Project SEEKS SES Blog

  • Highlighting the latest happenings of the grant-funded collaboration with the ACHD

  • Project SEEKS SES holds virtual community of practice around YMHFA and tMHFA

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 2/21/2024

    Participants observe and listen during a virtual community of practice meeting

    On February 21, the AIU and Project SEEKS SES held its seventh virtual community of practice meeting. The meeting revolved around Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) and Teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA).

    Thanks to Project SEEKS SES support, Chatham University is providing both YMHFA and tMHFA. During the meeting, Dr. Christie Lewis shared details about both programs.

    The PowerPoint that Dr. Lewis presented during the meeting can be found here. If you are interested in holding YMHFA or TMHFA at your school or program, please see this form. Dr. Lewis can be reached at clewis1@chatham.edu.

    Each community of practice meeting focuses on a shared topic of interest between school district, higher education and community partners. Each meeting is led by the Project SEEKS SES coordinator, Shannon Fagan, in conjunction with a school district/university partner and subject-matter expert. 

    For video of the community of practice meeting, click here.

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  • Calming rooms open at Edgewood, Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academies

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 2/9/2024

    Last year, the Woodland Hills School District was able to open up a Resiliency Room in the high school, to help students center themselves in times of stress and trauma.

    With support from Project SEEKS SES — a grant partnership between the AIU and ACHD that supports school districts in addressing social and emotional health — the district has been able to add a similar level of support in their Edgewood Elementary STEAM Academy and Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy schools.

    Equipped with dim lighting, beanbag chairs and a variety of activities to help a student calm down, the district is thrilled to provide its youngest learners with a safe, calming space in times of need.

    “The students can come to that room and take a break from the everyday stressors that they’re dealing with,” said Pamela White, the district’s Director of Administrative Services and WHOA Coordinator.

    “A lot of our students deal with trauma, and we want to give them a safe space to take as much time as they need.”

    Additionally, through SEEKS SES support, the district was able to revamp and retouch its Resiliency Room. White said the district had long been thinking about adding additional calming spaces after seeing how valuable of a resource the Resiliency Room has been.

    “When we learned about this grant, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to make these rooms happen,” said White.

    White said the calming spaces have quickly proven to be successful additions. The need for such a room has come to the forefront in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, as students deal with high levels of stress, trauma and depression. 

    By providing students with a room to chill out when dealing with these feelings, the district is not only giving students short-term solutions, but also teaching students sustainable ways to center themselves in the future.

    “The earlier you teach them to regulate their emotions, the better off they’ll be as adults,” White said.

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  • Be The Kind Kid Club fills Highlands Elementary with joy

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 2/9/2024

    As Hailey Hamilton and Kristy Skradski began planning to start a Be The Kind Kid Club at Highlands Elementary School, they reached out to peers for advice.

    Teachers at Hamilton’s previous school district, Hampton Township, had advised Hamilton to cap the club at 50 students, to make organizing it more manageable. When word spread of the club’s inception at the beginning of the school year, though, interest went through the roof.

    “It seems like every kid has brought me a permission slip, and we have 100-plus kids in the club,” said Hamilton, a 4th grade teacher in the district. “It’s awesome.”

    The Be the Kind Kid Club concept started at Avonworth Primary Center in 2016, and has spread to several school districts in Western Pennsylvania. The concept revolves around an after-school club that preaches kindness and giving back. 

    At Highlands Elementary, the club consists of 3rd and 4th grade students. Hamilton and Skradski, a school counselor, head the club, but numerous teachers — both current and retired — volunteer their time to keep the club organized.

    “As educators and as people who are doing the right things for families and students, I think we need to take advantage of any opportunity to spread the message of kindness,” said Dr. Stanley Whiteman III, Highlands Elementary principal. “We have amazing students and families here. 

    The club meets once a month, although students throughout the school are encouraged to wear their Be The Kind Kid shirts every Wednesday. Implementation of the club has been funded by Project SEEKS SES, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that addresses trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts.

