Beyond the Books: Placing More Emphasis on Student Wellness


Photo Illustration by Ryan Albert, Jenny Li and Spencer Klink

Kendall Dees

“I geek out over all of this.”

Interdisciplinary Studies and Independent Research Teacher and Counselor Michelle Bracken smiled as she reached above her desk to find a three inch binder given to her by the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning.

“Imagine a world where in Kindergarten you learn about how to solve problems and you are playing games and you don’t really know you are learning it,” Bracken said. “By third grade, you have developed words like the ‘growth mindset’. All of a sudden, by the time you are in high school, it is second nature to be like, ‘Okay, we are having an open session, let’s write down the questions and talk about it.’ Wouldn’t that be great? That’s the kind of world I am dreaming of.”

This year, Bracken transitioned from her previous position as Assistant Head of Upper School to a role in which she can focus more on counselling and teaching. In addition, Tina McGraw ’01 joined the school as the Head of Peer Support and Psychology Teacher.

Over the summer, Bracken visited the Nueva School in Northern California, along with McGraw, Head of Upper School Laura Ross and Athletics Director Darlene Bible, to attend a conference on the topic of social and emotional learning hosted by the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning.

Currently, students have access to Bracken, McGraw and Upper School Psychologist Dr. Sophie Wasson if they are in need of counselling support that stretches beyond the abilities of their deans or teachers.

“We have 800 kids here, and what we had just wasn’t sufficient over the last several years,” Bracken said. “It was clear that we needed more support in that way.”
In regards to the learning support available to students, Learning Resource Specialist Grace Brown will now be the primary resource to provide help to students on campus, as her responsibilities at the Middle School will now be covered by Learning Resource Specialist Jennifer Gabrail. In addition, Brown will be assisted by English Teacher Jenna Gasparino to provide writing support.

“Now I feel so great about the things that I can’t handle, because I’m not trained, when it’s more severe,” Upper School Dean Beth Slattery said. “I can go to people who I know are going to get kids the help they need.”


Three years ago, as a result of an initiative taken by Upper School Dean Sharon Cuseo, Upper School Dean of Students Jordan Church and Bracken to redesign the Choices and Challenges curriculum, a subset of dean groups launched a trial for a new sophomore Life Lab class. The class is modeled to address issues relevant to Harvard-Westlake students and is aimed at developing social and emotional learning skills.

In the place of separate Choices and Challenges classes and sophomore class meetings, Life Lab classes will be taught twice a week by a team made up of a dean accompanied by a former Choices and Challenges teacher.

“There was overlap and there was repetition between sophomore class meeting and Choices and Challenges,” Upper School Dean Sharon Cuseo said. “Here was an opportunity for two periods with sophomores for a more consistent message.”

In the process of designing the Life Lab curriculum, the school invited Pria Singhvi, Upper School Counsellor and Wellness Educator at the Green Hill School in Dallas, Texas, to teach tools and exercises to faculty that will hopefully help students lead a more balanced existence, Cuseo said.

“One of the ways that we want to start the class is to look at the costs and benefits of being a Harvard-Westlake Student,” Cuseo said. “We all know there are many benefits and there are many costs, and we want to talk about those and we want to talk about ways to mitigate those and have you be your best self and live your best life.”

In addition to adult resources on campus, Peer Support offers students another space to seek support and grow emotionally among fellow teenagers.

“We rely heavily on Peer Support for referrals of kids,” Slattery said. “I think sometimes kids think we know things that we don’t know. They assume that we are aware if a kid has been losing a lot of weight. I don’t always notice that. If a kid’s been absent a lot, I don’t always track that they’re missing a lot of school, so we really rely on other kids to help tell us when we ought to be paying attention to somebody.”

Mediated by student leaders, weekly Peer Support meetings provide students with a safe space in which they can discuss any issues or stress present in their lives. Peer Support Leader Kat Swander ‘19 described looking forward every week to the two hours that she could spend on a Monday night free from the academic stress and pressure that she considers to be omnipresent on campus.

“Pressure to succeed—whether that comes from yourself, your classmates or your family—I feel like everyone has that pressure, wherever that comes from, and that is the stress at Harvard-Westlake that I think of,” Swander said.

Since sophomore year, Swander has viewed the Monday night commitment not as an obligation, but as a chance to let go and to connect with her peers on a more human and open level, she said.

“We are teenagers in high school that obviously need some type of care,” Swander said. “It is important to be cognizant of the fact that we are people, not just students. Student wellness in Peer Support helps us grow as people, rather than just stick to the academic plan.”

Last spring, students participated in the Challenge Success Survey conducted by the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University in order to produce data on their overall experience at Harvard Westlake.

The current goal of the administration, after viewing the results of the survey, is to bring the levels of effective and cognitive engagement as high as those reported of behavioral engagement, Commons said.

“I’m just excited about the fact that we might be able to move the needle in helping kids enjoy their experience here,” Slattery said. “Kids have always appreciated this experience, but enjoying school, especially for the kids that come here, who are predisposed to enjoying school, so I love the idea that we can get them to keep doing that.”

The administration is exploring ways that time in the school day can be used most effectively to minimize student stress, Slattery said.

The Upper School Scheduling Committee is responsible for the late starts that will be trialed twice this year and for possibly proposing a new daily schedule for the fall of 2020.

“Right now, the schedule that we have does not align with research showing how kids learn best—too many transitions, too many kids moving from one place to another,” Slattery said. “In addition, because class meets every every single day, it means you have homework from every class every single day, and that can be really complicated.”

Although the administration is clearly demonstrating a desire to reduce student stress and to focus more on student wellness, Commons made it clear that that does not come with any intention to sacrifice rigor or success.

“We don’t want to be any less excellent, and we’re not trying to water down the nature of this experience,” Commons said.

The tension between excellence and joy will always be present, Commons said.

However, he wishes to maintain the academic rigor of the school while also decreasing stress, he said.
“Rigor and excellence and that stuff all matters deeply to all of us, but we never want that to be at the expense of kids, and now it finally feels like we’re doing them at the same time,” Slattery said.