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Answer Sheet: How This Public School's Focus on Wellness and Health Benefits Its Community

If you listen to people such as former education secretary Betsy DeVos and her allies, you might think there isn’t a public school that works for students. She famously called public schools a “dead end” in 2015, before Donald Trump picked her to run the Education Department. But there are many public schools, and public schools districts, that do a lot of good work for students that often goes unrecognized beyond their borders.

Some of these schools were recognized in a project that was run for a number of years called “Schools of Opportunity,” and run by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The project, which started as a pilot nearly a decade ago, and then went national, recognized schools that excelled not necessarily in the standardized test-based accountability systems that were central to school reform in the 2000s, but in other practices identified by experts in the 2013 book “Closing the Opportunity Gap.”

Schools that applied for recognition in the program submitted information about how they created and maintained healthy school culture; broadened and enriched learning opportunities along with enacting a challenging and culturally rich curriculum; provided more and better learning time; used a variety of assessments designed to respond to student needs; supported teachers as professionals; provided rich, supportive opportunities for students with special needs; provided all students with necessary supports and services; built on the strength of English language learners; and maintained equitable and meaningful communications with parents and the community.

For each year that schools were recognized by the program, I published pieces about each one. Now there is a new book, titled “Schools of Opportunity: 10 Research-Based Models of Equity in Action,” that describes in detail how some successful schools approach their work with students.

This excerpt from the book focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in far northeast Denver with its students in grades 6-12, and its approach to student wellness through supports and services that are largely nonacademic.

The excerpt explains how this school weaves this holistic approach throughout the school’s different elements. Importantly, while the story starts with a discussion of mental health resources, it quickly expands to include teaching and curriculum — and all of these are tied together. (For ease of reading, the excerpt does not use brackets or ellipses to indicate missing or slightly changed text. For the same reason, citations are removed from the excerpt, except for one attached to a quotation.)

The new Schools of Opportunity book uses exemplary public high schools to illustrate and document how actual schools can and do close opportunity gaps by using research-based practices to challenge and support their students.

The authors of the following section of the book are Kate Somerville, Kristen Goessling, Adam York, and Kimberly Grayson. Following the excerpt are some links to previous stories about the project.


A Holistic Approach to Student Wellbeing

Education and schooling do not begin and end with academics or learning objectives; instead, they also include relationships with students that center an understanding of who and how they come to be learners in their particular learning spaces and within their communities. Questions from this holistic perspective might include: What does it feel like when a school treats students as family? What community assets and supports could enhance our school? What do students enjoy, need, and want for their schooling experience? What aren’t we addressing? Which people and programs can help students thrive in and beyond the classroom?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Early College (DMLK) serves students in grades six through twelve composed of 61.2% Hispanic/Latinx students, 25% Black students, and with 80% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. DMLK is geographically located in far northeast Denver about fifteen miles from the city center in the area known as Green Valley Ranch that is separated from other parts of the city by major freeways. While it is part of Denver Public Schools (DPS), the distance from Denver’s central core means that students at DMLK are on an island relative to their peers in DPS. That is especially true for access to social service providers and resources, which are more readily accessible across other regions of the city. More specifically, there are no mental health providers who serve children located within a 10-mile radius of DMLK. The geographic and service void are important contextual factors that illustrate the vital importance of the additional supports DMLK provides its students and school community.

Student Supports for Health and Wellness

DMLK’s approach to education pays explicit attention to the importance of wellness and health for all school community members. The school provides essential resources (time, personnel, programs, and opportunities) for adults in the school community to tend to their needs so that they can show up for young people in the ways that youth need and deserve. The school’s practices normalize asking for help by recognizing that over the course of a lifetime, everyone will experience issues, challenges, trauma and adversity. This awareness is woven through the curriculum, pedagogy, organizational structure, and material conditions that upend deficit and stigmatizing narratives about mental health.

DMLK is committed to providing all students access to professional services and supports, and these supports are intended to be used not just when mental health impacts academic performance. While this ethical standard applies to all school counselors and social workers, the reality is schools are mostly understaffed and mental health professionals are responsible for oversized caseloads with increasing severity and needs. For decades, educators and students in Denver and nationwide have demanded better access to services and mental health resources. Professional standards recommend a minimum of one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students. Yet the ACLU found 90 percent of students attend public schools that do not meet these standards with a national average student-to-counselor ratio of 444:1; in Colorado, the ratio is 503:1.