    During February’s meeting, students were hard at work creating friendship buttons and bracelets. The buttons and bracelets are to be sold at school, with all money raised going to The Promise House, a homeless facility in Brackenridge. In previous fundraising efforts in December, students raised $1,010 selling ornaments and buttons. Hamilton said the club plans to visit The Promise House in the future.

    “I think it’s important for them — especially at this young age — to feel involved, and to be a part of something. They love being in this club, and I think it makes them feel like they have an impact and are part of a group,” said Hamilton. “This is a place where they can just hang out, have fun and do something good for the community.” 

    “We had some parents giving their kids 50 dollars, so they could spend it on 50 dollars worth of buttons,” Dr. Whiteman said of December’s fundraising efforts. “Parents are buying into it.”

    Students throughout the school are buying in, too, whether they’re part of the club or not. Highlands Elementary has a special focus on rewarding good behavior through their PBIS system (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). Students are encouraged to be RAMS students, an acronym that stands for Respectful, Accountable, Motivated and Safe.

    The club ties nicely into that initiative, and both Whiteman and Hamilton said they’ve noticed a difference in behavior since the club began.

    “We see very few discipline referrals in teacher’s classrooms because they’ve created a community within their classrooms,” Dr. Whiteman said.

    “I definitely have seen a difference in my class, and I know a lot of teachers take it to their rooms too,” Hamilton added. “We always tell them you should be walking the hallways as a kind kid, and they hold themselves to that standard.”

    As the club evolves, Hamilton said it’ll likely expand to include additional grade levels. Highlands Elementary — already brimming with kindness and camaraderie — only looks to become an even more cheerful community.

    “There are students that usually never get to work together that are able to sit down and do these projects together in the club,” Dr. Whiteman said. “How could that not make you smile and fill your heart with joy, knowing that these kids — at least once a month — get to sit down and do something kind that’s going to affect someone else’s life.”

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  • McKeesport Area School District YESS Team makes a big impact on the district's students

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 2/6/2024

    As Troy Brown walks the hallways of Founder’s Hall Middle School, he stops to talk to every student passing by, greeting them and asking them how they’re doing.

    For Brown, every interaction — no matter how small— matters quite a bit. As the leader of the McKeesport Area School District’s YESS (Youth Engagement Support Services) team, Brown’s role is malleable, focusing on things such as mediations, de-escalation, monitoring lunches and the hallways during transition, and generally just helping create a more positive school environment.

    For Brown to do his job well, though, relationship-building is key. Students might often take some time to trust an adult in school. So Brown tries to always stay present and positive, knowing that every day is an opportunity to strengthen a bond.

    “We need to reach out to these kids and make sure we’re being positive and having positive influences on kids at all times,” said Brown. “It’s really needed, especially in McKeesport.”

    McKeesport’s YESS team is staffed by Pressley Ridge and funded by Project SEEKS SES, a partnership between the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) that addresses trauma, behavior and mental health issues in ten school districts. Pressley Ridge partnered with the Penn Hills School District to pilot the YESS team model in the district’s middle school in 2021.

    McKeesport's YESS team is comprised of seven total members, three who spend their time at Founder’s Middle School and three who work at the McKeesport Area Senior High School. Brown heads the group and alternates his time between both schools. The team started in the district this school year.

    The need for a YESS team became apparent during asset mapping for Project SEEKS SES, when the district compared suspension data, expulsion data and overall discipline data between its three schools, realizing those numbers increased at the Middle School and High School, where the district has less support staff.

    That’s where the YESS team comes in, helping fill the gaps and serve as an extra layer of support. While data is still being parsed, Angela Cale, the district’s Coordinator of Special Education and Alternative Services, said she believes that office referrals have decreased significantly since the YESS team arrived.

    Dr. Jamie Lusebrink, the Founder’s Hall Building Principal, concurred with Cale, lauding the impact the team has been able to make.

    “The YESS team has definitely helped fill that gap for a lot of students. From K-5, the students have had access to things that they didn’t have access to at the Middle School,” said Dr. Lusebrink.

    “I think the YESS team has done a great job of building those relationships, maintaining those relationships, and helping deescalate and prevent situations from occurring that we may have not been able to effectively do in the past.”

