and the school’s first wellness teacher) and Karen Cota (former dean and wellness teacher) have collaborated to create much of the current wellness program, one that follows a national trend among secondary schools to offer more than just college counseling. 

Jen Krasner & The Wellness Program

Joining this team this year is Jen Krasner, a licensed clinical social worker who came to SI in July after leading the wellness department at Lowell and serving as the on-site therapist at Redwood High School in Larkspur. (She left SI in November on maternity leave; in the interim, Pam Spaulding is serving in Krasner’s stead.)

Krasner heads an impressive team that includes Susan Badger, SI’s school psychotherapist, and Valentina Gandini, a graduate student serving as an intern, and she works with those who teach the sophomore wellness seminars, including Devincenzi, Cota, Sarah Curran, Jenene (Roberto) Slatt ’97 and Jerilynn Kenny. 

Krasner hopes that when students graduate from SI “they are well equipped to live healthy, successful lives. Success means far more than getting a good job. SI wants students to have strong, healthy relationships and take care of themselves so that they are physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually well. We want them to navigate the world from a place of peace rather than anxiety so they feel organized and in control rather than overwhelmed.”

Students face numerous challenges getting to this point, including the societal myth of universal excellence. “Students believe the only way to get into a great college is to take every AP course they can fit into their schedule and get A’s in each of these classes, join more than five clubs, serve as school president, earn the lead in the play, start at two or three sports and excel in everything,” added Krasner. “They fear that if they struggle or ask for help, then any sign of weakness will keep them from their first choice for college. By having wellness woven into the fabric of everything we do at SI, we show students that it’s OK to struggle and to pick and choose areas in which to excel. Asking for help doesn’t mean students are weak, only that they are brave and insightful.”

Krasner tells the story of one sophomore girl whom she saw crying in her counselor’s office. “She told her counselor that she felt overwhelmed and reluctant to talk to her parents, fearing they wouldn’t understand her anxiety. She would stay up at night crying and feeling alone. After her counselor and I spoke with her, she let us call her parents and set up a meeting. She and her parents left hugging each other, and that began a complete shift in their relationship. Now she has a safe place at SI to talk about her feelings, and she feels comfortable sharing her struggles with her parents at home.”

Even though this is Krasner’s first year at SI, she is familiar with the school thanks to her husband, Paul Gaetani ’00, her brother-in-law, Marcus ’95, her sister-in-law Gabrielle Kaho ’96, her father-in-law, Charles Gaetani ’67 and her close friend Kori Jenkins, SI’s former field hockey coach.

When she arrived at SI in July 2012, she assisted the counseling department in its restructuring. In the past, counselors stayed with students over four years and assisted them with personal issues and with college counseling. This year, counselors now specialize either in college or in personal and academic counseling. “Some students might be reluctant to share personal issues with the adult writing their college recommendations,” said Krasner. “This way, students can feel free to share their problems with their counselors.”

Guiding Krasner in her work at SI is her philosophy of living a balanced life. “Some say school is not a place for mental health, just for teaching. SI is saying that by having a wellness program, we want to educate our students on how to take care of themselves too. We want our students to be well and well rounded.”

Also guiding Krasner is Susan Badger, a psychotherapist in private practice and a part-time employee at SI who comes to SI once each week to meet with students, assess potential mental health issues and make referrals for outside therapy. She also meets with parents to help them navigate some of the challenges of parenting teenagers. A 23-year-veteran in her field, she has master’s degrees in both Interdisciplinary Studies and Marriage and Family Counseling She also supervises and provides training to doctoral candidates and master's level interns – some of whom who also come to SI for their clinic hours – from The San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Clinic and Training Center. 

“SI has been doing it all along”

Some SI graduates might wonder what new components wellness brings to the counseling table, added Krasner. “Formal wellness programs have been around for more than a dozen years in San Francisco public schools, so they are relatively new, but SI has been doing this work all along in different forms. The new wellness efforts formalize our offerings and ensure that a licensed clinician is on staff at SI to oversee the program.”

SI first began talking about a wellness initiative in 2005 when Mike Thomas went to Stanford to learn about the Stressed Out Student Program. “Back then, every time I asked students at SI how they were doing, they would always say how tired they felt. They weren’t getting enough sleep, they weren’t eating right and some were finding escape in alcohol or drugs. All of this impaired their ability in class, on the court and field and on the stage.”

Thomas gathered a committee to talk about an integrated approach to health education and later joined forces with the Community of Concern – a coalition of local high schools that hosted a parent-speaker-series dealing with substance abuse.

Thomas helped the school craft its accreditation self study that for the first time suggested the creation of a Wellness Program and, in May 2007, Michelle Levine took time off from her normal duties to work with Thomas on the beginnings of the program. She collaborated with experts at the Edgewood Center for Children and Families with the immediate goal of getting one wellness class into the curriculum.