Principal Kimberly Grayson recognized the school’s few social workers and school psychologists were at full capacity serving only students with individual education plans (IEPs) and knew having her team work beyond capacity was not the answer. Instead, Grayson worked with the DMLK team to explore what it would look like to address all students’ needs in a meaningful way, which led to the school’s Whole Child Team. In 2021, the Whole Child Team included three mental health counselors, three social workers, one school psychologist, one nurse, and one health technician. Recognizing the need for this work to be done well and within professional boundaries of competence, all mental health professionals are licensed social work or counseling professionals. A trauma-certified social worker served the general education student population with services not associated with IEPs.

During the summer of 2020, Principal Grayson hired a Latinx social worker to serve the predominantly Latinx student population. Having culturally competent staff and professionals who reflect the students and community is important for reducing barriers to accessing care. The school’s holistic approach situates mental health and socioemotional development within a relational framework. Humanization is the core of this relational ethos and applies to everyone within the school community. Empathy and trust are prioritized through policy and practice. For example, the critical issue of time in accessing mental health supports can have a significant impact on outcomes. Principal Grayson believes that if students need to talk to someone, they need to talk to someone now. DMLK removed traditional barriers to services by allowing students to self-refer to see a counselor or school social worker as needed and when situations emerge. The standard time from referral to service was reduced to 24 hours to ensure students receive the supports they need when they need it.

Additionally, DMLK uses the Behavioral and Emotional Screening System (BESS) to identify immediate risks and the different levels of support each student needs. All DMLK students grade 6-12 receive a Signs of Suicide (SOS) presentation. Mindfulness practices are recognized as valuable for everyone, with weekly after school yoga and wellness sessions for staff. The school offers a space for students and families called a Place of Peace, the trauma specialist’s home base. A referral sheet for teachers outlines the different specialties of the mental health team and a variety of different “look-fors” that remind teachers how perceived discipline problems can often be better addressed with mental health care. A Strengthening Families program encourages healthy home relationships for students and family members experiencing current or past trauma.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Principal Grayson and the Whole Child Team pivoted to maintain continuity of care for the school community to the virtual/remote learning environment and heightened needs. They implemented a three-pronged approach. Students were organized based on risk levels and the school provided the groups varied amount of contact from daily to once a week based on need. DMLK offered families onsite food/meal distribution, school supply distribution, and additional support for families who experienced positive COVID diagnoses. The school also held events to provide the broader community food and other essential items.

Healing through Curriculum-Focused Student Organizing

DMLK’s holistic approach to curriculum builds upon the understanding that wellness and healing are simultaneously educational interventions that can improve educational outcomes. DMLK leadership tangibly infuses the relational and wellness ethos through a curriculum and decision-making model that puts into practice the school’s values of student voice, perspective, and agency.

Contemporary conversations about childhood, trauma, and education too often consider curriculum as an after-thought. The burgeoning trauma-informed schools movement has led educators and administrators to attend to contextual factors as related to academic and behavioral outcomes, seeking to prevent behavioral issues with socioemotional and mental health services instead of discipline and punishment. The trauma-informed care movement assumes that “disruptive behavior is the symptom of a deeper harm, rather than willful defiance, or disrespect.” While this is a profoundly important shift, there must also be an ideological shift from thinking about wellness and healing as an individual experience to a view of trauma as a collective experience. Collective healing involves changing conditions and structures that perpetuate trauma.

In the fall of 2019, Principal Grayson took a group of students to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D.C. to enrich and supplement students’ classroom learning. The museum paints a complex and unflinching picture of the experiences of formerly enslaved peoples in the United States. This was a picture that students identified as vastly different from what they learned in their own history and social studies courses. In the middle of the trip, students approached their principal with concerns about the history curriculum at DMLK. Students were disappointed they had to fly halfway across the country to learn what they should have learned in school. A testament to the close and trusting relationships with students, Grayson recalled one night on the trip after the day at the museum, a senior called her to task: “Grayson, you’re Black. How are you as a Black leader not making sure we have more Black representation in our school?” All Grayson could say was: “You’re right.” That trip began a healing process and the student’s pointed question catalyzed a deep political discussion. Grayson was receptive, open and vulnerable with the students. She explained, “We were broken together ... and we were able to rebuild together.”