    Building strong relationships with the district’s students has been an ongoing process for the YESS team. The team is thoughtfully composed of members who are either from McKeesport or from similar communities, which has helped with the process. Before they started in their roles, students were already familiar with some of the YESS team, especially Brown, who is from the community and has been entrenched in the area’s youth sports, having helped coach the McKeesport Little Tigers and the high school football team for the past 15 years.

    “I know a lot of the kids, so the relationship building has been an easy transition. They’ll come to us for anything and everything, which makes us feel good that we’re able to help in any type of way,” said Brown. 

    “We just really get to know the kids and try to see what their wants and needs are. And I think the more that we’re here, the more relaxed they are to come and talk to us about things that they may not talk to other people about.”

    For Brown and his staff, every day is a little bit different. There are some core responsibilities that remain the same, like greeting students during arrival and dismissal and monitoring the hallways and lunches. Helping with mediations, conflict resolution, de-escalation and related issues comes on a needed basis, but are crucial interactions when they arise.

    “That’s the main thing, making sure we get to the kids. Even if they are wrong, we want to come up with a resolution to the problem, so it doesn’t become a bigger thing,” said Brown.

    “We’re definitely trying to get to the root cause, but also the resolution is important to me. They want that. They don’t want to be enemies, they don’t want this friction to be going on.”

    In the past, mediations and de-escalation have often fallen on the counselors’ shoulders. Having the YESS team has helped lift the burden, while also being key in helping limit future issues from spiraling.

    “As adults we might not see these situations as pressing, but to middle school students, it is the biggest thing that has ever happened to them. That could be the difference between them going into a classroom and learning or going into a classroom and being tense and anxious the entire time,” said Dr. Lusebrink.

    “It could be just 10-15 minutes that they need out of class to have a successful day. So 15 minutes sometimes saves us three hours.”

    Going forward, the YESS team’s role will continue to evolve. Cale, Brown and Dr. Lusebrink all concurred that their work at Founder’s Hall is crucial, as middle school-aged students are at a foundational stage in their lives, where they begin to further find their identities and behaviors become more ingrained. But as they see it, every day is crucial. Every day is an opportunity to strengthen bonds, and to make an impact on a child.

    “When you think back to your days in school, you don’t think about your favorite school experience as being that concept in algebra or that paper that I wrote. It’s the relationships that you build in school,” said Cale. “And I think it’s important to note that in adding the YESS team, we’re hoping to make sure that kids have those positive relationships with adults so that they want to come to school and stay in school.”

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  • Shannon Keating makes a big difference as Duquesne City's Behavior Support and Intervention Specialist

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 1/29/2024

    A woman sits at a desk in front of a laptop

    When Shannon Keating was a student, school was her safe space. Ms. Keating remembers a number of adults who helped uplift her, and propel her forward, even in some rough times. 

    In her role as the Duquesne City School District’s Behavior Support and Intervention Specialist, Ms. Keating hopes to be the same positive influence that those adults were on her in the past. She looks to be someone students can trust, someone they can always talk to, no matter the situation.

    “As a kid, I would go to school and I would feel safe, wanted and cherished,” Ms. Keating said. “At school, I felt like there were adults that believed in me. I would go to school and feel like I’m capable of doing well.”

    Ms. Keating's position is funded by Project SEEKS SES,  a grant partnership between the AIU and ACHD that supports school districts in addressing social and emotional health. Before starting in the district this school year, Ms. Keating was a social worker in the Penn Hills School District for six years. Ms. Keating got her Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from the California University of Pennsylvania and her Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh. From the beginning, her post-secondary education journey was always obvious, always what she wanted to do.

    “I feel really lucky in a way because I never questioned what I wanted to do,” Ms. Keating said. “By the time that I was old enough to make decisions about going to college, it was really easy for me to know that I wanted to work with kids.”

    Ms. Keating first started hearing positive things about the Duquesne City School District from a coworker of her’s at Penn Hills, who worked in Duquesne City previously, and praised the district’s relationship with the community. 

    Later on, Ms. Keating ran into Rachel Butler-Pardi — the district’s Mental Health and Behavior Support Coordinator/Attendance Officer — at an information session for the University of Pittsburgh’s Education Doctorate program, and that solidified a gut feeling.

