Worth a Second Look – Sacred Heart Community School: Beating the Odds -PART II

This is the second of three columns about Sacred Heart Community School in Regina, Saskatchewan. In Part Two, Principal Loretta Tetreault is amazed by the wisdom of her students. Definitely Worth a Second Look!

Positive change was happening in the school and it was becoming a safe learning environment. Outside, in the schoolyard, there were still some problems and the staff was becoming frustrated. Traditional school routines were not working at the school. The solution was to make the school feel like “a good home” and eliminate some ingrained but unnecessary routines. Before school line-ups were eliminated, removing the daily pushing and shoving that took place by the students waiting in line. Inside the school, traditional desks were replaced with clusters of tables where the students worked together in groups. Comfortable furniture for reading was added to some classrooms. The students no longer had to ask permission to use the bathroom or to get a drink of water. To the surprise of many visitors to the school, the teachers weren’t necessarily found seated at the front of the classroom, unlike more traditional classroom settings.

One of the school’s Grade Five classes, known as the “Class from Hell”, and was now about to enter Grade Six. This class had several dominant leaders and had caused three teachers to leave. Tetreault felt that she couldn’t put the class together again, and looked for a way to harness the positive energy of these students. While watching the students, she noticed that the negative leaders were nurturing and kind to their younger siblings attending the same school. There was no research to support it, but Tetreault got permission to create two classes of grades 2/6, based on the theory was that peer pressure would be eliminated with the combination of the two age groups. Two teachers eventually came forward to take on the project. Letters were sent home to the parents outlining the expectations of the new arrangement. Amazingly, only three parents declined to allow their children to participate. The Grade Six students were asked to rise to the challenge of the new classes. The students caucused and negotiated an “out clause” by Christmas of that year if they felt the arrangement wasn’t working. The holidays came and went and not one student asked to end the arrangement. A parent survey was taken after 2 years of the project, resulting in 88% of parents and 89% of students voting yes to keeping the split classes. Seeing the success of the program, many parents requested an expansion, which lead to the creation of several new split classes. Some of the unique splits at the school now include: Grades 1/2/3, Grades 3/5, and Grades 4/7.

Outside the school was still a problem. The students had a safe and orderly environment inside the school, but had to rely on their survival skills everyday at recess and lunch. Non-violent resolution techniques were being taught in the classroom, but could not be applied by the children on the outside. One day, when discussing this problem with a student, the young man offered Tetreault some food for thought. The student related that in order to live in the neighbourhood, survival involved being able to fight. To the student, it was obvious. His solution was to eliminate going outside. Tetreault and the staff were amazed by this insight. Research and discussion with teachers, students and the school board led to approval from the Minister of Education for a new adjusted school day, which eliminated recess and shortened the lunch break. A one-year pilot project was set up and the parents were surveyed at the end of the year. The project received 92% – 95% approval from the parents.

The adjusted school day started at 9:30 am and was dismissed at 3:00 pm. In the place of recess, a 20-minute physical education classes was offered twice each day. The lunch hour was shortened to 30 minutes and all the students were requested to eat lunch at school. The result of these changes has been a dramatic decrease in schoolyard violence and reduced stress for the students. Activities and games are provided to keep the students occupied at lunch. The students report feeling safer on the streets because they walk to school later, eliminating conflict with other neighborhood children who are already in school for the day.

Innovative changes like the adjusted school day and the unique grade split classes have eliminated many of the school’s violence problems. My son loved his Grade 1/2/3 class and is rising to the challenge of Grade 3/5 this year. By harnessing the energy of the “Class from Hell” in a positive direction, this group of students became positive leaders and role models for their younger classmates.

Next week: The implementation of brain-based learning.

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