Sep. 11—SACKETS HARBOR — In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threw everyone for a loop, including teachers, students and school administrators.
Going into this new school year, learning loss aside, the biggest concern for educators at the moment is mental health and the well-being of students who, for some, the emotional toll of the pandemic is still unknown.
This fall, some schools are using stimulus money to bolster mental health supports, either adding hours for existing counselors, hiring more, or creating safe spaces for students in need.
The Sackets Harbor Central School District is not only shifting things around so the school psychologist has more time to do her job, it has also repurposed the computer lab that was basically made obsolete by individual Chromebooks, as well as the former Distance Learning Room, into a space known as the Sackets Support Center.
A place for students to go for help with academics as well as to talk through the things they're dealing with in their personal lives, the center was a direct result of school stakeholder feedback that kids need more emotional and academic support, a more concerted focus to meet kids where they're at.
"The vision kind of started to come alive as we're planning how to spend these stimulus dollars, because we only have three years to spend this money," said Superintendent Jennifer L. Gaffney. "We knew when we were developing the plans that we had to be as strategic as possible, recognizing that once the money is gone, whatever we do would have to be sustainable and have to make both the short term impact, but also put us on a path for long-term viability of these protocols and processes we put it in place."
When it comes to the Sackets Support Center, the idea was to identify teachers who are nearing the end of their careers, retiring in the next handful of years, that are the highest quality educators that know how to teach and know their content, but also teachers who could connect on the most positive level with kids, she explained.
Based on that concept, a couple of teachers came to mind, both veteran in their career status but also having an ability to connect with kids and see great results in their classroom: Spanish teacher Jennifer L. Berie and English teacher Sonya G. Esposito.
"This space is supposed to be welcoming, comfortable and safe," said Mrs. Esposito. "We hope that it's going to be a place where kids feel comfortable asking for extra help with academics, but also a place to come and reconnect with people, maybe reset, learn strategies to deal with stress and conflict."
As this is her last year teaching at the school, Mrs. Esposito will help the English department as well as staff the center alongside Mrs. Berie. She noted that it didn't take long for kids to begin to flock to the Sackets Support Center to check it out. On Wednesday, she saw students who tend to be very quiet mixing and interacting with other students over Jenga, which she said was pretty cool, reinforcing the idea that the center is a place for all to feel comfortable.
The thought was this center could also help with a succession plan for the school. Moving the two educators to this conceptualized space, the school can backfill their teaching roles with brand new teachers who would then receive the highest quality mentoring and support Sackets can offer so that when these veteran teachers retire, they have successfully transitioned new teachers into the role of being high quality teachers.
"Mental, social emotional and physical well-being are our priorities because those things are all connected," Mrs. Gaffney said. "We had a lot of sedentary experiences over the last couple of years because of COVID and with kids not going out of the house as much, we need to get kids more involved in physical activity and more involved in connecting with each other and their teachers and that's really what the Sackets Support Center is all about."
The center features a more academically designed space with a bank of computers and desks to work at on the old computer lab side, but also features beanbag chairs, coffee and hot chocolate, and games.
Sixth-graders Hannah R. Brouillette and Heather M. Bellinger, said hanging out in the center was nice to get their minds off of things, noting that they can see themselves going there during the year if they need it. A favorite among the girls and many other students that passed through the center in the first few days of school to see what it was like, were the various chairs available, as well as the hot chocolate.
The school's psychologist, Carol A. Barkley, said she thinks the Sackets Support Center is a great idea given the fact that there are so many kids who need the connections that have been lost over the last 18 months.
With some students uneasy back in school, some who are excited to get back into the swing of things, and some who have yet to figure out how they feel, Ms. Barkley said the key will be flexibility to be able to meet the varying needs of students as they arise.
She gave the example of the 1998 ice storm that hit the area, leaving many without power for days on end. While that time was horrible for her, her daughter, who was 4 years old at the time, enjoyed being at home playing games and spending time with her family. Even years after the storm, she would ask to play "ice storm."
"We've gotten very comfortable being at home, being disconnected, having our own little worlds," Ms. Barkley said. "And part of being human is having connections, and that's my biggest thing is we need to make connections again between everybody."
Ms. Barkley is involved with the school's social emotional, SEL, team, which consists of counselors, the principal and a student, and is looking to get a community member or parent involved.
The group will meet consistently to evaluate the social emotional needs of the entire school community and then that team will then develop some recommendations that will be inclusive of the Sackets Support Center in how to respond to and support the school community and the needs that they have identified as being the most prevalent and pressing at the time.
As with most things right now, this concept will remain flexible to account for unknowns in this school year where no one quite knows what to expect.
"It's kind of new and evolving, so we haven't done a lot, but what I'm really hoping that it turns into is a support system where teachers and students can come, refer other people that they're concerned about, and we have the supports in place to help," Ms. Barkley said. "I think that we're so blessed to have such a small school with everybody right here in one building, we're very fortunate that when things do arise, people pick up on that."
She said that should the district need to go fully remote again, support will still be offered via phone, Zoom or another mode of communication to continue making those connections with kids.
As for in-person connection, Mrs. Berie said she thinks the Sackets Support Center will be huge, noting that the number of adults who have already contacted the school about students, and the number of students who have reached out and asked to stop in, is showing a real need for it even sooner than expected.
"At first we were worried we wouldn't have any people, now I'm wondering if we're going to have too many," she said. "But we don't want to turn anyone away because we don't know what someone is dealing with. My hope is to get kids more connected and to help them feel more resilient this year."
Mrs. Berie said she anticipates teaching her higher level Spanish course for the next four years until her retirement due to the fact that it requires a specific certification, but her plan is to also be involved with the support center during that time.
Both teachers noted that everyone who has come through the center has said the same thing — they wish they had this when they were at the school, that it has been very well received.
Senior Ally V. Castro, who has three study halls a day this year, expects to spend quite a bit of time in the center and said it acts as a replacement for a senior lounge.
He noted that the space is very cozy and inviting for students and said that a glass he left there in fourth period was still in the same spot it had been left toward the end of the day, where in other spaces that would most likely not be the case.
"Being in here is kind of a breath of fresh air compared to the larger classes," he said. "There aren't many queer kids in the school, but I know if we're having some trouble feeling accepted, this is a good place to go. It's nice to have."