Spring, New Beginnings and the Need for Well-Being and Connection

Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 3/10/2023 10:00:00 AM

JP Fight for Wakanda play

Sharonica Hardin-Bartley

Spring is in the air. It is a time for new beginnings. It is also an apt time to pause, reflect and show appreciation for the things that we have been through and the pride that we share.

Three years ago, on March 15, 2020, I gathered with other superintendents in St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s office to discuss what we thought would be a very temporary and short closure of schools due to COVID-19. We, of course, know that was not what happened next. This year, we've gratefully seen the cases of COVID-19 in our schools dwindle to just a few, if any, on a given week. We are not dealing with sudden, large numbers of our students, nor do we have to test whole classes for the virus, nor cancel treasured school events. It's nice that things are calmer, and also a relief to know that our children are in school every day with the added protective factor of loving staff and modern, rigorous and relevant experiences that accelerate learning. 

We just finished an amazing month of celebrations of Black history. Still, these are very trying times in education. While the day-to-day impact of COVID-19 is minimal, schools with traditionally marginalized students will continue to navigate the impact of COVID-19 for years to come. We know from a variety of reliable national organizations that deal with children's health, that youth around the country are struggling with mental health issues while also making up for lost learning. And, we see the need for additional social emotional learning support for our own students who are dealing with the dual pandemic of COVID and the continuing pandemic of racism in our region.

And yet, our students and staff still strive each day to demonstrate the Heart of a Lion both academically and personally. I particularly saw that during the month of February. Our school buildings were thriving with rich experiences that celebrated and honored the contributions of African Americans. Students and teachers clearly put their hearts into music performances, living history museums, poetry, dance, art, readings, and even an original production of "The Fight for Wakanda." That performance featured more than 65 students from Jackson Park Elementary School who spent their afterschool hours working diligently with librarian Pat Garvin to put this production together. As they performed in front of an audience of nearly 600 people, I could feel our students' passion and investment. They wanted to tell a victorious story about the fight to make Jackson Park a Wakanda Community Outreach Center. In my mind, the performance wasn't just a fight for that fictional community center, but a triumphant victory for the very real community that is their school. The students beat back the harm that COVID-19 threatened and continued to create a healthy and thriving place where relationships thrive and grow. 

As I reflect on this victory, my heart is also with Janae Edmundson and her family. Janae is the high school athlete who lost her legs after a tragic accident in downtown St. Louis that could likely have been prevented. This incident represents a greater problem in St. Louis. As a community, we must begin to holistically address the root causes and the systems that create many of the inexcusable incidents occurring throughout our city and beyond. I often feel like a broken record. We must ask, "And, how are the children?" And, we must be able to intentionally act in the best and equitable interests of all children so that one day we as a society can respond, "The Children Are Well." If it takes a superhero mindset like that found in "The Fight for Wakanda," so be it.

I believe now, more than ever, in the District's three pillars to humanize, personalize and problematize learning, and our vision of Learning Reimagined. Its social-emotional focus integrated with academics is necessary and could serve as a model for other systems. I’m proud that our board of education recently approved a recommendation to hire the District’s first full-time therapist and also a new director of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). These positions are connected to learning. They are strategic investments in wellness to ensure that children thrive and succeed amid these very tumultuous times that disproportionately impact them. Again, children cannot learn to their potential if they are not well, and teachers cannot be expected to teach if they are not well. One does not exist without the other.

The Ferguson Commission’s report provides solid evidence and examples to support the crucial importance of well-being and further investment in youth as the driver of change. The School District of University City is implementing many of The Commission's recommendations, and I could not be more grateful to lead a community that values all -- and yes, I mean all.

As we move into March and Women's History Month, I will conclude by highlighting the words of educator Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings, who is a forerunner in the approach to using culturally relevant teaching practices with students. Her text, "The Dreamkeepers," epitomizes what happens in classrooms where teachers value, see, and embrace all students with rigorous learning, inclusion, meaningful relationships and well-being at the core. Like "The Fight for Wakanda," we must fight for our students every day with the recognition that they are beautiful, priceless, human and the heart of us with the potential to change the world.

To watch Jackson Park School's presentation of The Fight for Wakanda on YouTube, go to: www.ucityschools.org/FightForWakanda.