New School Model: Building a Culture of Support for Marginalized Students

In 2017, NAIS published a series of profiles on for-profit schools, highlighting their project-based learning programs, cost-saving initiatives, and individualized coursework. The goal was to inspire independent school leaders to reflect on their value in an educational field with competing options. Sharing ideas from successful school programs of all types can help educators and administrators reposition their schools so they continue to grow and thrive.

Amid affordable housing struggles, declining birth rates, and a rapidly diversifying nation, independent schools in the United States have many challenges ahead as they contend with a shifting demographic and social landscape. Schools are responding to this changing environment, in part, with increased attention to students’ mental health and well-being. In the Summer issue of Independent School, we explored the whys and ways students are more stressed than ever. Parental and peer pressures only exacerbate the already high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. For marginalized students, the problem is made worse as discrimination is associated with poorer emotional and physical health. Schools now must blend social-emotional learning with academics to create an environment in which all students feel welcome and heard.

In this year’s upcoming updates to the New School Model series, we look closely at innovations across all kinds of institutions, particularly as they relate to supporting student health and well-being.

Visitacion Valley Middle School’s (CA) holistic approach to social-emotional learning has drastically improved student outcomes and fostered a happier, healthier school community. According to Principal Joe Truss, many of Visitacion Valley Middle School’s (VVMS) 473 students are low-income, immigrant, and/or of color, and are disproportionately affected by violence and discrimination. Students generally enter the school performing below their grade level, and often suffer from high levels of stress and anxiety. VVMS serves as an important place of growth and healing. With its renowned meditation program, emphasis on student health, restorative justice, and relevant and responsive coursework, VVMS is actively working to combat toxic stress and discriminatory educational practices by building community and supporting students through all challenges.

The power of meditation. Following a chance encounter in 2007 with San Francisco’s Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, preceded by years of dealing with violence, trauma, and stress in the community, the school began training teachers to facilitate secular, transcendental meditation. VVMS has since become known for this meditation program. Known as “quiet time,” silent, unguided meditation takes place twice a day for 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each school day. Students aren’t required to meditate—after all, they are middle schoolers—but they are asked to remain quiet as others do so, with some opting to do silent activities like reading or drawing. The program promotes relaxation and an overall sense of well-being, lowering stress and preparing students for positive academic and social interactions.

Both VVMS and peer-reviewed research have credited meditation with drops in truancy and suspension rates, improved school performance, and changes in students’ general outlook (and even brain structure) that have increased their overall happiness and positivity. Though the program can’t prevent the challenges in students’ lives, and it is certainly not a one-and-done solution to “fixing” a school’s problems, it does improve students’ ability to deal with issues as they arise and better stay on track in school.

Help is here. VVMS works to foster inclusivity in all areas of campus life, so students are treated equally, regardless of where they come from or what challenges they face. Full-time counselors, a nurse, and a social worker are available for free to all students during school hours. This ethos around these mental health offerings helps destigmatize asking for help.

Additionally, VVMS aims to reduce behavioral issues and bullying by hiring a coordinator for the 2019-2020 school year. The school previously used a zero-tolerance policy toward wrongdoing. It did not address the root causes of student conflict, and the traditional emphasis on detention over dialogue was particularly harmful to students of color. A restorative practices coordinator will work to empower students to take responsibility for their actions and heal the hurt they inflict on others. By proactively building relationships at the school, and reactively facilitating constructive discussion between students who are in conflict or otherwise hurting due to a traumatic event, the coordinator will help students work through problems together.

Academic tracks. Most students (75%) come into sixth grade at VVMS reading behind their grade level, often by three to four grades. Rather than single out these students as different, students in the same grade all take the same classes. There is a dedicated period in the schedule for students who need extra support—it’s called the “accelerated” period, and it does not replace their ability to take an elective. When students are meeting grade level standards and test out of these support classes, they can take a second elective. The SFUSD reports that VVMS students’ reading scores are improving three times as fast as they did before the accelerated program.

Project-based learning. VVMS also encourages its teachers to structure all academic-level curricula around project-based learning (PBL) and has modified its bell schedule to accommodate longer classes with more robust labs and projects. Marginalized students and students performing below grade-level are less likely to be given these opportunities because their schools are more likely to narrow the curriculum and focus on test prep, even though PBL has been shown to improve student engagement, retention, and success. Students at VVMS have experienced these benefits and are reporting higher rates of engagement and interest in their classes.

Additionally, this commitment to PBL has led to collaborations between classes and academic disciplines, allowing students to make connections and build community. In one collaboration, a science teacher and an English teacher co-taught their courses; in another, English language learners and non-learners came together from their respective programs to share stories they wrote about immigration.

School is released early twice a week so teachers can collaborate and work on PBL lesson plans. Teachers at VVMS are reporting that they feel more prepared for class and are grading less work on the weekends.

Ethnic studies. VVMS is also one of a growing number of schools to offer ethnic studies as an elective, which examines U.S. history and culture through the stories of people of color. Ethnic studies courses have been shown to greatly improve outcomes for marginalized students who take them by giving them a curriculum that they can see themselves in. For all students, regardless of background, an introduction to ethnic studies can help to break down cultural stereotypes and have them think more critically about the world around them.

Students at VVMS are dealing with many of the same issues faced by students at independent schools. Stress and discrimination can and will be found in every community, at every school, and educators looking to combat them can learn a lot from programs that have already started the journey.

Margaret Anne Rowe

Margaret Anne Rowe is a research analyst at NAIS.


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