The Center for Engagement is making the Steward community stronger than ever.
This article originally appeared in the latest issue of The Colonnade.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Steward’s new Center for Engagement is not a physical space. Rather, it is an all-encompassing philosophy, one that enriches every aspect of the Steward experience. Launched in fall 2021, the Center brings together the school’s health and wellness program, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) program, school counseling program, and community life program. The services and programs the Center offers are designed to nurture both individuals and the wider community.
Collaboration and Integrative Education
This centralized resource, unique to Steward, includes the work of Tiffany Goodman, diversity, equity, and inclusion coordinator; Rashad Lowery, campus life and community stewardship coordinator; Kris Marchant, health and wellness coordinator; and Jentae Scott-Mayo, school counselor. The four collaborate with each other, and with colleagues across all divisions, to ensure that the school community is provided experiences and practices that increase empathy, responsibility, and purpose.
An outcome of the school’s strategic plan, and in conjunction with Steward’s integrative education, the Center for Engagement’s efforts weave together three of the plan’s focus areas: Steward for Community (meaningful partnerships), Steward for the Individual (attending to the whole person), and Steward for All (strength in diversity).
Meaning and Purpose
The Center’s focus dovetails into a wider trend on school campuses across the United States: the importance of building meaning and purpose into the educational framework. Author and education consultant Grant Lichtmann says that our rapidly changing world has compelled schools to embrace “collaborative, inquiry-based, and student-centric ideals, helping students build skills to find and solve real-world problems.”
This integrative approach to education is a hallmark of the Steward experience.
“If something has no meaning, then there is no ‘why’ to doing it … I think it behooves us to consider our ‘why’ no matter what it is we’re doing,” said Head of School Dan Frank. “Being clear on ‘why’ helps us to be more motivated intrinsically to make things flower in the world and in ourselves. In my mind, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing: You can work for a nonprofit, provide food for homeless people, or work on Wall Street. There is purpose in the world for all the things that we do. It’s important to reflect on that purpose so you can understand it better, and to understand that we’re all creating opportunity and betterment for those around us. We’re only better if those around us are better.”
Mr. Frank said that the need for the Center existed for several years but was intensified by the pandemic.
“We were already following the national trend of seeing increased mental health issues,” he noted as an example. “From the time I began at Steward [in 2013] until recently, it ticked up 15 points. Nationally, twenty-five to forty percent of kids are experiencing depression or anxiety; anywhere on that scale is too much. The pandemic hit and we all got thrown into quarantine … anybody who was already depressed or anxious became more so.”
One way the Center is taking care of Steward students’ mental health is by making counseling available. While all students do not receive individual or group counseling, they all have access to school counseling services and curriculum. Ms. Scott-Mayo, who describes her work as school counselor as “extremely student-focused and student-centered,” offers individual counseling for students in JK-12. She also facilitates group counseling when she sees patterns of behavior trending among students. Group counseling, she says, can be a great way for young people to connect with one another as they work through problems.
“Kids can learn a lot from each other,” she said. “In any phase of their journey – whether it’s Lower, Middle, or Upper School – they often feel isolated: ‘I’m the only one who feels this way. Something must be wrong with me.’ But when they interact in a group setting with peers facing similar challenges, they realize, ‘Wow! I’m not the only person who feels this way.’ That’s why group counseling is sometimes really beneficial.”
School-Based Mental Health Services
Ms. Scott-Mayo also teaches character education to fifth graders, covering topics such as social-emotional learning and mental health. In these classes, Ms. Scott-Mayo teaches lessons about the brain and how different processes associated with the brain can affect behavior and mental health. In addition, she teaches Middle School health and wellness, and she will soon offer Upper School advisory workshops.
“I’m excited to bring school-based mental health services to the community because the role of the school counselor is unique,” she said. “We are not clinical therapists who work in a clinical setting. We work in a collaborative role in a school community – so a lot of the dynamics of what kids need while at school are unique to my role.”
Ms. Scott-Mayo looks forward to hosting a Worry Warriors Mindfulness Club for Middle Schoolers, where students can learn skills to cope with anxiety and stress. Students will design informational posters that highlight various coping strategies.
“Middle School students learn so much better from one another,” she said. “It’s one thing for me to share information, but it’s another thing for students to say to their peers, ‘Here, this worked for me, why don’t you try it?’”
Helping others is another way that students experience social-emotional growth. On most Wednesday mornings, Mr. Lowery and six or seven Middle School students arrive at school early and zip over to the Reinhart House, a “home away from home” that provides comfort to the families of patients at St. Mary’s Hospital. The students prepare breakfast for the families lodging at the House. Instilling purpose in programming is a key element of Mr. Lowery’s work as campus life and community stewardship coordinator.
“The goal of the Center is to have a scope that starts here on campus but expands beyond,” he said. “We ask ourselves: How can we be stewards of ourselves, the campus, the community, and ultimately, the globe?”
Community connections are central to Mr. Lowery’s work. He has spearheaded a variety of projects, including one in which students researched the lives of people interred at Richmond’s historic Evergreen Cemetery. He also coordinated a Rise Against Hunger meal-packing event on campus, which has been generously sponsored by the Magnano family (Bobby Magnano and Kim Magnano, parents of Joe Magnano '25, Tommy Magnano '23, Michael Magnano '20, and Matea Magnano '17) for many years. Volunteers packed more than 20,000 meals for those in need.
