Aug. 19 and 20 saw more than 35 Plumas Charter School teachers and staff members gather from the school’s four learning centers — in Quincy, Taylorsville, Greenville, and Chester — for their annual beginning-of-year school-wide training. This year included professional presentations on topics at the forefront of the educational world: Social emotional learning, gender identity, and suicide awareness and prevention.
“These school-wide trainings give everyone a chance to meet and collaborate,” said Taletha Washburn, PCS’s executive director. “It’s an important opportunity to get on the same page and reinforce our goal to provide personalized learning that puts students first.”
Social emotional learning
Social emotional learning acknowledges the vital role of positive relationships and emotional connections in student success, both at school and in life.
The California Department of Education has officially recognized the importance of intentionally teaching SEL skills in the classroom, and PCS has embraced this goal using two main programs: Second Step, for students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade, and Newsela, for high school students.
On Aug. 19, PCS welcomed Second Step trainer Stephanie Anderson from Kansas to the Quincy Learning Center’s 80 Main St. location. Although PCS has used some aspects of the Second Step program in the past, this will be the first year it is fully implemented in all TK-8 classrooms.
Anderson delineated the five major SEL competencies — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making — and discussed how they can be developed at every age.
SEL skills help students manage their own emotions, becoming aware of what is happening inside them, said Anderson. This then allows them to start becoming aware of what is happening inside others, which creates the ability to communicate and solve problems effectively.
“When kids feel safe, when they feel connected, that’s when they can learn,” she said. “That’s social emotional learning.”
She cited studies that have shown improvements in both academic performance and behavior in schools that consistently implement SEL strategies.
While Anderson spoke to TK-8 educators downstairs, Ryan Schramel reinforced the Newsela program with high school teachers upstairs. Schramel is the site director for Indian Valley Academy, PCS’s learning center in Taylorsville, which serves students in grades seven through 12.
Newsela provides an extensive library of curated articles on every subject, rewritten in several versions to accommodate different lexile (reading) levels, explained Schramel, who also teaches at IVA. Students are assigned articles based on their current level, and the program tracks improvement over the course of the school year.
Last year, Newsela announced a special SEL collection; IVA piloted its implementation for PCS. This year the collection will also be used by high school teachers at the Quincy and Chester learning centers.
To learn more about Second Step, visit secondstep.org. More information about Newsela is available at newsela.com.
New laws and cultural awareness regarding gender identity issues have raised questions for schools nationwide, and PCS is no exception. After students last year expressed gender identity concerns, Washburn said she realized all teachers and staff needed to be better prepared.
Working with PCS school counselor Becky Powers, the school brought trainer Marin Hambly, of Chico’s Stonewall Alliance Center, to speak to a full house at the Indian Valley Museum in Taylorsville on Aug. 20.
Hambly, who prefers the they/them pronoun, defined gender identity terminology, explaining the various ways and reasons a person’s feeling of gender may not align with the gender assigned to that person at birth.
They emphasized that every person and situation is different, but encouraged teachers and staff to use a general template of listening to students’ concerns or statements, mirroring back their language, asking rather than assuming, and seeking additional support.
Hambly also pointed out ways that adults in a student’s life can indicate their respect for gender identity differences. “Showing that this community exists and can thrive can be extremely powerful,” they said.
Washburn reiterated the overarching PCS mission of maintaining an open, responsive, and communicative attitude that creates a “culture of acceptance for a diverse community.”
To learn more about the Stone Alliance Center, visit stonewallchico.org.
Suicide prevention and awareness
Inspired by his own struggles with suicide and subsequent quest for help and healing, New Jersey’s Joshua Rivedal founded The i’Mpossible Project, which includes, among other material, Changing Minds, a mental health curriculum.
“This is the second training with Josh PCS staff and teachers have participated in, and it is a very powerful experience,” said Washburn.
Rivedal offered a “facilitated lecture,” building off of attendees’ specific stories and questions, stemming from both personal and school situations.
He reminded the audience that the figurative pretty white picket fence they might see in their neighbor’s yard may look very different from the other side: It might be cracked and infested with termites, with chipping paint.
When someone is in crisis, Rivedal recommended against platitudes like “I understand” and “I know what you’re going through.” Like Hambly, he emphasized that every situation is unique, but suggested a general template of listening — sometimes extensively — and thus gaining clues to help keep the person grounded, not judging, validating the person’s worth using “I” statements, exercising empathy rather than sympathy, and seeking professional help.
“Suicide is preventable, and you and I and all of us can get help and be helpers,” he said.
A cycle of isolation triggered by traumatic events can lead to thoughts of suicide, explained Rivedal, and teachers and school staff can be primed to recognize risk factors and telltale changes in students. Reaching out to people who may be in crisis can help break the cycle of isolation.
One of Rivedal’s overarching messages was the importance of destigmatizing suicide. “It’s OK not to be OK,” he said, pointing out that mental health is analogous to physiological health and that talking about suicide does not cause people to turn to this “unhealthy coping mechanism.”
A message Rivedal said he often uses in peer counseling is “I personally believe it will get better, but I can guarantee it will get different.”
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available at (800) 273-8255; a crisis text line can be accessed by texting “go” to 741741. In Plumas County, call (530) 283-4333 or (877) 332-2754 to be connected to the local 24/7 crisis line.
To learn more about Rivedal’s work, visit iampossibleproject.com.
More information about Plumas Charter School is available at plumascharterschool.org or by calling 283-3851.