The students recognized the harmful impact of the curriculum on their own community, communities of color across the district, and across the country. And they wanted it to change. The students, who Grayson refers to as “a force to be reckoned with,” asked that the school let them lead the way in creating a necessary change in their school community. Their goal was to change their history curriculum to reflect what they had learned about their own histories in a way that centered the richness, wealth and assets that define Black history. They asked for her support, but they made it clear that their voices were the ones that needed to be heard. Grayson agreed to play a supportive role in the students’ quest to change the school’s curriculum.

The students started working almost as soon as they returned home from their trip to DC. They began by meeting with DPS district staff. The students then continued this process with their history teachers, all of whom were white. They asked Grayson to send the entire history department to D.C. to visit the NMAAHC, and Grayson agreed. Two days later, the students gave a presentation to the history department on what they learned and what was possible to remedy longstanding problems in the curriculum. A couple weeks later the entire department headed to the nation’s capital to immerse themselves in the NMAAHC for the weekend. While in DC, the teachers began rewriting DMLK’s history curriculum from their hotel and shared a Google Doc to collaborate with Grayson immediately. Once back in Denver, the history department gave a presentation to the students about how they thought they had been teaching history, and shared ideas for how they would change moving forward. Afterward, the students and history teachers presented the forthcoming curriculum changes to the rest of the faculty. The change process was characterized by authentic relationships, humanizing interactions, and student-adult partnership.

In January of 2020, DMLK students met with the Denver School Board to advocate for curricular changes that would center the histories of Black, Latino, Indigenous and other peoples of color in district-wide curriculum. Unfortunately, COVID-19 ground everything to a halt. In May, students grappled with the murder of George Floyd and the calls for racial justice that followed. Protective measures like remote schooling and social distancing made safe physical gatherings nearly impossible. Student organizers at DMLK had to find a different way to continue their campaign. They started a podcast called “Know Justice Know Peace: The Take,” where they discussed youths’ perspectives on racial justice issues. The podcast and the curricular changes at DLMK were supported by DPS’s school board, which paved the way for curriculum change across the entire district. On October 22, 2020, the Denver Public Schools Board passed the Know Justice Know Peace Resolution, which credited the student organizers at DMLK. The resolution enacted policy to transform and humanize DPS’s curriculum by considering the impact of learning materials that are used across course areas.

​​A traditional approach to wellness that considers student mental health from a clinical perspective will often address resistance to oppressive structures as a problem that resides within the individual, best solved with one-on-one counseling interventions. While such individual social-emotional supports are integral to a comprehensive system of care for students, a system characterized by individualized interventions alone is incomplete at best, and oppressive at worst. The individualistic deficit-focused perspective that aims to help students cope with oppression ignores the reality that mental health is sociopolitically situated, and fails to address the oppressive structures that perpetuate collective trauma both in- and outside of schools. Alternative systems, like the one at DMLK, recognize students as the experts that they are in their own experience of schooling and racialized experiences in society. This not only promotes a sense of agency and healing but also results in changes that are more culturally sustaining than they would be without the authentic engagement of youth.

Lessons Learned from DMLK

During a time when multiple states across the country have adopted or proposed legislation that forbids conversations about race, equity and privilege in public schools, DMLK showed how embracing the difficulty, the pain, and the beauty of these conversations honors the whole histories of their students of color. Additionally, this story illustrates how resistance to dehumanizing curriculum can spark movements for change that contribute to healing and co-created school environments that sustain the wellness of students.

DMLK demonstrates what it means and what is possible when schools see and honor students’ full-selves by directly supporting student mental health, investing in wellness through comprehensive supports and services; and attending to the student-wellness implications of the academic curriculum. The stories and practices shared here demonstrate the power of a holistic approach to schooling that provides additional supports and services to students and the broader school community.

DMLK’s story provides other school leaders, educators, and administrators with conceptual and strategic pathways for engaging students and designing educational environments that enhance student and community well-being. This story of how this work expanded throughout the district also clearly illustrates one of the central beliefs at the foundation of the Schools of Opportunity recognition project and this book: that examples like DMLK might guide us toward a system that humanizes and cares for all students.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.