PPS wellness forums give parents and students opportunity for open discussion

graphic: Annie Kim, Aileen Wu

graphic: Annie Kim, Aileen Wu

“How do we get our students to graduate happy?” This is the first question the Board of Education asked Stephen Cochrane in an interview when he first became a potential candidate for the Superintendent position.

Cochrane, who has been superintendent for less than a year, has already teamed up with Guidance Supervisor Angela Siso to create the Wellness Committee, a group devoted to figuring out all possible ways to increase the well-being of the student body. The committee is comprised of teachers, nurses, counselors, and principals from each of the six Princeton Public Schools. The goal of creating public wellness forums is to encourage conversation about student health and well-being within the community and eventually to use the information gathered to make changes within the school system.

The Wellness Committee was formed last spring at the suggestion of Cochrane in collaboration with the guidance department. “The committee was created to start to gather data and to try to pick out useful information so we could put some kind of an action plan [for student wellness] together,” said Wellness Committee member and PHS guidance counselor Sonia Moticha.

graphic: Isabel Monseau

graphic: Isabel Monseau

The committee first aimed to hold a broad community forum, which happened last June. “We had students there; we invited parents, and community members … We broke up into small groups and talked about the issues that are affecting students in our community,” said Cochrane.

From this June meeting, the committee identified core topics important to the community. “A few themes came out, and our focus groups are an attempt to get more insight about these four most commonly discussed themes: drugs and alcohol, diversity and differences, nutrition and fitness, and stress and balance,” said Cochrane.

The first three focus groups took place on the evenings of October 29, November 12, and November 19, each with a focus on one of the four major topics. The meetings each had two different sessions, one at 2 p.m. for students and one at 7 p.m. for parents, as well as for teachers, interested community members, and students. The final focus group, on the topics of stress, balance, and success, will be on December 3 in the Fagles Resource Center for the earlier session and at the John Witherspoon Middle School cafeteria for the later one.

Anyone in the Princeton Public Schools district was and is welcome to attend these forums. According to Cochrane, the final objective is for everyone’s opinions to be heard and taken into consideration. All comments are meant to serve as reference points in deciding how to ameliorate each issue discussed at the focus groups. “We are creating recommendations for the end of the school year to our board as … a comprehensive K-through-12 wellness plan,” said Siso.

Attendees of the student forum such as Olivia Anderson ’16 felt the group created a comfortable environment that invited participants to share their honest opinions. “It’s easier to talk about drugs and alcohol with the administration and guidance there than it is to talk about it with your parents … There is less risk and it [isn’t] as uncomfortable of a conversation because they [are] so understanding of the topic,” she said.

The forum in October focused on drugs and alcohol as the central topic. From there, the conversations were mostly based upon how students with problems in the subject could get help and how the parents could communicate with their children in a more effective way. The experts that spoke at the forum were Gwen Kimsal, a member of the PHS Student Advisory Committee, and Jacqueline Schreiber, a member of the prevention staff at Corner House. “We talked about trends that we’re seeing with the population we work with, about the kinds of things that kids are doing and kinds of things that our parents are concerned about. We addressed … statistics, and we also talked about parenting,” said Kimsal.

Many of those who attended the forum considered it a success. “It went really well,” said Moticha after the first forum on October 29. “Being a part of one of the smaller break-out groups, it was really great dialogue, and … within my group … we really had a lot of good information from the parents. We had a better understanding of their concerns, as well as what they think is going well.”

Parents who attended the forum were also very satisfied with organization of the forum. “There were people from different areas talking about different aspects of alcohol and drugs. It was very interesting, very well-organized,” said PPS parent Hadas Davidov, who attended the first forum.

“There was an introduction, and we heard some facts about the situation in Princeton and around. I also think that it was good that parents had an opportunity to voice their opinions and bring suggestions to the table as to what can be done. So … it’s a good start,” said PPS parent Riva Levy.

However, a common concern was the small attendance of the wellness forums. With only 40 parents at the October 29 night forum, the forum fell short of its potential.

“[The forum] could be very effective, but when people don’t show up, it’s hard to know if it has any effect at all,” said Davidov.

With great enthusiasm, parents who have attended the forums urge more members of the community to come to the final forum on December 3. “I’m hoping that more students and more parents will participate so we can really talk about what it means to have schools that are functioning in ways that promote health and wellness, and in the long term, promote success of students,” said PPS parent Jess Deutsch, who also wrote an article in the local newspaper Town Topics about the first forum.

Looking forward, students such as Shihan Yu ’15, who attended the meeting in June, also see the focus groups’ potential for an impact on the school district. “The wellness initiative itself is to benefit students overall, and with the help of students … they’re going to make some great changes,” he said.

After the final forum in December, Cochrane believes that the Wellness Committee still has much to do to continue improving students’ wellbeing. The ultimate goal is to make a more open community where parents, students, and staff can openly share their concerns. “We’re not going to put into place something in year one that solves every problem,” he said. “We need to work on creating a culture where there is an ongoing dialogue about issues and where people feel comfortable sharing their concerns and their hopes moving forward.”

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