    “She was telling me how amazing it is, and the focus on mental health and all of the resources and time that the district is putting in to prioritize mental health,” Ms. Keating said. 

    “It felt so strange and serendipitous to run into her. I don’t get gut feelings often. So I emailed her the next day to let me know if a position ever opens up.”

    Thus far, all the positive things that Ms. Keating previously heard about the district has been validated.

    “There’s a really good crew here. Almost immediately, I felt like people were concerned with including me here, which is really nice,” Ms. Keating said. “I feel like our mental health team works really well together. People listen to me. People want to know what I have to say. I feel comfortable sharing how I feel. It’s been really great.”

    On a day-to-day basis, Ms. Keating’s responsibilities can look a little different. Some of the main tenets of her position include responding to crises, working with teachers who have students with mental health or behavioral concerns, fortifying the district’s PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports Images) system, and conducting groups of students that focus on social skills and friendship.

    Of the latter responsibility, Ms. Keating works with teachers to pick out students who might need help with their social skills. Those students then work together — playing games, telling stories and making art. It’s a safe, relaxed environment that encourages socializing.

    “The students don't normally see what we are doing as "work," but while engaged in the group they are receiving frequent feedback from me about things like sharing, taking turns and using kind words,” Ms. Keating said. “It's a structured way to learn while playing that I think can be pretty impactful, especially in age groups that begin to struggle with conflict.”

    In all of Ms. Keating’s work, she continually focuses on building trust, and being a consistently positive presence. These qualities are key for Ms. Keating, especially when dealing with crises, or a student who might regularly have trouble regulating their behaviors and emotions.

    “I feel lucky because I can just take kids for who they are and I’m not trying to change them or judge them. I can meet them where they are, and just get on their level,” Ms. Keating said. 

    “A big thing with kids is they’ll test you to see how you’ll respond when they mess up. And for me, it comes easily that a kid could make a poor choice but the following day it’s a new day. I might be really upset at the moment, but the following day I’m there, happy to see them. I genuinely feel that.”

    Ms. Keating describes her position as being very malleable, which allows her to shift and change her days, and deal with issues in her realm as she sees fit. Among one her burgeoning responsibilities, Ms. Kesting is helping pilot an alternative to suspension program that begins at the end of January. 

    “Something I’m thinking about is having a more restorative approach to our discipline. So with Dr. (Jennifer) Jennings and Ms. Butler-Pardi and a few others, we’ve been planning this alternative to suspension, where kids will get assigned there as a consequence, but a huge part of their day will be counseling and social groups and processing what they did. And then they’re going to set goals and become part of a check-in system,” Ms. Keating said.

    Additionally, Ms. Keating said she’s been thinking a lot about staff wellness recently, and how she can help support the district’s staff. Recently, during some remote learning days, Ms. Keating set up a Google Meet where staff members could pop in to talk to one another about how they’re doing at work and in life.

    Those efforts are a great encapsulation of Ms. Keating’s approach to her job. From students to teachers and everyone in between, Ms. Keating is always just looking to help out, approaching everyone with a kind, open-minded disposition.

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  • Project SEEKS SES holds virtual community of practice around Cornell's wellness efforts

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 1/17/2024

    A screenshot of attendees during the virtual community of practice meeting

    On January 17, the AIU and Project SEEKS SES held its sixth virtual community of practice meeting. The meeting revolved around the Cornell School District's wellness spaces, and additional mental support it was able to add through Project SEEKS SES support.

    Each community of practice meeting focuses on a shared topic of interest between school district, higher education and community partners. Each meeting is led by the Project SEEKS SES coordinator, Shannon Fagan, in conjunction with a school district/university partner and subject-matter expert. 

    Through Project SEEKS SES support, the Cornell School District was able to hire a behavioral health specialist and behavioral health technician from Wesley Family Services and convert two spaces into wellness rooms.

    Superintendent Dr. Aaron Thomas presented and gave his perspective during the meeting.

    For video of the community of practice meeting, click here.

