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La Jolla Cluster hears ways schools are supporting students’ social and emotional learning

Members of the La Jolla Cluster Association hear feedback and actions addressing students' social-emotional learning.
Members of the La Jolla Cluster Association hear feedback and actions addressing students’ social-emotional learning at the group’s Jan. 21 meeting.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

As the first half of the school year was drawing to a close, the La Jolla Cluster Association, a nonprofit organization formed to promote and advocate for the five La Jolla public schools in the San Diego Unified School District, heard the various ways in which the schools are addressing the social and emotional needs of their students.

At the cluster’s Jan. 21 meeting, principals and counselors discussed the resources and methods being used to support social-emotional learning, or SEL, which parents have cited as a concern while students are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Andi Frost, principal of Bird Rock Elementary School, said “staff and parents have noticed several social-emotional needs with our students,” which she identified as “restlessness, missing friends and connections, feeling scared, worried, anxious … there’s been sleep disruption and anger and frustration, seen in a variety of ways.”

Frost said she has received emails from parents since classes resumed early this month after the winter break “stating that some of the social-emotional concerns that they were seeing in their students throughout the school year have been amplified or have been showing up with more frequency.”

Addressing the San Diego Unified School District’s decision this month to hold off on setting a date to reopen campuses, a district official spoke during the La Jolla Cluster Association’s Jan. 21 meeting about the need for coronavirus testing, vaccinations and a lower rate of infections before such a date can be identified.

La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky said, “We administered a survey to our entire student body about things that are working well, things that aren’t working well, their happiness level.”

The survey, Podhorsky said, indicated that most students “seem to be in a good position socially and emotionally, but there are a group of students that we do become concerned with. … Less than 10 percent of the students didn’t feel that they had friends that they were able to rely on.”

“That becomes worrisome for me, as a parent and a principal, because I know how we all survive is by linking with our friends,” he said. “It becomes even more apparent for us [that we need to] support them.”

Muirlands Middle School surveys its students each grading period about their wellness, according to Principal Jeff Luna. Most students have answered they felt they were doing well and had at least one adult at the school whom they trusted, he said.

Muirlands counselor Nicole Wehrli said feedback indicated that “92 percent of students said they’re always trying to do better on their schoolwork; 84 percent of students said that teachers show that they think it’s important for students of different races and cultures at this school to get along with each other; and 78 percent say adults in this school respect differences in students.”

Luna said “the goal is to improve on those as the year goes on.”

Luna said Wehrli is implementing Project Wisdom, which he said is a “character education program based on a social-emotional curriculum.”

Wehrli is teaching the Project Wisdom lessons in PE classes, Luna said. “Our counseling team is also meeting with students one on one as needed for some counseling and coping sessions with students,” he said.

Luna added that Muirlands’ website contains resources for students such as a virtual “calming room” that offers sounds, music, guided meditation and more.

Podhorsky said La Jolla High counselors continue to have office hours available for students.

Torrey Pines Elementary School counselor Keri Riney said the three elementary school counselors in the cluster have taken a collaborative approach to their services this year, meeting monthly “to streamline our instruction and the goals for all of our students at our sites.”

Riney said all the counselors have “taken note [that] students are feeling disconnected, feeling isolated, lonely, experiencing frustration, sadness. … How can we help support those ... students and parents?”

The counselors’ main goal, Riney said, was to “help practice self-regulation skills … what is it that you can do to help yourself feel better? We all provided instruction and lessons to positively assist our students with that.”

She said the counselors also are working on teaching students effective communication strategies to use at home, “because it’s the family members who are receiving all of those emotions and trying to navigate through with their children in a positive way.”

Frost said the Bird Rock Elementary counselor is meeting with small groups of students in six-week segments focused on “specific needs for specific students, expressed by the teachers.”

Cluster schools also are encouraging students to meet virtually outside class in clubs or other groupings. Luna said the clubs at Muirlands help give “our kids a non-academic structure but more of a social structure, just so they can interact with one another [and] reduce anxiety.”

Frost said that because of “all of the change and all the divisiveness that we have been experiencing as a community, we are beginning something that we are calling Bird Rock Elementary Circles, which will be a loosely structured opportunity for students to come together.”

“We’re still hammering out the specifics, but it will be in three different developmentally appropriate age ranges and we will launch in February,” she said.

La Jolla Elementary School Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said teachers there “have created opportunities outside the classroom for their students to get together socially, because that’s a huge piece that’s missing for them.”

Cluster principals also said they are working to improve the well-being of their staff members.

“We have some staff members getting together by department, where we ... socialize and meet outside of the academic setting and decompress and be able to communicate with one another,” Luna said. ◆