Pressing On: West Edgecombe Builds Resilience in its School Community during COVID-19

Photo taken prior to school closures by Resilience & Learning Project staff
By: Stacey Craig Riberdy, Consultant, NC Resilience and Learning Project

By attending to their students’ social and emotional needs, West Edgecombe Middle School forges ahead with their resilience and learning work, designing the next school year to help their students become more resilient and engaged in their education in the midst of significant upheaval thanks to an unprecedented pandemic.

West Edgecombe, which has a student population of about 350, is in the Edgecombe County school district, about 60 miles east of Raleigh and midway between Rocky Mount and Tarboro. At the same time West Edgecombe’s (known as “West”) principal, Ms. Kelsey Ballard, took the helm in fall 2019, the school began working with the Forum’s NC Resilience and Learning Project through a grant for developing trauma-informed schools in Edgecombe County Public Schools.

Prior to the developments associated with COVID-19 and subsequent school closures, West’s School Improvement Team had already identified three primary goals they wanted to address in the 2019-2020 school year using Panorama Child Survey data that was collected in the spring of 2019. These goals were: 1) to increase students’ sense of feeling respected at school; 2) to increase students’ feelings of being connected to the adults at school; and 3) to increase students’ ability to control their emotions. The school partnered with a Project Coach from the Forum’s Resilience and Learning Project to begin building a more trauma-informed school environment by identifying strategies to address these goals. With the help of their Project Coach, the school provided training for all staff about Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs), trauma, and resilience in November 2019. They also formed a Resilience Team, made up of a cross-section of student support staff, administrators and teachers. As the school’s Resilience work was ramping up, another school team, called the Design Team, had been formed through a new district-level initiative that had some overlapping goals and focus areas as well as some of the same team members. To better streamline the work and not create redundancy, the Resilience Team combined with the Design Team.

The Design Team had already begun a process of using human-centered design to seek answers to questions such as “How might we provide education and experiences for students and staff to develop empathy?” and “How might we design a school that fosters a culture of collaboration and accountability for all teachers and students?” Guided by questions like these, team members interviewed students at West to get a better understanding of their students – what are their interests, perspectives, desires and ideas? Members of the team also took a trip to visit The LongView School and the Magnolia Montessori for All in Austin, Texas, where they observed innovative ways of building relationships and a sense of community, and different ways to engage students in developing collaboration and critical thinking skills.

From their research, the team identified several initiatives to pilot in the next school year to help their students connect to their purpose and passion, and to develop resilience through “productive struggle,” which Edutopia describes as encouraging creativity and building authentic engagement and perseverance by teaching that struggle is part of learning. Initiatives include regular career exploration with community volunteers, the piloting of a “microschool” within West to help innovate effective ways to give students more voice and choice and support productive struggle, and the creation of a school-wide, daily morning “Den Time,” to build and practice social emotional skills and a culture of empathy and belonging at the school. To anchor their work and foster community at the school around a common vision, the team created an acronym, “IGNITE,” which stands for “Intentionally Growing and Nurturing Individuals Through love and Empathy.”

At a staff meeting, the Design Team solicited feedback from the rest of the staff, showing several video examples of how Morning Advisory time has been used to build community and social and emotional learning skills in other schools. Staff feedback was positive, and staff expressed interest in applying a similar model at West. As a primary, school-wide strategy for building empathy and a sense of belonging among students and staff–the kind of safety that’s required for building the accountability and collaboration needed for success in education and in life–the West “Wildcats” decided to make Den Time the cornerstone of community and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at the school. They are building off the model of Morning Advisory, a version of Morning Meeting common in middle schools, and they are using the popular, evidence-based SEL curriculum Second Step. Second Step offers pre-planned Check-ins, SEL lessons, Group Meetings, Group Challenges, and Service Projects, which West plans to incorporate along with their own to support SEL across the school week.

When the Governor first closed schools across North Carolina on March 16th in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Design Team had their next meeting scheduled for the next day. And in the middle of immense and sudden change, they forged ahead with the meeting and with their agenda without skipping a beat. The Design Team has continued to meet virtually on a regular basis, planning ways of using the rest of this school year to support staff with virtual trainings on SEL, how it relates to trauma and resilience, and how to implement Den Time next school year, whether virtually or in person. The Design Team continues to reach out remotely to other schools and partners in Edgecombe to inspire and inform their work, including the Rural Opportunity Institute and Resources for Resilience, as well as the North-Phillips School of Innovation, and leaders at Philips Middle School and North Edgecombe High School. The Design Team at West is looking to take lessons from the social and emotional learning approach at Phillips Middle, where they also used Second Step curriculum and a morning meeting time for their students.

As staff plan for next year, they continue to support the social and emotional learning needs of students in the current remote learning setting. Ms. Yolanda Ray-Henderson is reaching out to students to support SEL while at home, and teachers are helping students process their feelings about the current circumstances through creative self expression. West Edgecombe posted the poem below on their Facebook page, which they are using to continue reaching out and to stay in touch with their students. The author, a 6th grade student named Holly McKenzie, granted permission to share her poem:

I miss the things I used to do,
Like going out to eat,
Or go to the zoo,
Or go to the store without a mask,
Cause my face gets hot like fire from a blast.
I want to hug my folks to show I care,
But I must social distance, so I don’t dare.
I want to go to the beach
And play in the sun,
But there’s no one to play with, so it’s just not fun.
When I go to the store, the shelves are bare.
No toilet paper or hand sanitizer
Can really give you a scare.
But I’m still thankful cause I know I’ll be okay,
Cause things will get better,
And this virus will go away!

The students at West Edgecombe, nurtured by a community of staff dedicated to understanding them and providing for their well-being, are on their way to meeting their key goals by the time they graduate from West: developing their passion and purpose, and becoming deeply resilient in the face of significant challenge.

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