Angela Swartz/Daily Journal
Students at Community Day School meditate during a morning Quiet Time session.
For some of the most challenged students in East Palo Alto, the best part of their day is closing their eyes and turning in to themselves.
Quiet Time, created by the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, is a semester-long pilot program at Sequoia Community Day School Green Street Academy that focuses on meditation for stress reduction. Funded with $35,000 as part of the Sequoia Healthcare District’s Healthy Schools Initiative grant and matching funds from the district. Of that amount, $22,000 went to meditation training and the presence of a trainer from the wellness group while $12,500 was for the three psychotherapists to be there twice a week for therapy sessions. Twice a day for 18 minutes, the students, who are have been incarcerated and, or, expelled from schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, are led in a non-religious transcendental meditation by trained teachers. Students sit, close their eyes and allow themselves to have their attention travel naturally to a less active, quieter style of mental functioning.
“There’s no way they would close their eyes before [Quiet Time],” said Karen Li, wellness coordinator for the school district. “In their world, you don’t close your eyes even when you’re sleeping.”
Community Day School students’ attitudes toward the program have changed since it first began. An independent film crew even came by during the morning session to record the process. The meditation is encouraged, but not considered mandatory. Principal R. Marshall Burgamy said initially students were concerned it wouldn’t fit their street personas.
“I thought it was weird and funny,” said one student following a meditation session. “I didn’t take it seriously. It helped me with my problems at home and controlling my anger.”
Data backs up the student improvement, Sequoia administrators say. According to data from Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, the number of suspensions was cut in half from 13 per 100 students in 2006-07 to six per 100 students in 2010-11 at San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley Middle School over a five-year period. Truancy rates, defined as having more than three unexcused absences or being tardy more than three times per year, have dropped by 61 percent, from 18 percent of students in 2006-07 to just 7 percent in 2010-11.
Results of the Quiet Time program in Oakland and San Francisco include improved school-wide grade point average, increased attendance, decreased suspensions and school violence, reduced student anxiety and psychological distress, increased self-esteem, higher standardized test scores, decreased burnout and stress in teachers and administrators, increased emotional intelligence and increased coping ability in adults.
Another Community Day School student said it also helped him control his anger at home.
“At home I used to blow up quick,” he said. “I’m more calm now and my reaction to situations is different.”
“Meditation is my medicine,” said one, while another said he feels better since the meditation and no longer comes to school with an attitude. One put a hood on and pulled his hair in front of his face as a curtain of space, said Li.
Burgamy, who is stepping down when the semester ends, said as a former military member and Type A personality, he never expected he could do this meditation himself.
“It allows for more resiliency and flexibility both mentally and physically,” he said. “Students have told me it’s a time to be free outside of struggles with their family and friends. It’s an important thing to be working on their emotional intellect.”
Teacher Jason Kinser said he just didn’t think this would work as well as it did.
There are about 30 students, all of color and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, enrolled in the Community Day School that focuses on helping transition students back into the district. Now, 19 are eligible for readmission into regular district schools, such as Redwood High School, in January 2014. The number of students in the program has been reduced significantly, as the number of expulsions has decreased from 125 students in the 2008-09 school year to just 36 students in the 2012-13 school year. About 10 to 12 students will need to continue to serve their expulsion terms in January 2014; these students will be transferred to Gateway, a San Mateo County Community School. The success of the comprehensive high schools in retaining students has eradicated the need for the district to run its own program, according to a staff report.
“We’ve put ourselves out of business in a positive way,” Burgamy said. “Attendance is up, discipline is down, there’s been no suspensions since it started, grades are up and self-reported attitudes are up.”
Pamela Kurtzman, director of grants and programs for the Sequoia Healthcare District, said she would like to see more funding from the school district or another source go to Redwood High School or another school in the district. She would also like to be able to follow the students from Community Day School’s progress. At first, she said Quiet Time sounded a little hokie pokie to her, but the kids really seem to love it and are benefiting from it.
“The research was really intriguing,” she said. “We were looking for something unique that might make a difference. There is real promise for having something like this as an elective for most comprehensive schools. It’s still a little early to make any decisions. We have a really tight budget and our annual expenses are pretty tight.”
Noah Schechtman, director of school programs for the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, said Quiet Time has many practical uses.
“For a student that is coming to school with a very high stress level having that kind of support and education you could see it as a prerequisite to learn effectively,” he said. “It can sound like a luxury, but it supports social and emotional learning and is a stress management technique.”
Those involved in the program would like to see it in a variety of schools.
“We’re finding stress is not unique to low-income populations,” Schechtman said. “There’s different kinds of stress; be it pressure to get into Stanford (University) or to commit crime.”
School district staff will bring recommendations for proposed utilization of the Green Street site in East Palo Alto at a future board meeting. The Quiet Time program at the school wraps up at the end of this semester.
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