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Pandemic experience informs new ways to make kids feel welcome at school

In Rochester, schools are trying to foster an early sense of connection

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The John Marshall High School Cheer Team welcomes incoming freshmen before a pep rally Aug. 23 at the school in Rochester, Minn. The first official day of school was Tuesday, Sept. 6.
Elizabeth Nida Obert for MPR News
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On a recent late August day, buses filled with new students and incoming freshmen arrived at John Marshall High School in Rochester for a three-day welcoming event — weeks before classes started.

Activities included team-building exercises, a tour of the building, and learning the school fight song.

Even some upperclassmen joined in on the event, including student body president Manasa Yerriboyina.

“COVID was hard for a lot of students and teachers because it really took a lot out of us,” she said as she passed out name tags to new students. “To get together brings us closer as a family, and it motivates us at the end of the day to do what we're here to do: be a family and learn."

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John Marshall High School study body president and senior Manasa Yerriboyina welcomes incoming freshmen Aug. 23 during a pep rally at the school in Rochester, Minn.
Elizabeth Nida Obert for MPR News

Creating an early sense of connection is by design, one aimed at improving the mental health of students who've had a rough few years.

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The Rochester trend tracks with a statewide study conducted by the University of Minnesota, which found that by the start of the 2021 school year, more than 71% of teachers and half the students polled said they were worried about their mental well-being.

Events at John Marshall are part of a broader district-wide strategy to limit defiance and disengagement among students in the coming school year — behaviors school officials say emerged in spades after students returned from pandemic-related distance learning.

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John Marshall High School Principal Matt Ruzek welcomes incoming freshmen during a school orientation.
Elizabeth Nida Obert for MPR News

“I would say it was definitely predictable, but still very surprising,” said John Marshall Principal Matt Ruzek. “I'm reluctant to say we saw an increase in [bad] behavior, I think what we saw was just a cry for belonging and social connection.”

‘Kids just weren’t going to class’

School district data shows that while disciplinary infractions were on par with the school year leading up to the pandemic, staff reported more kids engaging in defiant behavior, and more often. A deeper dive into that data shows that students of all ages felt less connected to their schools — and less understood by their teachers.

“I think it's avoidance behavior,” said Chief of Schools Jacque Peterson, who’s been leading a district-wide effort to help create a sense of community in Rochester’s schools.

She said for some students, virtual learning created an environment where they could turn their attention away from learning. When they headed back to in-person learning, some were behind on their learning.

“I think it doesn't take much to imagine, like, I'm sitting in a classroom and I have no idea what the teacher is talking about. It's easier to just detach than it is to try to figure it out,” Peterson said.

For Angi McAndrews, principal of Kellogg Middle School, those behaviors were front and center when kids came back to in-person learning in the spring of 2021.

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"We had definitely over the last year had more kids that were just refusing to go to class,” she said. "It would be third hour, our hallways should be empty, kids should be learning, and we just had kids that just weren't going to class."

McAndrews said the behaviors — and their frequency — were baffling and complex, emblematic of the mental health struggles so many kids faced during distance learning.

She said COVID mitigation measures made school weird. Some students didn't understand expectations after learning online for so long from home.

Adding to the challenge: She and her staff hardly knew some of the students after a year of virtual learning.

"Trying to build the relationship at the same time as holding kids accountable for behavior is really super challenging, because we want to make sure that kids feel safe and connected and welcome,” she said. “But we also want to make sure that they're here and that we're there focusing on what we're here for, which is education."

‘Has anyone asked the kids?’

School district administrators were getting an "SOS" from school leaders, said Will Ruffin II, Rochester Public School’s equity and engagement director.

"We were in a cabinet meeting and then I said something like, ‘Has anyone asked the kids?,' ” he said.

They hadn’t, so they did.

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Last school year, Ruffin organized nearly 40 listening sessions with students from across grade levels and demographic groups, who had been disciplined, about why they were engaging in inappropriate behavior.

Some of the students' answers were surprising, he said.

"They felt the teacher embarrassed them in front of everyone, or made an example out of them,” he said. “So therefore, they didn't want to go."

For Ruffin, the survey results showed that students — and teachers — weren't doing well.

"So where we may think our students weren't handling their side of the bargain, I think maybe the patience of some of our adults wore thin,” he said.

With a new school year starting, the listening sessions have inspired changes, Peterson said. For instance, Rochester students will see more school-based extracurriculars. A new cellphone policy sets clearer expectations around when they can be used in school.

But as fall approaches, Peterson said the focus is on building relationships so it’s easier for students to follow rules, and easier for staff to discipline them when they don't.

"Until kids feel a sense of belonging, you're not going to really see an impact on student achievement or really behavior,” she said.

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