Other recommendations came from those early efforts including changing the schedule and encouraging faculty not to assign homework over Christmas and Easter vacations. “We wanted breaks to be breaks,” said Thomas. “That way, students would be able to take time off without homework piling up. We also wanted to root our program in the Jesuit notion of cura personalis – of caring for the whole person. We wanted to buck the national trend that was turning high schools into mere stepping-stones toward college. Students across the U.S. are enjoying high school less and less as they begin loading their schedules with tough courses and too many clubs and sports. We want high school to be a place where they can grow with their peers and where they can strive to excel without making college the be-all and end-all.” 

Sophomore & Freshman Seminars

SI efforts began paying off in 2009 when Carol Devincenzi taught the first wellness courses, an elective open to juniors and seniors. (The following year Karen Cota started teaching the course as well.)

That early class has grown into a key component of SI’s Wellness Program. This year, the entire sophomore class takes a weekly wellness seminar still taught by Cota, Devincenzi and others, who base their curriculum around intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual and social health as well as safety and prevention.

Students learn about the importance of good nutrition and proper sleep, of the dangers of substance abuse and sexual promiscuity, ways to avoid disease and stress and proper use of technology.

Teachers hope that by the end of the year, students achieve course outcomes such as “understanding the importance of holistic health as a model for living; demonstrating the ability to use goal-setting and decision-making skills to enhance health and wellness; and analyzing the influence of culture, parents, teachers, peers, media and technology on adolescent health and wellness” – only three of the 10 seminar goals.

The advantage of this program, added Carole Nickolai, is that it offers the same education to all sophomores. “Some come to SI already knowing these lessons, while others have had little training in sex education, nutrition or sleep. We hope to give students the tools they need to deal with a culture at the crossroads, where students are bombarded with sexualized media and ever-pervasive social media. Studies have shown that students who spend hours on Facebook have higher levels of anxiety and depression. They compare themselves to the perfect impression that others project online and feel that others are constantly judging them.”

Freshmen also are gathering in Cura Groups this year in a new program administered by the Campus Ministry Department. They meet with one of 28 teachers once each week for 45 minutes during their long resource period to help them adjust to life in a new school and begin building community with their classmates. “We hope to help them develop a deeper sense of personal identity and communal belonging as they grow into the ideals expressed in our ‘Graduate at Graduation’ document,” added Thomas.

Parent Education

Students are not alone in needing to learn how to deal with these new challenges. Towards that end, SI is continuing to invite speakers to help parents be partners in wellness education. Last Feb. 27, for example, Jason Brand spoke to parents on the topic of the “Connected Teen” and offered advice for helping students deal with the social, emotional and physiological challenges inherent in life tethered to the Internet. “Families need to be in a position to work together to integrate new technologies into everyday life,” he argued. Parents need to avoid feeling angry and overwhelmed about being left in the digital dust and more effective in providing their teens with guidance and support. “It puts parents in a position to parent from the heart of digital matters where safety, trust, awareness and respect have a place alongside new technologies.”

Last October, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg spoke about strategies for fostering perseverance and resiliency in teens teens, and in November, Dr. Rafael Pelayo of Stanford University’s Sleep Center and Vicki Abeles, director of Race to Nowhere also shared their insights with SI parents. Others have addressed the issue of teen suicide and substance abuse.

Adult Ministry also plays a role in parent education indirectly, offering Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and the Ministry of Mothers Sharing (MOMS) group meetings. (See the story on MOMS in this issue.) Adult Ministry also offers retreat and reflection days for members of the Fathers’ Club and Ignatian Guild to help parents in their own spiritual journeys toward wholeness and health. 

New Schedule

The new schedule has also aided this move toward less stressed-out students. Students still take six classes; rather than meet four times a week, they meet three times. The modified block schedule still has them studying the same amount of time each week, though they do so in one 80-minute class and two 60-minute classes.

Each student also has a resource period three times each week, where they can do homework or collaborate with classmates on projects, and the possibility of no classes on Tuesday mornings during the “X-Period,” which counselors can use to schedule class-wide seminars for students.

With the previous schedule, students often had homework to do each night in four or five classes. Now, they typically have homework in only three classes, allowing them to work in a more focused way, get to bed earlier and get more sleep.

“The feedback I’ve been getting from parents and students is that the new schedule is working to relieve stress,” said Nickolai. “Last year, when my son was a freshman, he would be up until 11 p.m. doing homework. This year, he’s in bed by 10 and reading something on his own for fun. He is still learning quite a bit in his classes, but he isn’t as stressed.”

Thomas agrees with Nickolai. “Now, when I ask students how they are doing, I rarely hear how tired they feel. They don’t seem so sleep-deprived. They are in a better place, with access to healthy food all day, more conscious of the need to fuel their bodies and with time in the day to either catch up with homework or take a break. Many juniors and seniors who thought they wouldn’t like the new schedule are pleasantly surprised and have embraced it.”

Nickolai also admits that despite the anecdotal evidence regarding the success of all these changes, it is too early to look at hard data to see how these changes will affect academic and co-curricular success. “Much of what we’re doing is still in its infancy. We already know we need to fine-tune a few things this semester and next year. But the early reports are positive and tell us that we’re on the right track. In the end, healthy students are ready to learn and able to succeed.”



Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Friday March, 15, 2013 at 12:18PM

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