Extending community and mindfulness to remote learning

Disclaimer: This initiative initially was launched and coordinated by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which in 2022 merged with and became the Charles Butt Foundation.

Our latest feature story “Restorative Practices Pave Path to Success for Unlikely Graduates” and accompanying video, “The PACE Story: Finding Hope and Success in School” showcase an alternative school of choice in Pearland ISD that leads with restorative practices and a focus on mental health. 

Pearland’s Alternative Choice Education Center, also known as PACE, serves students who have faced extreme obstacles, from homelessness to food insecurity, young pregnancies to mental health disorders. 

Our feature story, filmed in January 2020, explores the day-to-day life and learning at PACE. But in March, everything changed for Texas public schools as teachers, students, and families responded to the COVID-19 global health crisis. 

Lauren Cook, director of content for Raise Your Hand Texas, spoke with Kimberly Darden, principal of the PACE Center, about how this campus community has adapted to the current situation and how they are approaching social-emotional learning from a distance. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview above.

Lauren Cook: How are your teachers, students, and families doing during this time?

Kimberly Darden: My staff are adjusting to this new normal. We make it a point to meet virtually at least once per week as a team to discuss instruction, and the needs of our students, families, and team members. 

We’ve been very intentional about reaching out to our students individually. We divided our campus roster according to our second-period teachers. We persisted until we talked to a parent or a student. It wasn’t just sending an email. It was touching our students first through voice, and then secondly through virtual meetings.

Our teachers provide a virtual meeting for students at least twice per week to further facilitate learning and answer students’ questions. In addition, teachers are checking in with students about their emotional wellbeing, which is a normal part of what we do on our campus. 

Twice per week students can join our virtual Restore 101, where we practice mindfulness together – the students, teachers, and administrators. We’re re-learning how to connect during this time. We don’t want our kids or families to feel isolated. 

We send out resources to families, just like we’re sending out student assignments. We’re also opening up opportunities for parents to have virtual meetings with teachers or administrators. We are available to our families. 

We are extending that idea of community that we have mastered within the brick and mortar out into the virtual world. What we’ve found is that it’s been valuable for every stakeholder involved.

Cook: Are there any other restorative or social-emotional practices that you and your team have been able to extend to students from a distance?

Darden: Our teachers are conducting those check-ins with students. It’s a normal part of our campus. Our kids expect it, and we know the value of it. When we are not okay in our heart it impacts the way we function academically. 

Our students know when teachers’ virtual classes are open and they can select time slots. If a teacher or administrator receives a call or email from a student or parent they must respond well within 24 hours. We’re providing that immediate response. We try to move from phone conversations to face-to-face virtual exchanges for a closer connection. 

Cook: Many of your students have diagnosed mental health disorders, which could intensify during the midst of an international crisis like we’re dealing with. How are you supporting these students?

Darden: Given who my primary population includes, I have to be extremely intentional about how we address their needs. That is the power of being connected.

In this environment, this new normal, we are collaborating across the board with our mental health professionals, with our top educators here in the district, and of course, our frontline runners who are teachers who know our kids and know what their needs are. So we’re really collaborating to ensure kids are not left behind.

Cook: Because of the restorative practices and the intentional trauma-informed education that you provide at your campus, do you think your kids might in some ways be better prepared for this uncertain time?

Darden: That is such a great question. It’s one of the things we discussed yesterday as an administrative team. I think because our kids understand the value of connectedness, and it is a part of what they experience daily on campus, it allows them to function in a manner that moves them forward. They’re not stalled and they’re not stuck in the midst of this changing, ever-shifting ground beneath their feet. 

Cook: What could other schools learn from the support structure you already had in place at PACE and from what you’re doing now during this crisis that they may not have been aware of?

Darden: One of the biggest things I would advocate for all students to have access to is a connection to their teachers. Being an educator is not just about delivering information, it’s about opening students up into the learning process – learning about themselves, the way they think, and relate to others.

All teachers do it, because that’s what good teaching includes, but during this pandemic, we have to be intentional about connecting kids to their teachers. So let’s get academics taken care of, but let’s not put social-emotional learning on the back burner. Let’s allow them to work in tandem with one another.

Cook: What are your hopes for your students during this time?

Darden: I hope my students are reminded that they are loved, capable, and supported; and they are not alone. I want my kids to know that, even though we cannot reach them physically, that we are using every tool at our disposal to ensure that they are successful.

We want to get our seniors across the finish line. We want to move our kids toward earning the credits they need to graduate in May of 2020, without issue. I want my kids to know that we’re focused on their future, and we’re focused on them.

We’d love to hear from you!

We’re looking for stories from students, teachers, and school leaders about your experiences, challenges, and strategies you think might benefit others. Please share your perspectives and let us know how you’re approaching and responding to the current situation. And know that you are not alone in these struggles. We thank you, we honor you, and we want you to know we are cheering you on.