A small public school on Chicago’s Southwest Side is on the rise academically but it still struggles to reach all its students. This year, Agustin Lara Academy is trying something new to reduce student stress and anxiety that can often get in the way of learning.
Each day, three times a day, Lara teachers practice calming exercises with students — for three minutes in the mornings, after lunch, and before the school day ends.
When the lights go down, everyone is quiet. Then, restful breathing takes over the classroom.
“We have seen with the kids that they’ve been focusing a little bit more,” language arts teacher Patricia Hernandez said. “They need that time to kind of center themselves and to set the tone for what the morning is going to feel like, to set the tone for what the afternoon should feel like.”
These calming exercises are becoming more popular among educators all over the city, with teachers tapping into a trend that has already swept the adult world.
At Lara, the teachers thought they could help their mostly low-income, Latino students. The Back of the Yards school has been growing academically, but school administrators wanted to help students move to the next level.
“They were looking for another way to get through to kids,” said Principal Paul Schissler. “We [got] to this point where academically, we are getting to this barrier, and we are hoping that we can push through that barrier.”
Those roadblocks often are caused by issues at home, or in their community, Schissler said.
“The last couple of years, violence in the neighborhood has been pretty severe,” Schissler said.
“I think the last big incident was the DEA agent that got shot. What’s it? Three blocks away? And kids feel that.”
These calming exercises are part of a larger Chicago Public Schools effort to help meet kids’ social and emotional needs.
It’s also part of a larger transformation going on at Lara in recent years. In the past, the school was big into sports and didn’t have strong art and music programs, even though the school is named for a famous Mexican composer.
Schissler changed all of that after parents and teachers asked for it: first music and arts and now the calming techniques, which Lara teachers adopted as part of a program called “Calm Classroom.”
“What those things have done is give kids a chance to get connected to the school and the adults around them. And when they feel that connection, they do well,” Schissler said.
His school has been off academic probation for several years, and test scores have slowly improved. The school recently earned the school district’s top academic rating.
Now, Schissler hopes adding mindfulness will help keep them there.