McKINLEY PARK — Namaste Charter School Principal Natalie Neris knows what it's like for a student trying to excel in school while surrounded by poverty or violence.
Now, after years as a teacher and as first-year principal at Namaste, 3737 S. Paulina St., Neris thinks she might have an educational model to help kids dealing with the effects of poverty, broken homes and violence.
"I was a student myself who was incredibly impulsive and defensive," she said. "I was a student who was bright, but no one asked me why I was so angry. Nobody asked me why I had a smart mouth or didn't always get along with my peers.
"It had nothing to do with my ability to learn, but had a lot to do with the context of my environment outside of school, what I saw in my community, what I saw in my home," Neris said.
Namaste already uses progressive tools in its curriculum, including daily physical education, morning yoga poses, an organic salad bar at lunch and filtered water in the hallways. This year, however, the school is working to be certified in social emotional learning, which will place a priority on a student's emotional well-being as well as seek to counsel them on any outside-of-school issues affecting their lives.
"If we're serious about changing the game for our students, we must recognize and respond to the trauma that they come to school with every day," Neris said. "What we know about students that live with trauma: They're impulsive, they're reactive and struggle to self-manage often. Those are all critical components of social emotional learning."
Carla Tantillo Philibert, founder of Mindful Practices, leads a seminar on social emotional learning at Namaste charter school. [DNAinfo/Joe Ward]
Once staff training is completed this year, Namaste will be the first school in the city certified in such learning, said Carla Tantillo Philibert, founder of Mindful Practices, which certifies schools in trauma-informed education practices. She helped lead the school's first lesson in the program last week, before heading to New Hampshire to help kids going to school during the opioid crisis.
"What are the things that keep students from being present in the classroom? A lot of educators dance around the problem," Tantillo Philibert said.
The most notable impact of the new program will be a tool that will allow teachers to gauge the emotional well being of their class before instruction starts. As kids walk in, they will be asked to use a tool to check in on how they're feeling, be it sad, angry, tired or energized.
Teachers will get the results in real time, and the technology will assist the teacher in an activity to help kids get ready for class, Neris said. It'll also give teachers the ability to check in with certain students and offer training on how to help them.
The University of Chicago is helping to collect and analyze the data, they said.
"It's been thought of as a soft science. We're looking for data-driven decision making," Tantillo Philibert said.
Now is a particularly good time to retool the school's educational model to more closely examine kids' emotion needs, Neris said. There's the current levels of gun violence plaguing some city neighborhoods, including McKinley Park. There's also entrenched poverty and a political climate — especially the up-in-the-air status of residents known as Dreamers — that causes Hispanic kids great anxiety, she said.
Addressing those problems head-on, and in a constructive manner, could be what helps elevate students from those problems, Neris said.
"I always see a path forward," she said. "Because I feel in many ways I am these students. I'm what happens when you invest in their futures."
Namaste Charter School Principal Natalie Neris. [Namaste Charter School]