What it means to educate the whole child

Parents share deeply personal stories about why understanding students’ social and emotional well-being is so important

Bridgeport’s New Beginnings Family Academy (NBFA) recently hosted 80 parents, students, and educators at a panel discussion on how public schools can support the whole child. NBFA CEO Ronelle Swagerty explained that this means covering issues like social-emotional well-being, school culture, and parent engagement. 

The speakers included Brandon Clark, Director of Recruitment at New Leaders, Christine King, a NBFA parent and board member, and the Founder of CKing Education, and Scarlett Lewis, Founder & President of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement.

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Before the panel kicked off, three students performed African drums as part of the school’s STRETCH after school program. It was their first live performance, and after playing a number of rhythms that demonstrated different polyrhythmic patterns, they stood up to resounding applause.

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Ms. Swagerty then took the lead, asking panelists questions such as: 

  • “How do we expose our students to relationship building and social-emotional skills they need both inside and outside the classroom?”
  • “We have kids coming to school with anxiety and all sorts of other adult-sized stressors. What are the biggest challenges to reaching those kids?” 
  • “As you think about the work that you do and how it relates to students, what keeps you up at night?”

Ms. King spoke passionately about the caring environment NBFA provides: “One of the things NBFA did while she was here, was all of her teachers made it known that she needed to come and talk… She left here on a high, getting A’s and B’s. I credit that to the constant communication we had and the supports they put in place. I’ve seen NBFA support my child emotionally and help her grow emotionally.” 

King's daughter is now enrolled in a Bridgeport high school, where her daughter doesn’t see that exemplary level of individualized support. 

Ms. Lewis shared a deeply personal example of why student-teacher relationships are so important, arguing that emotional intelligence, the ability of an educator to support a student who faces anxiety, anger, and frustration, is a critical piece a lot of schools miss when working with their students.

Her fifteen year old son JT, who lost his brother in the Sandy Hook massacre, has missed the support emotional intelligence can provide. “In three and a half years, no one has asked him how he is,” said Lewis. “That seems mind blowing, but I’ve asked why and their responses are all legitimate: ‘I think he’d be uncomfortable.’ Building that connection and having the courage to go there and possibly have the child respond, is really important.”

Brandon Clark agreed, and emphasized how important it is that educators also work to build strong relationships with parents to support the work they’re doing in the classroom, no matter how long it takes. “Building trust is important. Sometimes it takes a while – maybe a kid is struggling in September but it takes until January to get the parent onboard because it takes time to build that relationship.”

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Ms. Swagerty gave a number of examples of how NBFA managing both these student and parent relationships well. She also noted how important it is that other schools recognize that social emotional learning and academics aren’t done separately. “When we get to the point where education is about relationships, because the only way to reach children academically is to get to know them on a deep, deep level – teachers start to get less resistance.” 

NBFA works hard to make learning a collaborative process where students can openly express themselves, and the parents, students and educators at the panel made it clear that the school’s approach is yielding results.

To learn more about NBFA and their social emotional learning program, head to http://nbfacademy.org/.

Vivian is NECSN's Connecticut Communications Intern. As a member of the first graduating class at New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport, Vivian has firsthand knowledge of public charter schools and the issues they face.
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What it means to educate the whole child
What it means to educate the whole child
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