Widening Our Community

Any of the kids in our program could tell you that the Meeting House motto is “Fun, Friendship, and Community.” These values are at the core of everything we do, and we take pride in the safe, caring community of students, parents, staff and supporters we’ve created. This year, we’ve had the opportunity to reimagine and enlarge our Meeting House community through our relationship with Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, a public school in Harlem. Like us, they put social-emotional learning at the center of their educational model, and they also recognize the importance of after school time as an opportunity for kids to explore interests, practice social and emotional skills, and build self esteem. They’re an exemplary model of how powerful an impact these types of changes can have on a school.

A typical day at Thurgood Marshall begins at 7:30 AM, with a school-wide breakfast, followed by a meditation and community meeting, led by the principal, Dawn Brooks-Decosta. “Starting the day with mindfulness really helps set a peaceful and encouraging tone for the day,” she said. While classes run until 2:40, almost the entire student body stays for Extended Learning Time (ELT), participating in academic enrichment, activities including the arts, STEM, yoga, and sports, and community-service based clubs.

In explaining what the ELT program means to her school, Principal Brooks-Decosta shared that it’s an important way to engage and inspire students. For many students, the ELT program activities reinforce their self-esteem and provide opportunities for students’ gifts to be recognized, which has the ripple effect of improving academic performance. “Kids have to love something about the day,” Principal Brooks-Decosta said, “Because they look forward to something, they’ll participate more fully in other activities. For example, for a student who loves art, the fact that her teachers and peers have recognized her as an artist can give her the sense of self-esteem to try harder in math.”

Thurgood Marshall has also been implementing the RULER approach, co-created by Marc Brackett and Robin Stern at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, for the past four years, and Principal Brooks-Decosta says it has profoundly transformed their school. In addition to concrete results like a lowered suspension rate, she said the mindset within the school has become one of “we’re all going to try to be our best, and even when mistakes happen, we can resolve them.” RULER teachings and strategies are woven in throughout the day, with “mood meter” check-ins, silent meditation, and opportunities to share feelings with the group.

Principal Brooks-Decosta shared one recent example she observed in a first grade class in which, during one such sharing session, a student expressed she was feeling “blue” because no one had played with her at lunch. The rest of the students all expressed how sorry they were, and assured her that they would play with her during lunch the following day. “It’s about creating those opportunities for expression. If this student hadn’t had the opportunity to share, she might have gone on feeling upset the whole day, internalizing or withdrawing.” For many students at Thurgood Marshall, this is particularly important, as many face adversity in their homes and communities. Seventy-five percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, some students have been exposed to domestic violence or have a parent who is incarcerated, there are several students in the foster care system, and several families are living in temporary housing.

Next month, The Meeting House staff will join Thurgood Marshall staff for a training with Marc Brackett and Robin Stern.  We are hoping to also offer Meeting House programs to their students as a part of their ELT program next year. Because Thurgood Marshall does not have a special education program, Principal Brooks-Decosta believes this will provide valuable reinforcement in social-emotional skills for students who need it most. “We’re really excited about working with The Meeting House because they do such amazing work with kids on how to put SEL into action, providing practice in things we don’t often talk about about -- how to interact, give personal space, communicate -- and doing it all in a fun way.” We are equally thrilled by this exciting partnership and opportunity to enhance our community, learn from one another, and build friendships beyond the walls of The Meeting House.