FLEMINGTON, NJ - For the Hunterdon Central Regional School District, wellness is a key of the strategic plan, and, in the wake of a number of recent losses in the school community, they are looking for ways of helping them navigate through the tragedies.
Superintendent Jeff Moore said the district is working on partnerships with experts to help the students deal with the tragedies and become advocates for themselves and others.
“We are getting guidance on what to do in the moment of a tragedy and after,” he said.
Moore said the district is approaching local leaders, state leaders and outside organizations to help the students and their families deal with tragedies when and if they happen.
“We are meeting with leaders on responding together,” he said. “People want to roll up their sleeves and help. We have to come together.”
In addition, Moore said, they are working with groups of students who want to take a stand and help where they can.
“I think this is the most activist generation,” he said. “If I can help them be more effective activists in their four years here, (that’s amazing).”
“The students are ambassadors of positivity through social media,” he added. “They are taking their sadness and frustration and turning it into action to bring people together.”
In a letter sent home to parents following the loss of a student recently, Moore said they had extra counselors on campus during the school day to help those struggling, and had also brought in therapy dogs for the students. He explained in the letter about the plans for bringing together a group of leaders from law enforcement, health care, education, mental health and faith communities to work toward solutions.
Nancy Tucker, communications officer for the district, agreed on the steps being taken.
“The students have been coming together,” she said. “Some have come to the principal and said, ‘we are angry and confused.’”
Within 24 hours of hearing their concerns, Tucker said, the principal at the high school created a video to tell students that district administrators and others are there for them.
“The most important thing is this relationship, and sense of belonging,” she said.
Moore said the district has been speaking with experts, and are guided by their advice and work.
“This is a difficult situation around the nation, and there is a deep worry for the kids, with substance abuse and self-harm,” he said. “There is no quick fix, but in these partnerships, we can come together.”
In a suburban area like Hunterdon County, Moore said, there are high expectations for the students.
“There are fast tracks where the kids have no choices,” he said. “That’s a worry for all kids.”
“We have to see how we pull back from expectations for kids to figure out how to be more engaged,” he added.
Moore said there are more than 3,000 people in the school, between students and staff, and they need to figure out how to empower everyone. Wellness, he said, is about figuring out how to empower the individual growth of each student, and part of that is through important partnerships with the surrounding schools, the governing bodies, the county, the medial center nearby and others.
“In this wellness agenda, we have been developing and nurturing partnerships,” he said.
Moore said the district has a video library, with a YouTube channel focused on wellness and capturing important conversations with experts in the community.
Tucker said these videos have thousands of hits.
In the face of the most recent tragedy at the school, the district has also doubled the number of Student Assistance Counselors, who have training in substance abuse and mental health concerns, Moore said in his letter to parents.
“We have grown our partnership with Hunterdon Behavioral Health to bring more therapists onto our campus on a regular basis,” he said in the letter. “These school-based therapists have been a critical part of our support system for students.”
Moore said they are also increasing security, and are taking in another Class III officer, as hired by Raritan Township, to patrol the school.
Moore said there has been training for staff with the Center for Great Expectations, which provides mental health and substance use disorder treatment to women, children, men and families impacted by trauma, abuse and neglect.
“We train staff in how to help kids in distress, and strategies to help the kids,” he said. “The entire staff has been trained, and we are going to be extending that to parents too.”
Moore said the trainer gave an hour-long presentation on the work being done, and is now offering parent classes.
Moore said they are also investigating tools that will help students dealing with anxiety, giving them coping and resiliency techniques to help them long term.
“When we talk with experts, we need to work on coping and wellness,” he said. “We need to see how, in these high demands of trying to make choices, we can give them the tools they need.”
“Kids will get lifelong lessons in how to deal with stress,” he added. “Kids aren’t just lost in social media, they are trying to find relationships. They are not just worried about homework.”
Moore said they have been measuring high schools by the same set rules for years, namely grades, SAT scores, what college students attend and graduation rates, but things may have to change to do more for the students. He said there is more work they have to do for the students to measure their successes.
“If we can equip them with the tools to know what they are passionate about, we can figure out how we help to get them there,” he said.
“But it means a very different high school,” he added. “We follow kids instead of pushing them.”
That, Moore said, is a long-range plan, and everyone has to join in that effort, including parents and policy makers.
“It is depressing that kids don’t feel empowered to make choices to follow their guiding lights,” he said. “We need to prioritize growth, not penalty.”
“How do we make it safe to make a mistake,” he added. “If the school focuses on empowering choices, we become more flexible.”
Even teachers are wrestling with this, Moore said, because the expectations on teachers are not flexible.
This is leading, Moore said, to a number of community-based learning activities, in addition to magnet programs in robotics, architecture and more. These are dual enrollment programs, he said.
Tucker said the district already has partnerships with Fairleigh Dickinson University, Seton Hall University and Raritan Valley Community College.
“We are starting to look at what we offer kids, and offer a depth of exploration,” she said. “The school looks like a college campus, so why not offer these programs?”
Moore said they are looking at a renovation of the media center to continue to bring innovation to the big campus, and work more on the library, which is the physical center of the campus.
“The goal is to have kids comfortable to be who they are in public,” he said. “We’re a place in which kids build their futures and tackle everything that gets in their way.”
Tucker said the district also has a unified sports team, where special education and general education compete together. She said it comes out of the Special Olympics program, and the games are always well-attended.
“It is starting to make who you are be OK,” she said.
On March 7, the district will host a Unified Basketball Tournament in the gym at 1 p.m. with other schools. On the same day, they are also hosting Healthy Harmony, a program where participants will do yoga, meditation with music and listen to musical performances.
“The entire campus will be celebrating everyone,” Tucker said.
The event will also begin at 1 p.m., and is sponsored by the Hunterdon County Partnership for Health’s Mental Health Action Team and the high school. It will include music performances, wellness booths and exercise.
Tucker said this kind of awareness is important to the district.
“We can all have awareness, but unless you are creating a culture, you’re just responding to the bad stuff,” she said.
Moore said there is urgent work convening leaders, creating partnerships and recognizing what to do when there is a friend in crisis.
“We are looking at community partnerships to understand what happens in suicide and self-harm,” he said. “We hope one day this won’t be urgent.”
The strategic work of the district is focused on wellness to prepare kids to live out their dreams.
“We are calling for something more,” he said. “Otherwise we are just a school that responds.”
To that end, Moore said, they have created the position of dean of students to focus on wellness full time. The new position was approved by the board of education Jan. 27.
“We have seen positive shifts, but we need someone focused on this,” he said. “We need someone who can operate across all of the district, and we are looking forward to having someone appointed to this.”
In addition, Moore said, they are working with a number of students on surveys and more to determine what students need and what they can do to help others.
“It goes back to how do we teach them to be activists,” he said. “It ensures that their ideas and the things they do really have an impact. We are guided by experts and our partnerships.”
Moore said this is incredibly rewarding work, and that’s the district’s mission.
“That is the urgent work of response, but we have to see how that fits into the larger work,” he said. “That’s our mission, and we have to take a stand.”
“In the face of tragedy, it’s natural to feel demoralized,” he added. “Crisis is always immediate, but we have to find ways to reaffirm what we are doing.”