With increasing numbers of students reporting depression, suicidal ideation and binge drinking, schools throughout the country are making social-emotional health a priority. Many districts like ours recognize the urgency and are working to foster a healthy, productive, and supportive school culture to help ensure our children are prepared for lifelong success. In last month’s newsletter, we highlighted the work that the MBMS leadership team is doing to cultivate support of our middle school students. This month we turn our attention to promoting a climate of care at Mira Costa High School.
Manhattan Beach is often compared to Palo Alto with respect to demographics, culture and educational ideals. Held to high standards, this is often viewed as an accolade or aspiration for our own high-achieving community. But in the past seven years, Palo Alto has experienced two suicide clusters, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “three or more suicides in close proximity in regards to time and space.” The CDC felt the clusters, which added up to a total of ten student suicides in 7 years, warranted an investigation of Palo Alto for risk factors, much like they would for a viral infection. Over the past few years, the community has banded together to create a safety net for students and continues to work on changing the culture in Palo Alto schools through efforts of the school board, administration, parents and students. Palo Alto’s story has alerted many communities, including ours, to the potential repercussions of highly stressful academic conditions.
Prompted by the concern of mounting student stress levels, a group of Manhattan Beach students, staff, and parents joined MBUSD Board President Ellen Rosenberg, and fellow Board member Jennifer Cochran, to form a Social and Emotional Wellness Committee in 2015. Intended to asses the school climate at Mira Costa and identify the problems and root causes that contribute to student stress, the Committee meets regularly to strategize on how to build a more positive culture through communication, collaboration and accountability amongst teachers, administration and the community.
To help ensure progress, Mira Costa has partnered with Challenge Success, a research-based organization aimed at providing high school students with the tools they need to navigate the course towards independence. Based out of Stanford University, Challenge Success utilizes a prominent advisory board to develop curriculum, conferences and programs for parents, educators and kids that foster a healthier school climate.
In addition to the resources of Challenge Success, much of the data the Social and Emotional Wellness Committee relies on to formulate plans comes from MCHS’s School Site Council annual spring survey of parents and students. The survey originated from the California Healthy Kids Survey, a standardized survey on mental health, drug and alcohol use, and student connectedness. It was adapted to include other pertinent topics such as student stress. Results of the survey have led the administration to target several areas for improvement, including stress levels, homework, technology use and student workload both in and outside the academic day.
Last year’s survey uncovered alarming data on the current state of our teens. First and foremost, 42% of 11th graders in Manhattan Beach Unified and 38% in Redondo Unified reported current alcohol and drug use — compared to 30% of juniors in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Many experts attribute drug and alcohol use to depression and increased stress – yet another reason to focus on students’ stress levels. The East Bay Times also reported that on the same survey, one-third of 11th graders and one-quarter of 7th graders across California reported feeling chronically sad or hopeless over the past 12 months, and about 19% of both 9th and 11th graders have seriously considered attempting suicide.
Other pertinent results indicated our students are not getting the sleep they need to excel. 69% of Costa students surveyed feel they do not get enough sleep to keep them energized and focused throughout the day. The same survey results indicated that only 37% of Costa students treat each other with respect and care, or feel connected to the school though campus activities. In addition, warning signs like increased psychological evaluation team occurrences, increased incidences of cheating, and more competition among peers, faculty and students alike, have made it clear that we need to take a closer look at the social-emotional wellness of our students.
Costa has taken several practical steps to decrease stress levels during the 2016/17 school year. By implementing regular office hours and collaboration time, Costa has created a mid-week break for students to catch their breath and focus on the remainder of the week. This gives students time to meet their individual needs – whether it’s to complete homework, meet with a teacher, or make-up an assignment – and contributes to the goal of providing more support for students on campus. To help students better manage workloads, the District has also imposed a schedule by department so that papers, exams, projects and presentations can only be due on designated days of the week. School sponsored extracurricular activities such as athletics, music, Model UN, and the like, are limited to 15 hours per week. An advisor may ask permission if an activity, such as drama, La Vista, band or track, needs more time, but the concept is to encourage a conversation around the issue rather than take it for granted.
The administration also put a cap of four college-level Advance Placement (AP) courses that a student can take during one school year. To suggest that a high school student take more than four AP courses is bound to be more stressful when you consider the additional courses and activities in the school day. Setting the max at four is also beneficial in that it is seen as the ‘max load’ on college applications and often increases the chances for acceptance. Preliminary data, however, suggests that students who would have typically taken three AP courses are now taking four, to achieve the max load. The data is being closely evaluated to ensure the positive affects outweigh the negative.
We know that a primary source of student stress is related to the college application process, which tends to affect kids as early as their freshman year, and is on the minds of students and parents much earlier. A recent article in Education Week asserts that “meeting one-on-one with a school counselor to discuss college admission or financial aid makes a big difference in students’ futures, tripling the chance they’ll attend college, doubling the chance that they’ll attend a four-year college, and increasing by nearly seven times the likelihood that they’ll apply for financial aid”. To alleviate some of the stress and provide more support, the MCHS College and Career Center is now open Monday – Thursday from 8am to 7pm and Friday from 8am – 5pm. Funded entirely by parent support of MBEF, students can stop by the CCC to check out Naviance (college and career software), meet with college representatives, work on their personal statement and meet one-on-one with the counselors. The Parent Center allows families to receive the admissions and applications resources and assistance they need after work hours.
In addition, Challenge Success recommended an additional survey, professional development, shadow days, fishbowls, and parent educational opportunities. In October, English Department Co-Chair Jonathan Westerberg, moderated the first Fishbowl, an activity where students are given the opportunity to share their thoughts on stress in high school while teachers and administrators have the unique opportunity to observe.
MBEF’s Teachers Driving Innovation grant program will fund two rounds of Shadow Days at MCHS, allowing parents, teachers and administrators to experience a day-in-the-life of a MCHS student in its entirety. The objective is to raise awareness among teachers, administrators, and parents about how it feels to be a high school student today. The data from these activities, as well as an additional Challenge Success survey given to MCHS students this winter, will help inform the Social and Emotional Wellness Committee of their next steps.
Local organizations have recognized the significant impact of stress on our lives as well. Beach Cities Health District regularly offers free mindfulness workshops for all ages, encouraging residents to gain clarity and better handle stressors at work and home through the practice of meditation. South Bay Families Connected launched in 2015 as a resource for local parents and kids to explore and support teen wellness – particularly relating to drug and alcohol use. The program has quickly grown to partner with Mira Costa, MBMS, MBEF, Beach Cities Health District and other districts throughout the South Bay. Families Connected has become a trusted resource for bringing our community together and filling the need for information and support. Please consider following them on Facebook for access to resources and support.
While we have a long road ahead, our community has already taken many steps forward in identifying the need to better support the emotional health of our children. We are eager to work with you all and welcome your ideas and partnership as we strive to create a healthier learning environment for all our students.