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April 07, 2016

U of M Extension partnership with St. Paul school growing great things

Kids working in garden
When Judy Myers and Sara Langworthy, educators in University of Minnesota Extension's Children, Youth, and Family Consortium (CYFC), received an Extension grant in 2014, they had no idea how beautifully the “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, Healthy Learners” project would blossom.

Extension CYFC's partnership with Bruce Vento Elementary School began as informal conversations with the school principal, Scott Masini, who was hoping to create a trauma-sensitive school environment. Those conversations have led to the creation of a network of partners and supporters across the University of Minnesota and the East St. Paul community.

Why the need for a trauma-sensitive learning environment? "We know that when students are highly stressed, they have difficulty learning," says Myers. "Standardized test scores at Bruce Vento have been the lowest in the St. Paul school district. The stressors are multiple: poverty, food scarcity, parental incarceration, and domestic violence."

Many of the students at Bruce Vento Elementary School are Hmong and Karen immigrants, some of whom fled their home countries as refugees. Some students are not sure where their next meal is coming from, and others struggle with the loss of parents or siblings. Yet in spite of these challenges, students come to school eager to learn. As Masini says, "The strengths are in our kids. Our kids are really cool kids."

A combination of University resources and community partners has helped address learning and wellness in holistic, ecological, and sustainable ways. Here are some of the fruits of the partnership to date:
  • Family-centered, in-school mental health services through Family Innovations, Inc.
  • Monthly food distributions from Second Harvest Heartland.
  • A refurbished calming room (a safe space for students to practice regulating negative behavior and emotions) designed by University of Minnesota College of Design students.
  • Parent cooking classes taught by Shirley Vang, Extension SNAP-Ed educator.
  • Cooking demonstrations using Second Harvest food with Jennifer Ogren, Extension EFNEP community nutrition educator.
Schoolyard gardens produced a high yield of vegetables during the 2015 season that were shared with families and classrooms; a St. Paul police officer worked with students in the garden over the summer. Like the calming room, the garden is also used as a therapeutic calming space for children with emotional and behavioral challenges. "I see the community garden as an extension of the calming room," says Masini. "The kids that aren't going to work in the calming room might work in the garden. And maybe it's just walking through it. I believe it's going to strengthen this community."

Positive results are emerging. Teachers and administrators have seen significantly fewer angry outbursts and students show less aggression toward themselves and others. Teachers also report that students demonstrate more problem-solving capabilities and more empathy and cooperation with one another. These are promising precursors to academic success.

"I can't even tell you what Judy and the others have meant to this building; I mean with the trauma work," says Masini. "It's just been really powerful for our kids."

Extension's CYFC staff will identify concepts that may transplant well to other schools environments, such as similar mental health services and calming rooms. "By following the lead of key players at Bruce Vento, including Principal Masini, other administrators, and teachers, as well as the needs of students and families, we’ve unearthed the incredible power of collaboration," says Myers. "We can’t wait to see what sprouts next."

To learn more, visit CYFC's Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, Healthy Learners project blog.
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