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East County Thursday, Sep. 26, 2019 9 months ago

A simple 'Hello' may save the day in Lakewood Ranch schools

School programming fosters spirit of inclusion.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Robert E. Willis Elementary School fifth grader Sophia Finnegan waved as cars with parents and students drove through the drop-off lane before school started.

When a vehicle pulled up to her spot, the 10-year-old approached, opened the door and said hello to the students emerging from the car.

“I think that’s really fun,” said Finnegan, who volunteers with the school’s Safety Patrol program. “You get to make people think they have someone else to talk to, and it just makes them feel good because you’re saying, ‘Good morning.’ They might have had a tough morning. It makes them feel better.”

A simple “Hello” or “Good morning” is one of the ways Finnegan, her fellow safety patrollers, teachers and staff are working to ensure every student at Willis Elementary feels welcome and included. Greeting every student is part of the Start with Hello program, which gives students tips on how to promote connection and inclusion as well as identify students who could feel isolated.

Patrollers lead the school’s Students Against Violence Everywhere Promise Club, also known as the SAVE Promise Club. It’s a student leadership initiative from the Sandy Hook Promise and “aims to cultivate and bolster student leaders to take an active role in increasing school safety and preventing different forms of violence in schools and communities,” according to the Sandy Hook Promise website.

The Sandy Hook Promise trains students and adults to know and be aware of the signs of gun violence. The foundation was started after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people were killed.

Other schools in Lakewood Ranch, such as Lakewood Ranch and Braden River high schools and Carlos E. Haile Middle School, have created SAVE Clubs as well. The clubs will organize events and activities, such as a day when everyone wears a name tag and introduces themselves to other students, to promote inclusivity within the schools.

Dave Blake, a representative from the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, went to Haile Middle School on Sept. 16 to give a presentation on the foundation’s Start with Hello program.

Haile Middle School Assistant Principal Paula Hart said in light of the school shootings happening across the country, the teachers and staff have been talking to students about bullying, being aware of what’s happening during school and the importance of telling an adult if they see something suspicious. However, they also wanted to teach students how to be proactive in ensuring a more inclusive school environment.

“What we hope students get out of this is just some skills and some practical things that they can do and say if they notice a student on campus who seems to be isolated … and just for them to be empowered to start a conversation,” Hart said.

Ethan Salata, a Haile Middle School sixth grader, said the ice breakers provided during the presentation would help students start conversations and make everyone feel more comfortable at school, especially students without many friends.

“We’re a big school, and we all need to feel like we know each other, and we can depend on each other,” Salata said.

Ella Botko, a junior at Lakewood Ranch High School and co-founder of the school’s Students for Safety Club, said the club will be partnering with the school’s SAVE Promise Club for different events throughout the year.

Botko said the clubs are planning to have an assembly this fall to talk about “If you see something, say something.” The slogan was originally a national campaign from the Department of Homeland Security; it encourages people to speak up when they see suspicious activity and share other positive messages including the power of saying hello.

“I think it can make a big difference,” Botko said. “If you see someone sitting alone, don’t just let them sit there by themselves and feel alone. Make them feel included, invite people to clubs, invite them to sit with you at lunch. Just all that kind of stuff because it is a big school, and it’s easy for people to get lost in translation.”

At B.D. Gullett Elementary, Principal Todd Richardson said the school has implemented a morning meeting program. During the meetings, each class sits as a group to talk about topics including what’s happening in students’ lives, students’ weekend plans and objectives for the day.

“It kind of gets the students a little bit more centered and more aware of one another,” Richardson said. “[Teachers are] building their community in their classroom and then among their grade level, which then enhances our school as a whole.”

Willis Elementary also has a Buddy Bench on each playground. The benches are designated, so children who need a friend can go and sit.

“The students have been told it can be used for a time of need during recess,” said Kim Thomas, a student-support specialist at the school. “If they’re feeling sad or lonely, they sit on the bench, and someone will come and join them. They know if someone is sitting there, they need help, and people come and sit with them.”

She called the bench “a tool for positive mental health.” She said children in elementary school can struggle to find the words to express their feelings, so the bench provides them with a way to demonstrate their needs.

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