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  • The Office of Child Development helps spread SEL through educator community of practice

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 1/3/2024

    A graphic displaying a schedule for the SEL community of practice

     

    The 3Rs (Reading, Racial Equity, and Relationships) Initiative is an ecosystem-based program that aims to improve early literacy outcomes for kindergarten-third grade students in Allegheny County by working with families, classroom teachers, community organizations, and local leaders. A foundational tenet of the 3Rs is that high-quality literacy experiences are inextricably linked to living in an equitable society and having strong relationships between children, adults, and organizations. The 3Rs team believes that enhancing children’s literacy experiences begins with partnering with adults to develop their knowledge and practices around reading, racial equity, and relationships.

    The 3Rs Classroom Strand, led by Drs. Caitlin Forbes Spear & Jennifer Briggs of the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development Literacy and Learning Division, aims to integrate the 3Rs into classroom literacy practices.

    Toward this purpose, the 3Rs Classroom Strand has been running a community of practice with teachers from seven different schools in Allegheny County for the past four years. Each year centers a different element of the 3Rs (reading, racial equity, relationships) using picture books, and working with teachers to shift perspectives to improve their ability to address high quality reading, racial equity, and relationship-aligned goals in their classrooms.

    This year’s focus is relationships, and the social emotional learning (SEL) that is at the heart of all relationships.

    With support from Project SEEKS SES —  a grant partnership between the AIU and ACHD that supports school districts in addressing social and emotional health and looks to bolster a local pipeline of professionals to supporting fields — the 3Rs Classroom Strand has been able to expand their communities of practice, creating a larger cross-district model, as opposed to past years, when separate meetings occurred for each district in the 3Rs Initiative.

    “Up until this year they would be at their own school and we would have professional development with them and only teachers from that school and district would be in the smaller groups. This year, with the focus being on relationships and trying to think about the county more broadly, we’ve brought the teachers togethers, so we’ve got these cross-school communities of practice,” Spear said. 

    “And we’re trying to help them build relationships. With the 3Rs when we talk about relationships, we’re thinking about teacher-student relationships, of course, but we’re also thinking about relationships between teachers and families, with colleagues and administration, and teachers' relationships with the content that they teach. And SEL is at the heart of all those relationships, focusing on teachers’ abilities to navigate all those relationships in healthy, equitable ways.”

    The meetings bring together teachers from Urban Academy, Manchester Academic Charter, Park Elementary, Barrett Elementary, Edgewood Elementary STEAM Academy, Turtle Creek Elementary STEAM Academy and Wilkins Elementary STEAM Academy. Participating teachers usually teach in the K-3 grade levels, targeted grade levels in the community of practice.

    “That age range is critical for early reading development, but relationships are also really important, too. Kids’ relationships with schools matter greatly for literacy development, and later learning, and how they respond to questions like, ‘Do I feel good when I come here?’,  ‘Do I feel like I belong?’, ‘Do I feel like my teachers love me and support me and believe I can be successful?’ — a lot is happening developmentally in that age range that matters for learning,” said Spear.

    The Community of Practice consists largely of teachers that have participated in the meetings for several years. Since switching the topic to centering relationships and focusing on SEL — and making the meetings cross-school — teachers have lauded the effectiveness of the work.

    “I think it’s important. You always look at communities and neighborhoods and school districts, and it gives you an opportunity to see what others are facing inside their classrooms or schools. I think this project that we’re doing is wonderful because you get to see people’s ideas and also struggles as well. And it allows us to share and it gives you a sense of comfort knowing you’re not alone in this,” said Terry Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Wilkins Elementary Steam Academy.

    “I know a lot of the practices that we discuss, I try to implement as much as I can in my classroom because I like to see how students and families respond.”

    Smith said focusing on SEL is especially important, noting how young learners tend to be lacking in social-emotional skills more often than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Alexandra Freyvogel, a 3rd grade teacher at Urban Academy, echoed those thoughts.

    “The main takeaways — and I’ve learned this from being a teacher for six years — sometimes learning about social emotional health and taking the time to teach that as a lesson is almost — if not as equally important — as teaching my curriculum,” said Freyvogel. 

