Mindfulness at the center of South Side school’s education

CHICAGO -- Life on the violent and unpredictable streets of Chicago are not always easy for a kid. What's impacting them in their own homes and neighborhoods often plays out in the classroom.

One school on the South Side is taking giant steps to address it and, in time, teachers hope the skills taught at school will become life skills.

Their approach is not new, but the difference is that the approach is coming from every teacher, every staff member, from every angle in the school.

Namaste Charter School in McKinley Park is focused on “social emotional learning."  The 485 kids, kindergarten through eighth grade, are all under one roof and 80 percent of them qualify for reduced or free lunch. About 90 percent of them are Latino.  And all of them face challenges on some level.

Natalie Neris is the school's executive director.

"Our students are experiencing an incredible amount of violence, not only in their community, but across the city," she said. "We know that our children are facing challenges outside of the classroom that create barriers for them academically.”

Immigration uncertainties and financial pressures are also present.

Neris is a product of the CPS system herself and she used to be one of them.

"What I know growing up in Humboldt Park in the 80s during a time of heightened violence in this community is that I lived in fear often," she said.  "I didn’t have any tools to show what I was feeling. And my anger and frustration manifested itself often in fighting.”

At Namaste Charter School, they use a  holistic approach to education. It is part of the fabric of their everyday. An organic salad bar, a peace room, yoga time in their fitness center and stretches, breathing almost anywhere, anytime - for any reason.

The name, the principal said, is no coincidence.

But for the first time, a school in Chicago is certifying every staffer working with the students in trauma informed social emotional learning so that students can breathe to relax, stretch to wake up, simply move with purpose to take inventory of their moods and energy levels.

Namaste hired the company Mindful Practices to fully integrate and teach teachers how to center kids. The comprehensive program is costing Namaste over $50,000. Teachers are giving up to 30 minutes a week for instruction.

The students do breathing and movement exercises and are also writing and reflection exercises.

As head of Namaste now, Neris, hopes her students will benefit from the opportunities she was not afforded as a child. Skills that work on the body and the mind.

“When I think about mindfulness, how much it has changed my life as an adult, I imagine how much different my life might have been had I been introduced to this idea of centering ones self at five years old," she said.

The pilot program involves a partnership between the school, Mindful Practices the SEL service provider, and the University of Chicago where data will be collected and analyzed.

Teachers are all participating. Admittedly, not all of them are embracing it. But they do get credit for a graduate level course should they want it.