All 3,400 students in the Ravenswood City School District will soon have yoga and mindfulness as a regular part of their curriculum as the result of a new partnership between the district and the Sonima Foundation, a Southern California-based nonprofit that brings health and wellness education to K-12 schools throughout the country.
A subset of these 3,400 East Palo Alto and Menlo Park students, about 700 third- and fifth-graders, will also participate in a four-year Stanford University study that will investigate the impact of the Sonima Foundation's curriculum on stress, coping skills, physical health and social-emotional development.
The school district and foundation officially launched their partnership Wednesday afternoon at Costaño Elementary School in East Palo Alto, with a group of students and Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck, who serves on the Sonima Foundation board leading each other through a series of yoga poses in front of a crowd including Ravenswood Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff, Sonima Executive Director Eugene Ruffin and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
"As an educator, I see firsthand the impact that health and wellness have on our students' ability to learn and thrive," Gina Sudaria, principal of Costaño School and the 49ers Academy, told the crowd gathered in Costaño's gym. "Whether you are a student who exceeds performance standards, a student with severe disabilities, a student coping with post traumatic stress disorder or a student whose first day to enroll in a U.S. school is today, across the district we pride ourselves on the fact that we educate and nurture any student who crosses the threshold of our classroom doors to meet their full potential."
She stressed that health and wellness is essential to helping students perform well academically and also helps to create a supportive, trusting school climate.
Costaño, along with Belle Haven School, Brentwood Academy, Cesar Chavez & Green Oaks Academy, Los Robles Dual Immersion Magnet Academy, Ronald McNair Middle School and Willow Oaks School will all implement the foundation's curriculum, and some have already started.
Stanford University's Victor Carrion, who works in the Stanford Child Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic and for more than 15 years studied the impact of early-life stress on children, particularly in East Palo Alto schools, said the Sonima Foundation approach is geared toward sustainability and long-term impact rather than short-term intervention. Carrion will be spearheading the Stanford investigation of the curriculum's impact.
"There's always some interest in East Palo Alto," Carrion said in an interview with the Weekly. "People go and do something ... and the community lingers again until somebody else wants to come and do some other project. I didn't want it to be that way, and the Sonima Foundation didn't want it to be that way either."
The foundation's K-12 curriculum, which is currently in place in 54 schools in California, Florida, New York and Texas, is a combination of physical education, body flexibility and movement, nutrition and coping skills. As early as kindergarten, students are taught skills like breathing and stretching at the same time as acting with kindness and positive thinking.
"Imagine this if you start taking this (class) when you're in kindergarten, by the time you're a fourth grader, you don't even think about it," Carrion said. "It's a part of your life. You brush your teeth and you think positively."
This is exactly what Carrion will examine in his study, which will be completed under the auspices of the Stanford University School of Medicine's Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program (ELSPAP) at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
Researchers will recruit a group of third and fifth graders from throughout the district to participate in a series of assessments over the next four years to measure their academic and cognitive strengths and weaknesses, emotional and behavioral functioning, stress-related hormone levels, sleep patterns and brain activity and structure, according to a Stanford press release. (They chose third graders so they can follow them over the course of a few essential developmental years and fifth graders to be able to compare to similar data collected at two Sonima Foundation partner-schools, one in Encinitas and one in Harlem.)
This work is familiar for Carrion, who first studied mindfulness in East Palo Alto schools in 2004 as part of an effort to evaluate the impact of a treatment protocol he and others at Stanford developed for children and adolescents who have been exposed to trauma. This treatment, dubbed the Cue-Centered Treatment (CCT) Protocol, is about educating children so that they can find understanding of and control over their own reactions to stress, rather than receiving external treatment.
"You don't want a kid to be in treatment for life. CCT is about empowering children to understand the normal human reaction to stress and how to counteract that," Carrion said. "It basically makes them their own agent of change through education. It's empowerment through knowledge."
Part and parcel to that knowledge is a toolbox of coping skills, many of which draw from mindfulness, such as meditation, relaxation and deep breathing.
"We said, 'OK, so we have this treatment here that works for those kids that are already showing some signs but could we even work before that?'"
Carrion, school officials and others hope the Sonima Foundation program will help the answer to that question be a resounding "yes."