    “And I feel like since COVID, we’ve really been able to see that come together, and we’ve seen our scholars talking more about their feelings, and we’ve noticed different types of frustrations that we can look back at from COVID. 

    Books used in the community of practice were carefully curated by Spear and Briggs, who use a specific formula — whittling down from a large selection to choose their books — and weighing key factors such as representation and social justice orientation. This time around, Spear and Briggs ensured that the books centered relationships and provided opportunities to explore SEL themes more deeply with adults across all the various Communities of Practice ran through the 3R’s initiative. Among other Communities of Practice, the 3R’s run groups that focus more with families, community members and higher education leaders.

    Freyvogel said her students have engaged well with the books, giving them an avenue to learn about tougher SEL topics through a classic early childhood tactic — reading picture books.

    “They need the time to talk about their experience, and doing these read-alouds, their engagement goes up 115 percent because they recognize people that look like them and they also recognize the feelings that the people have,” Freyvogel said.

    “When they’re reading about harder topics they’re a lot more interested. Like when we’re talking about grief or depression, it does not feel like I’m teaching third graders, it feels like I’m talking with young adults.”

    Smith shared similar experiences, noting how the books have given his students a sense of belonging. 

    As teachers return to the community of practice meetings and share their experiences with the books, Spear said she’s noted lots of valuable discussion and collaboration.

    At its core, that collaboration is a key component of the community of practice, as teachers work together to push students forward, and past barriers to learning.

    “I really have an interest in the SEL and the Pitt program because it gives people an opportunity to share experiences and learn. Whether it’s topics that people don’t typically want to discuss or topics where they haven’t had a chance to be in that situation, I’m all about learning,” Smith said.

    “It’s a really great program. I think it does make a difference within my classroom.”

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  • Project SEEKS SES holds virtual community of practice around Handle with Care

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 12/20/2023

    Zoom participants observe during the community of practice meeting

    On December 20, the AIU and Project SEEKS SES held its fifth virtual community of practice meeting. The meeting revolved around the Handle with Care and TEAR (Trauma Education and Response) programs.

    Each community of practice meeting focuses on a shared topic of interest between school district, higher education and community partners. Each meeting is led by the Project SEEKS SES coordinator, Shannon Fagan, in conjunction with a school district/university partner and subject matter expert. 

    During this meeting, the Highlands School District shared details about Handle with Care, a tier-one, trauma-informed intervention between schools and police. Highlands explained how it has collaborated with local law enforcement and a family center to establish Handle with Care, which has catered to the needs of both the district and the community. Additionally, they explored how data derived from this program is actively utilized to build a comprehensive system of support.

    Dr. Monique Mawhinney and Dr. Amber Dean, the Superintendent and Director of Student Services of the Highlands School District, gave their perspective during the meeting. Additionally, Brian Turack, the Harrison Township Police Chief, shared details from his end about the program. If you have any questions about Handle with Care, Dr. Mawhinney and Dr. Dean can be reached at mmawhinney@goldenrams.com and adean@goldenrams.com. Chief Turack can be reached at Bturack@harrisontwp-pa.gov

    For video of the community of practice meeting, click here.

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  • Duquesne University students implement SEL curriculum in three school districts

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 11/27/2023

    When Greg Paul thinks about the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools, he likens it to other, more stereotypical core subjects.

    “These resources to put into public schools are essential — just as essential as a reading or math curriculum. These things are very important,” said Paul, an elementary school counselor in the Cornell School District.

    “I definitely see a great need (for SEL) since the (COVID-19) pandemic, but there was a need prior to the pandemic. This is the evolution of education.”

    As school districts reckon with the importance of implementing SEL — especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic — many districts have found it tough to find a seamless way to fit it into the school day. Necessary resources like funds and qualified workers can often be tough to come by.  

    But thanks to a grant partnership that has placed Duquesne University masters and doctorate students in their schools, three local school districts are seeing the benefit of SEL. Project SEEKS SES — a grant partnership between the AIU and ACHD that supports school districts in addressing social and emotional health and looks to bolster a local pipeline of professionals to supporting fields — has enabled these aforementioned students to implement the Merrell's Strong Kids SEL curriculum in the Cornell, West Mifflin and East Allegheny school districts.

