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CLC takes on new role with ‘mindfulness training’

Posted: November 1, 2013 6:46 p.m.
Updated: November 4, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Around 12:20 p.m. Thursday at the Continuous Learning Center (CLC), you wouldn’t have found students staring dully at a Smartboard or texting under their desk in class.

Right then, right after lunch, students head to a dimly-lit multipurpose room with all of their peers, teachers, CLC support staff and even their school resource officer. Students sprawl out across the room in preparation for their second “mindfulness training” of the day.

Physical education teacher Katie Ham sits on the edge of a stage, waiting for students to get settled.

“Sit in a comfortable seated position, cross-legged and tall,” Ham says.

Keeping with the theme of Halloween, Ham talks to the students about the many masks people wear throughout their day.

“How many masks do we wear in a year and not just on Halloween,” she asks the students. “We are afraid of being our authentic self, so we present an image pleasing to others. Mindfulness is being aware of our surroundings and who we are.”

Next, the students lay down to do a body scan. During the scan, Ham asks students to pinpoint tension or stress in their body.

 “Close your eyes and breathe in and out through the nose. Stay in the present; it’s as simple as one breath,” Ham says to students as they lay quietly on the floor.

CLC, previously stigmatized as a “punishment school,” is taking on a new persona, implementing new programs to help empower students.

The Kershaw County School District (KCSD) is on the “cutting edge” of behavior programming in order to help every student that enters into the Kershaw County public school system earn a high school diploma.

CLC Director John Thompson, school psychologist Dr. Patrick Owen and administrative assistant Julie Johnson started looking for a mindfulness curriculum last summer. Thompson says Owen had previously come across similar techniques in his career, so they sought a curriculum appropriate for their public school setting. Thompson says they intend to teach their students how to be more present and show them how to reflect on their “inner selves” in order to create more productive citizens.

“We are on the cutting edge here. This hasn’t been done in any other school in the Southeast and we are an alternative school,” Thompson says.

Mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is associated with the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MISP). MISP has a curriculum called “.b” -- a reminder to “Stop, Breathe and Be.” Ham and Lisa Riente, local yoga teacher and owner of Blue Dog Yoga in Camden, will travel to Washington, D.C., from Saturday through Nov. 13 to be certified in .b curriculum. The curriculum’s “aim is to encourage, support and research the teaching of secular mindfulness in schools,” according to its website.

Riente led the first few weeks of mindfulness practice at CLC, Thompson says. Riente, who has owned her studio for about 10 years, says her experience mixed with the new mindfulness element at CLC was a great fit. Reinte -- to who Ham refers as her mentor -- has been helping Ham get familiar with what it means to be mindful. Ham says Thompson and Owen asked her to be the lead facilitator of their mindfulness program last summer as she is open to new ideas, Ham said. She took a .b online course over the summer and has been working with Riente ever since.

“Ninety percent of the students are focused during that 10 to 15 minute period,” Ham says. “These are simple things that we know, but don’t always practice.”

Ham has also taken the initiative to teach mindfulness techniques to other students she helps in the district, as well as her friends. She mentions a Camden High School athlete, as well as a personal friend who is attending university who have both stepped up their game with the help of a little mindfulness training.

At CLC, Ham says she is reassured that her efforts are affecting students positively when students tell her how they’ve used the techniques outside of school.

Riente says the mindfulness practice can eventually help students return to their home school and teaches them how to respond instead of react. Riente has taught yoga at churches, at schools and has hosted various camps for children in the last 10 years, she says.

CLC is a great place to implement a mindfulness program, because “students need to learn that they have the power inside of them to make changes,” she says. Seeing how the children respond to the training and seeing the “light bulb go off” has been rewarding, Riente says. She is currently working with a partner out of Charleston to help bring mindfulness techniques into education, she says.

CLC parent Barbara Johnson says she wishes she could participate in each 15-minute session at CLC. She says there have been noticeable improvements in her son, a 10th grader at CLC, since he began participating in the mindfulness training.

“The whole transition has been wonderful. This has become a very positive environment,” she says. “They are doing a great job with him.”

Guidance Counselor Gwen Chandler acknowledges the change in Johnson’s son, too. Chandler says students need techniques to help them deal with their anger. The mindfulness practices allow the time needed to let hot potatoes cool, she says.

“(The students) say it works. Now they do it with their peers and they’ll say ‘Let’s breathe.’ They are becoming more thoughtful toward their peers and their environment,” Chandler says.

Each morning after breakfast and after lunch, almost everyone in the CLC building takes 15 minutes to reconnect with themselves and remind themselves to be more mindful, through a variety of exercise led by Ham or Riente. Students aren’t forced to participate, Thompson says, but they get out of it what they put into it.

Students Kimberlee Pierce, 15; Brittany Watts, 16; and Jenine Edwards, 16, all say the training helps them calm down. Jenine and Brittany say one of their favorite mindfulness exercises is called Breath of Joy. Students take short breaths and swing their arms in various ways during that exercise, which allows them to let of their emotions, Jenine says.

A New CLC

Executive Director for K-12 Instructional Support Systems Dr. Alisa Goodman also says that what CLC is doing is cutting edge in South Carolina and non-existent in the alternative education setting. Goodman says programs like this are more widely used in California and in Europe. Practicing mindfulness affects students mentally, emotionally, socially and physically for overall wellbeing, Goodman says. The mindfulness program gives students the freedom to ignore distractions and focus, while developing awareness; all these benefits will ultimately help students to take a breath before they react to any given situation.

Goodman has worked with numerous teachers and district office administration to create a five-year alternative education plan that gets students the help that they need while allowing them to continue their studies. Practicing twice a day, five days a week gives them a tool kit that they can pull from as needed, she said.

Unlike before, when most students who had reoccurring discipline issues went to CLC, students who are currently attending the school have had a team of people determine which alternative education plan is best for them. Students who now attend CLC are students who need a more therapeutic school setting, Goodman says. Walk into CLC today and you will find classical music playing throughout the day or an artist in residency to help students deal with their frustrations in a more constructive and productive way. CLC will have an artist in residency for one week each month of the school year.

CLC no longer has a JROTC program, instead implementing new techniques, like mindfulness programming, to help students gain control and return to a regular school setting. CLC also offers individual, group and family counseling and education and behavioral screenings, Goodman says. Other alternative education plans include the use of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in elementary school, virtual and choice academies, home-based virtual academies and adult education.

CLC has had a history of being more punishment based, but now CLC administration can focus on changing behavior and getting students back on track academically, Goodman says. Previously, kids were attending and leaving CLC frequently, which was an indicator the district’s previous methods weren’t effective, she says.

KCSD Director of Communications Mary Anne Byrd says the district is taking the steps necessary in order to evolve by responding to data and utilizing new strategies to become more successful. The number of students at CLC has greatly declined and the school serves more middle school students versus high school students now, Goodman says. The idea behind serving more middle school students is spotting and changing behavior earlier, so a student’s behavior challenges don’t affect their high school graduation. Goodman says the district is looking to experiment with implementing the mindfulness practice at the elementary level in hopes of putting CLC out of business.

“We are just trying to make sure we aren’t losing kids,” Goodman says. “(CLC) is a warm nurturing environment; it’s very different than it used to be.”

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