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From a Little Seed (Money), Great Things Can Grow

Tomato plant growing outside Bruce Vento.
By Judy Myers, Extension Educator — CYFC

When fellow Children, Youth, and Family Consortium Extension Educator Sara Langworthy and I received a 2014 Extension Issue Area Grant, we had no idea how the “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, Healthy Learners” project would blossom.

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

Why the need for a trauma-sensitive learning environment?

We know that when students are highly stressed, they have difficulty learning. And 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.

Imagine living as a young child in a neighborhood where gun shots and drug deals are common, eating only on the days you go to school, getting little uninterrupted sleep at night, and missing a parent who is in jail or dead. In addition, many of the parents at Bruce Vento are Hmong or Karen immigrants who live with their own historical trauma after arriving in the United States from years in refugee camps.

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 College of Design students.
  • Parent cooking classes taught by SNAP-Ed educator Shirley Vang.
  • Cooking demonstrations using Second Harvest food boxes contents with EFNEP Community Nutrition Educator Jennifer Ogren.
  • Schoolyard gardens that produced a high yield of vegetables during the 2015 season that was shared with families and classrooms; a St. Paul police officer worked with students in the garden over the summer.
Signs the wall of the refurbished calming room
that help students describe the level of emotional intensity
they feel when entering and exiting.
No one expected that students would immediately achieve academic success as a result of these enrichments; rather, we saw the projects as cultivating the soil and planting the seeds for success. Nevertheless, we’re already seeing positive results. For example, teachers and administrators have seen significant declines in episodes of emotional dysregulation, or emotional confusion, among students. Specifically, students have fewer angry outbursts and show less aggression toward self or 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.

As CYFC continues this partnership, staff will identify replicable concepts that may “transplant” well to other schools environments. For example, St. Paul Public Schools district administrators are currently talking with Ed Frickson, executive director of Family Innovations, Inc. about providing mental health services in several other schools. And the calming room design has sparked interest in other schools.

By following the lead of key players at Bruce Vento, including Principal Scott Masini, other administrators, and teachers, as well as the needs of students and families, we’ve unearthed the incredible power of collaboration. We can’t wait to see what sprouts next.

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