By Catherine Richert
On a day in late August, buses full of new students and incoming freshmen arrived at John Marshall High School in Rochester for a three-day welcome event weeks before classes began.
Activities included team building exercises, a tour of the building and learning the school battle song.
Even some high school students attended the event, including student body president Manasa Yerriboyina.
“COVID has been tough for a lot of students and teachers because it’s really taken a lot out of us,” she said as she gave out name tags to new students. “Coming together brings us closer together as a family and at the end of the day motivates us to do what we are here to do: be a family and learn.”
Creating an early sense of connection is intended to improve the mental health of students who have had a tough few years.
The Rochester trend follows a nationwide study by the University of Minnesota that found that as the 2021 school year began, more than 71 percent of teachers surveyed and half of students surveyed said they were concerned about their mental well-being.
Events at John Marshall are part of a broader district-wide strategy to limit defiance and withdrawal among students in the upcoming school year — behaviors school officials said have been occurring en masse after students returned from pandemic-related distance learning.
“I would say it was definitely predictable but still very surprising,” said John Marshall Principal Matt Ruzek. “I hesitate to say that we have seen an increase [bad] Behavior I think what we saw was just a cry for belonging and social connection.
“It just wasn’t kids go to class
Data from the school district shows that while disciplinary violations were comparable to the pre-pandemic school year, staff reported more and more frequent defiant behavior from children. Digging deeper into this data reveals that students of all ages felt less connected to their school — and less understood by their teachers.
“I think it’s avoidance,” said school principal Jacque Peterson, who is leading a district-wide effort to create a sense of community in Rochester schools.
She said virtual learning created an environment for some students where they could take their attention away from learning. When they returned to personal learning, some were behind in their learning.
“I think it doesn’t take much to imagine, I’m sitting in a classroom and have no idea what the teacher is talking about. It’s easier to just untie yourself than trying to figure it out,” she said.
For Kellogg Middle School Principal Angi McAndrews, these behaviors took center stage when the kids returned to in-person learning in Spring 2021.
“We’ve definitely had more kids in the last year who just refused to go to class,” she said. “It was third period, our hallways were supposed to be empty, kids were supposed to be studying and we just had kids just not going to class.”
McAndrews says the behaviors – and their frequency – were confusing and complex, symbolic of the mental health issues faced by so many children while in distance learning.
She says COVID mitigation measures have made the school weird. Some students didn’t understand the expectations after studying online from home for so long.
Added to this was the challenge: some of the students hardly knew her or her staff after a year of virtual learning.
“Trying to build a relationship while also holding kids accountable for their behavior is really challenging because we want to make sure kids feel safe, connected and welcome,” she said. “But we also want to make sure they’re here and that we’re there and focused on what we’re here for, which is education.”
‘Did anyone asked the children?’
School district administrators received an “SOS” from principals, said Will Ruffin II, Rochester Public School’s director of equity and engagement.
“We were in a cabinet meeting and then I was like, ‘Did anyone ask the kids?'” he said.
They didn’t have that, so they did.
Last school year, Ruffin organized nearly 40 listening sessions with students from all grade levels and demographics who had been disciplined to explain why they engaged in inappropriate behavior.
Some of the students’ responses were surprising, Ruffin said.
“They felt like the teacher had embarrassed them or made an example of them in front of everyone,” he said. “That’s why they didn’t want to leave.”
For Ruffin, the poll results showed that students — and teachers — were not doing well.
“So where we might think our students didn’t keep their side of the bargain, I think maybe some of our adults’ patience has run out,” he said.
With the start of a new school year, the listening sessions have inspired change, Peterson said. For example, Rochester students will see more school-based after-school opportunities. A new cellphone policy sets clearer expectations about when they can be used at school.
But as fall approaches, Peterson said, the focus is on building relationships, making it easier for students to follow the rules and for staff to discipline them when they don’t.
“Until the kids feel a sense of belonging, you won’t see any real impact on student achievement or actual behavior,” she said.