‘We’re all idling at a higher level’
In addition to fostering connections beyond campus, the Steward family is focused on making its strong community even stronger. Living through a pandemic has affected everyone — especially students — in profound ways.
“We’re all idling at a higher level, so things that might not have caused us to react strongly in the past feel different now,” explained Ms. Goodman, who has a background as a therapist. She saw this firsthand throughout 2020, when students peppered her with questions: about COVID, about politics, about current events – whatever was top of mind.
“Their teachers and I taught them how to find unbiased sources and how to have an empathetic approach to others,” she said. “For us to have a mature conversation at this level, to spark that curiosity, to feed their desire to learn and grow: That’s what 2020 brought.”
Now, she is eager to dive into Restorative Practices, which studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals and social connections within communities. “It’s about relationship building, relationship sustaining, relationship repairing,” she said.
Building and Re-Building
Last fall, trainers from the International Institute for Restorative Practices worked with a group of Steward faculty and staff on this emerging social science. Ms. Goodman led bringing the program to Steward, with support from Mr. Frank and the school’s division directors.
The program teaches both individual skills (active listening and conflict resolution) as well as specific actions such as faculty-facilitated listening circles and conferences. At Steward, it will also highlight the principles of the honor code. By implementing Restorative Practices, the school will be able to address the everyday feel of the culture and environment as well as impact how we understand and implement our honor code. The goal of engaging in Restorative Practices is that the Steward community will be strengthened through a shared experience and build trust.
As faculty become trained in Restorative Practices, they are implementing these new tools, and a schoolwide launch of the program is projected for fall 2022.
Culture and Spirit
As DEI coordinator, Ms. Goodman is passionate about her work, which focuses on community-building and equipping all students with the skills they need to work together, especially when differences arise. She teams up with her Center for Engagement colleagues to program, co-teach, and promote health and community across campus. For example, in 2020, she and Mr. Lowery collaborated to bring speakers from various faith traditions together for a virtual interfaith panel to speak to students in an honors-level World Religions class. And in 2021, the two invited religious experts to the Upper School to discuss common themes of wellness, service, and play through the lens of faith.
The panel discussion “is one way we let students grapple with the differences and with the sameness of beliefs,” Ms. Goodman said. “We invite all types of representation of religious backgrounds and let students sit with it from an educational standpoint as well as what they personally believe.”
On any given school day, Ms. Marchant clocks several on-campus miles on her fitness tracker. It’s not surprising, as she teaches character education to Lower Schoolers, coordinates the fall and spring Parent Speaker Series, plans faculty and staff wellness initiatives, teaches Middle School and Upper School health and wellness seminars, and ensures that the entire health and wellness curriculum is cohesive and coordinated across all grade levels. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
When it comes to teaching, though, “I’m trying to slow things down a little and give the kids some space, so that they can come to class and focus on finding skills that are meaningful to them,” she said. Ms. Marchant says it’s vital that students are partners in their wellness – that they promote their own health, including their mental and emotional wellbeing.
“Slowing down means more time for conversation,” she noted. “I start every class with News & Notes – kids share one important thing that’s going on with them, good, bad, or indifferent.” This type of exchange helps students get to know each other by building important connections “so that they can talk about the really important stuff, the hard stuff.”
The Importance of Play
Ms. Marchant was thrilled when the campus resumed some of its in-person events, including the fall 2021 Parent Speaker Series, which included a talk by Carolyn Schuyler, this year’s Visiting Innovator. Ms. Schuyler spoke to parents in the Bryan Innovation Lab about the importance of play as a foundation of learning and healing. She said the drive to play is innate, and it prepares us for the complexity of a world that is always changing.
“Play is what evolution has given us not only to learn, but to heal from hard times,” said Ms. Schuyler. “The language of healing for children is play.”
The Bryan Lab also hosted a Family Play Fair, which focused on Steward’s 2021-22 schoolwide theme of “play” as it relates to health and wellness.
Ms. Marchant said, “Many parents have followed up to say how great it was to be back on campus. Parents really want to talk and to be in each other’s presence. They want to reconnect.”
The Stewardship of Wellbeing
Mr. Frank looks forward to watching the Center for Engagement grow and flourish.
“What happens in traditional classrooms is immensely important, but we are trying to build on that foundation to create something bigger; the Center, the Leadership Program, the Entrepreneurship Program, and the Bryan Innovation Lab programming are all contributing to this goal,” said Mr. Frank. “Much in the way that the Bryan Innovation Lab is not the only home for modern knowledge, I hope that the Center for Engagement is not the only home for activities that promote better wellbeing.”
Mr. Frank is especially excited that the Center for Engagement will encourage new ways of thinking.
“I see it as the ‘heart’ of the community,” he said. “It is a way for students, faculty, staff, and parents to learn more about themselves and each other so that we can build a stronger and more cohesive community.”
Funding for the Center of Engagement was made possible by the following:
• a matching $50,000 grant from the prestigious E.E. Ford Foundation, the gold standard in educational philanthropy, which was awarded thanks to the generosity of The Nanchard Morganson Charitable Fund
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