By Taylor Walsh, WholeHealthED with Spike Cook, EdD, Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ
In January 2019 Lakeside Middle School (6-8) of Millville in Cumberland County, NJ launched a first-of-its-kind series of wellness workshops around activities usually presented separately or in piecemeal fashion: mindfulness, nutrition and kitchen skills, fitness, and environmental learning. Uniquely, the activities were unified at Lakeside into a single program delivered during the semester. They were also added to after-school services at Lakeside and at three other Cumberland County middle schools through the 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) program of the US Dept. of Education.
The 21st CCLC commissioned a pre- and post-survey assessment of student attitudes, which summarized:
Overall, across every domain, students reported more knowledge, increased positive behavior, and more self-awareness, from pre- to post- surveys. The 21st CCLC Health and Wellness Program appears to have made a significant difference for the participants of this project.”
Why did a Title 1 middle school in one of New Jersey’s most challenging communities agree to implement this approach? And then to sustain its development during COVID?
In our online conversation this past summer Lakeside Principal Spike Cook observed:
This was an opportunity to provide something for the school community that would address the mind, body and spirit of wellness in order to transform our school culture. During the past few years, Lakeside Middle School has coordinated and participated in various mindfulness activities, so it made sense for us to take the next step in this initiative.”
The idea of unifying school-based wellness activities into a coherent program was the focus of WholeHealthED’s inaugural symposium in 2018 at Georgetown University. Senior Advisor Kate Tumelty Felice, a psychology and education faculty member at Rowan College of South Jersey in Vineland (adjacent to Millville), led several discussions. On returning to Vineland, she worked with county and school contacts to create by the end of 2018 a first “holistic wellness” program.
Implementation of what is now the Whole Health Studies program at Lakeside was one of the earliest examples of combining multiple school-based wellness activities into a single, coherent learning experience sustained across a semester. It was also an entirely new way to think about the influence that students’ time in these programs might have on learning, on SEL and on mental and physical health.
Dr. Cook recounted: “As students began to participate in the events, it was clear that these were new experiences. At first, they were timid, and some were even unwilling to participate. As time progressed, so did their comfort level with the various activities. Teachers and students both reported that the impact of the activities had specific benefits such as increased awareness of mindfulness, healthy eating, and respect for the environment.
“Students who participated in the activities were willing to trust the process that this would in fact help them, throughout the various activities. Each student took something special away and was able to better articulate feelings.”
Educators and specialists experienced in discrete wellness fields will recognize this kind of unfolding acceptance. Combining the activities together as was done at Lakeside highlighted an interesting multiplier effect. Chef Rebecca Johnson of Wellness in the School (WITS) noted this continuity when she described WITS’ “Cook for Kids” program she led at Lakeside. During our July 2020 webinar Balancing Academics and Wellbeing, she observed: “The students had just come from a mindfulness track. Because of their heightened awareness they were unusually receptive. They were ready for what we had to teach.” (See: Chef Rebecca’s presentation on YouTube.)
2020: Into COVID
With the favorable results from 2019, Dr. Cook re-upped Lakeside for 2019-2020, which of course COVID shut down in early 2020. But he remained open to program enhancements while everyone wrestled with remote learning and started to consider outdoor classrooms. We continued to support his vision for transforming the school’s culture with our partners.
Foremost among these collaborations was with the Whole Health Institute (WHI), a groundbreaking clinical and therapeutic non-profit introduced by the Walton Family Foundation in January 2020. WHI is bringing to healthcare an approach to healing and treatment that empowers patients to manage their own wellbeing. Whole health principals animate this approach to personalized care; just as they do whole health learning.
But like WholeHealthED and schools everywhere in early 2020 WHI was unable to start its work in clinics and workplaces. Together we came up with a collaboration to bring whole health principles into remote learning. This is the unique Whole Health 4 You collection of 60 short videos (3 to 4 minutes), in which kids creatively express themselves through music, art, exercise and yoga, gardening, making meals, and other surprising ways.
Created and produced in collaboration with WHI, the videos were designed to engage kids, families, and teachers during the many months of remote learning. They were accompanied by specially designed guidelines to support lesson plans for teachers.
Not surprisingly, a Lakeside faculty AVID teacher was the first to integrate the videos in her lessons plan in the spring of 2021.
WHI also made possible significant improvements at the Lakeside campus itself: energizing an unused school garden plot, developing green spaces, including outdoor learning resources and mobile outdoor classroom carts (shown here with 6th grade teacher Cheyenne Langlois and AVID teacher Sandy Lokuta) and a repurposed “Teacher Reset Room.”
Dr. Cook, active on Lakeside social media, noted that after posting about these schoolyard improvements had several inquiries: “In fact, people want more spaces to be created and redesigned.”
He also noted the role of the Teacher Reset Room. “Parents are very supportive of the program and the impact on the climate and culture of Lakeside. Especially during the pandemic, parents wanted to ensure that the staff were being taken care of because they know that is important.”
In addition, the regional Inspira Health Network of Vineland made possible the creation and installation of a “Mindfulness Walk,” literally a visual path in and around the school designed by Dr. Felice to encourage students and faculty to pause and reflect as they move through their days. (Inspira’s Fitness Connection director led the physical activity workshop during the spring of 2019.)
These resources were developed during the challenging 2020-2021 year. Dr. Cook’s interest in improving the school’s wellness capabilities even as COVID caused such distress, illustrates the potential for such development. He recalled the progress since late 2018:
“Honestly, when we first began this work, we were unable to see how the seeds of change would take root at Lakeside. Over the past two years, we have seen an acceleration with the work and the impact on the school community. This has truly been a labor of love.”
Lakeside’s whole health learning experience represents a small sample size to be sure. It also illustrates how talent, tools, and methods – often readily available — can be organized to offset the negative impacts of the COVID experience, and at the same time start to build a wellbeing mindset for students, and as Dr. Cook intends, for the school community itself.
As the Nation considers massive investment in its K-12 school infrastructure, it is essential that educators make the case that SEL and school-based wellness activities like school gardens are seen as wellbeing hubs in that infrastructure (which they are); no longer just “nice-to-have” ancillary programs, but essential-to-provide components of whole health learning for every Whole Child.
Taylor Walsh is the founder and Executive Director of WholeHealthED, the Project for Whole Health Learning in K-12.
Spike Cook is the principal of Lakeside Middle School, Millville, New Jersey