October 2023 - Our Blueprint in Action: Empathy in the Duluth Cluster
Join us as we explore Empathy in our Duluth Cluster.
Through Empathy— the ability to understand the feelings of another person and place yourself in their position— we ensure that Team GCPS students, families, and staff have an entry point towards creating a culture where ALL feel a sense of belonging and safety. Our school communities understand, negotiate, and balance diverse views and beliefs as they engage with the unique perspectives of others through mutual respect and open dialogue. Each and every student and staff member exhibits emotional intelligence and a curiosity about other cultures, leading to a learning environment where diverse views and thoughts are embraced and valued.
In the Duluth Cluster, Empathy is community, and “Duluth United” means building connections, developing a strong character, and promoting a sense of belonging throughout each school.
It’s an early Thursday morning and the sun is rising in the windows through the colorful hanging flags adorning the entrance of Duluth Middle (DMS). You hurry to join your friends already lining up to make purchases at the PBIS Store. “PBIS” is short for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. This framework helps staff enhance academic and social behavior outcomes for each and every student, providing positive reinforcement for the development of character, responsibility, work ethic, and respect for all. Students earn “Paw Points” to spend at the PBIS Store when staff members catch them exhibiting any of these positive traits.
Instructional Clerk Zulma Differ has been managing the PBIS store and observed that students appreciate the fun that comes from standing in line together to get food, candy, honey buns, and trinkets— students even purchase items for their friends with less “Paw Points.”
“This helps [the staff] see those things we’re teaching them— to be kind and empathetic to others— is actually being put in place because [students] are taking care of each other, they are looking out for each other,” Ms. Differ adds.
Grab your classroom pass and your favorite book, you’re excused to the brightly lit and colorful media center to read with Reggie. Your excitement boils over, but don’t run, Reggie is patiently relaxed on the floor, waiting to attentively rest his head on your shoulder or knee while you practice your reading skills. Yes, Reggie is a gentle giant Golden Retriever visiting with his owner and volunteer, Margaret Dennard. As a member of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Reggie started visiting Duluth Middle last year, and new Media Specialist Laura Cooper was eager to continue this interaction that helps teach the whole student and provides emotional support.
“It’s had a huge impact on our literacy, once [students] see the dog, they know it’s a judgement-free and safe space,” Ms. Cooper says. “[Students] open up and we help them read, and we discuss their home life and history with reading, you can see them relax when the dog nuzzles in their lap."
Take a walk into DMS’ Junior Leadership Corps classroom and catch sight of storage space featuring shelves of canned goods, dry foods, clothing, and toiletries. It’s the DMS Food Pantry, a community resource born from the rich discussions had by students in the class. “They shared some of their own stories of food insecurity and felt compelled to do something about it,” says Principal Cindy Kinchen. “With the guidance of their teacher, Mr. Avery Grant, the students launched a food drive. The community rallied behind them by providing the shelving, storage space, and bags necessary to organize the pantry and get it ready for distribution. Today, the Duluth Middle School community is welcome to access the food pantry anytime they find themselves in need.
Just around the corner, students at Duluth High School (DHS) pour into their community by sharing their culture, experiences, and interests with each other through DHS’ array of diverse clubs including Black Student Union (BSU), JUNTOS, Asian American Student Association (AASA), and many others. With more than 50 clubs to choose from, students can foster bonds with their peers and bring those bonds into their classrooms, making for an empathetic learning environment. Assistant Principal Megan Hathaway says the magic of their clubs is the effort put into them by students and faculty to promote all and heighten awareness. “Clubs are not created only to bring people with common interests and backgrounds together, but also to create exposure and understanding among all students,” Ms. Hathaway shares.
To bring these clubs to life, students share their ideas with the administrative office. Along with at least 10 interested students and a trusted adult sponsor, the club can be initiated if it serves a unique interest. Most recently, DHS has added clubs like Trailblazers- a club promoting Women in STEM; Science National Honor Society; Gaming Club, and more.
Additionally, these clubs expose students to things beyond the classroom and the local community. “Our clubs often offer experiences outside of the classroom that go beyond their instructional time. Some of our clubs offer visits to college campuses, world language fairs, and a chance to meet with various career and workforce employees to discuss how their school pathways have helped them in their jobs,” Ms. Hathaway explains. Each club can have its voice represented in the five areas of student-led initiatives: Community Impact; Communication; Celebrating Diversity; School Pride, and Recognition. To support these initiatives, DHS is working to make sure opportunities are available to all their students and making efforts to offer more of these activities during the school day and through advisement.
These initiatives start early in the Duluth Cluster. Berkeley Lake Elementary (BLES) starts encouraging students to have discussions and sympathize with each other through their Community Circles. The Circles promote a welcoming, student-centered environment for all. It is a time for them to build their social and emotional skills, learn from the perspectives of others, and problem-solve as a class community. Students have the opportunity to start each morning building connections with their peers and sharing their own thoughts and ideas in a safe space. BLES values their Community Circles because it promotes a sense of belonging for each and every student.
Suit up in your freshest business apparel because it’s time to gather your team members at Coleman Middle to present your Project/Problem Based Learning (PBL) work at the community showcase. As a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) school, Coleman Middle provides multiple opportunities for arts integration and general creativity that enhances learning, as well as student well-being. Principal Dr. Gypsy Hernández explains that part of the school’s STEAM focus means implementing four quarterly units of PBL each school year. In each unit of PBL, students answer an empathy-driven question that is related to a current problem or question in the community while learning the core subject AKS (Academic Knowledge and Skills) and practicing the future skills of creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. During the community showcase, students practice speaking and presenting their work to families, educators, and community members who provide feedback and advice.
Former Coleman Middle Principal and current GCPS Executive Director of Talent Management, Dr. J.W. Mozley says it’s special to come back to the school and see how Dr. Hernández and the staff have taken STEAM education and PBL to the next level. “The very first step in the engineering design process is empathy and gathering empathy data from community and from multiple different sources,” Dr. Mozley adds. “If [students] can empathize with the community and whoever is experiencing the problem [they’re] trying to solve, there is a stronger connection from problem to solution.”
While supporting academic success and closing learning gaps are priorities in GCPS, nationally honored B.B. Harris Elementary has a strong tradition of recognizing each and every student as a whole and growing learner. For Harris parent Amanda Bagwell, that honor is especially meaningful. “It means that I am sending my child to a school that has an emphasis on student learning and the wellbeing of my child,” Teacher Cindy Alston, a former Harris student herself, adds “Working at a National Blue Ribbon school means compassion and commitment towards our students. It is believing and encouraging all to see the amazing potential within. It is a community of dedicated individuals who never give up on a dream to make a difference.”
The school’s proud principal, Dr. Erin Hahn, agrees. “This award affirms we are doing the right work for children. The schools all work so well together and celebrate each other... and we are such a community. For us, I look at this as an honor for the whole Duluth community, not just B.B. Harris.”
Learn more about Our Blueprint for the Future and Empathy, and join us in November, when we explore Student Voice with our Shiloh, South Gwinnett, and Lanier Clusters.