"Social kindness" and "student connectedness" are oft-heard phrases among Palo Alto school administrators this fall.
In a recent presentation to the Board of Education, Palo Alto's three middle-school principals enumerated efforts to address bullying on their campuses, a particular challenge in the pre-teen years. The discussion was part of the annual "Single Plan for Student Achievement" presentation mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"We're working very hard to improve student connectedness and reduce bullying," Terman Middle School Principal Katherine Baker said.
Baker said the school has a "social kindness" program aimed at teaching empathy and inclusion, in which each grade level focuses on a different area.
For sixth-graders, it's Tiger Camp, a middle-school orientation program involving community-building activities.
In seventh grade, students get anti-bullying curriculum connected to the content of a class. For example, students write "I poems," with a focus on what they stand for and believe in.
The emphasis for eighth-graders is on leadership and teaching students how they can be role models and "upstanders" for others who might be bullied or need help. About 45 members of the class volunteer to become leaders in this regard.
In other activities, Terman makes an effort to mix students in various activities, pairing new students with eighth-graders or having eighth-graders play board games with sixth-graders, for example.
"If we have a bullying incident, we'll have a lesson on that," Baker said. "If there's cyberbullying, we'll develop a lesson on cyberbullying."
Terman also has continued with "Project Wisdom" -- a weekly inspirational message read over the school intercom, ending with the statement: "You have a choice to be responsible or not."
"A lot of what we do is try to empower students at the middle school and give them increasing amounts of responsibility," Baker said.
In another activity, Baker said she had a group of students translate the school's "bulky and wordy" mission statement into "children's language."
Teachers meet weekly "to make sure students don't fall through the cracks," Baker said. A student's name goes on the agenda if a teacher is worried about academic achievement or notices the child is spending lunchtime alone, she said.
"This year we're expanding to a social-inclusion effort, collaborating with parents of a special-needs child and looking for ways to help students who are socially awkward -- how they can be more comfortable at a dance or during lunchtime," she said.
Jordan Middle School Principal Greg Barnes and JLS Middle School Principal Sharon Ofek struck similar themes in their presentations to the school board.
At Jordan, Assistant Principal Christine Wang runs a "school climate committee," and the school last year launched work on the youth-wellness framework known as "Developmental Assets."
"We've also had the National Equity Project come in and look at the cultural differences we're experiencing with kids with a wide variety of backgrounds," Barnes said.
"It's important for us to be aware of that and build connections with these students and try to get to know them." The National Equity Project is a nonprofit group that offers coaching to teachers and schools on how to boost their effectiveness in culturally diverse classrooms.
At JLS, Ofek said, "ABC -- academics, belonging and creating wellness -- is a guide for everything we do."
Ofek said the school's popular three-day "Panther Camp" orientation for sixth-graders, now in its fifth year, has been tweaked every year and barely resembles what it was at the start.
"It's completely different from its original year in terms of the character-education component," Ofek said. "Every aspect is revised based on surveys of students, parents and staff."
Barnes said he visited Panther Camp as well as Tiger Camp at JLS and will borrow ideas for use at Jordan.
"We've invited lots of folks to come visit and offered to support anyone who wants to know how Panther Camp is implemented," Ofek said.
"We're trying really hard to share what's going well with JLS."