    Each district is being supported with multiple students, generally for two days a week. At Cornell, these students are working with grades 5-9, with a plan to expand to the 10-12 grade levels around mid-year. At East Allegheny, students are working with grades 7-10. 

    The Strong Kids curriculum focuses on lessons like understanding your own and other’s feelings, dealing with anger, and conflict resolution. In addition to implementing the curriculum, Duquesne students are compiling pre, mid and post-test data on students’ social and emotional functioning.

    “The idea is we can use this as a pre- and post-test, but we can also use this to identify who might be in need of more intensive interventions, like a tier two intervention,” said Jered Kolbert, a Duquesne University Professor in the Counselor Education Program.

    Counselors in the three districts overseeing the partnership have lauded the effectiveness of Duquesne University students’ work.

    “The kids are responding very well. They’re engaged, they’re participating,” said Gina Walter, a high school counselor at the Cornell School District.

    “The kids want to learn, and they’re excited to learn these skills because I think they’re recognizing that they need to learn how to express emotions appropriately and to identify feelings and how to handle conflict resolution and anger management.”

    Paul added similar thoughts, noting that it’s a breath of fresh air for students to hear a new voice preaching these sorts of lessons.

    “Students are engaged and they’re sharing. I’m really happy they’re here,” said Paul. “I think it’s important for students to hear youthful voices and other voices than mine or their teacher’s.”

    Emilia Mattucci Peiffer, a school counselor at the East Allegheny School District, said that having student placements isn’t new, but having students that function so autonomously is. Mattucci Peiffer noted an instance of problem-solving, when one of her student placements suggested that they move the lessons to Google Classroom instead of traditional pencil and paper. The student created the Google Classroom, and now the lessons are getting even better engagement.

    “When I hear that we’re gonna have extra people coming in to help, my initial thought is that it’s probably gonna be extra work for me,” said Mattucci Peiffer. “But these students come in on their own, they don’t need to check in with me and they go right to the classroom. It’s great.”

    That level of freedom is by design, but not typically ordinary, Kolbert said. School psychology students and counseling students typically work under the supervision of a counselor or school psychologist. This partnership, though, has allowed the students to get hands-on experience that more accurately emulates their future careers.

    “They’re leading the implementation of a social-emotional curriculum that’s an additional program than the school is providing students, which would most likely not be done without this grant,” Kolbert said.

    “It’s helpful for our school psychology students, given that school psychologists are oftentimes seen as leaders of the social-emotional curriculum in school districts. It’s exposing them to an evidenced-based SEL program, and it’s giving them the opportunity to actually work with administrators and teachers and discuss SEL. I can see it being pretty beneficial.”

    Kolbert noted that he can see how beneficial the partnership is for the districts, too, given the ever-present need for additional personnel. Mattucci Peiffer, Paul and Walter all agreed that they hope this partnership is the starting point of something more systematic, where they can regularly have Duquesne University students placed in their schools.

    “I would love that. It’s such a huge help. Sometimes our best resource is people. We can get curriculums and activities and programs, but we need people to help implement them. So having that as an extra resource has been fabulous,” Walter said.

    "I’m very, very impressed with them and the job that they’re doing as professionals in the field.”

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  • Project SEEKS SES holds virtual community of practice around wellness methods

    Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 11/17/2023

    A screenshot of several people during a zoom meeting

    On November 15, the AIU and Project SEEKS SES held its fourth virtual community of practice meeting. The meeting revolved around wellness methods and wellness kits.

    Each community of practice meeting focuses on a shared topic of interest between school district, higher education and community partners. Each meeting is led by the Project SEEKS SES coordinator, Shannon Fagan, in conjunction with a school district/university partner and subject matter expert. 

    During this meeting, Rachel Butler-Pardi from the Duquesne City School District and Shannon Wanless from Pitt's Office of Child Development discussed wellness methods and wellness kits, and interactively displayed how to integrate them into daily life.

    For video of the community of practice meeting, click here.

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