School Board halts Mindfulness Program in Richmond schools
on September 22, 2019
The West Contra Costa County School Board voted 3-2 against renewing its contract with Mindful Life Project, a local non-profit organization that teaches mindfulness practices to children in the district. More than a dozen community members, including elementary school students, teachers and parents, showed up at the board’s meeting on Wednesday to advocate for the continuation of the program.
Founded by JG Larochette in 2012, the Mindful Life Project aims to “empower underserved children through mindfulness and other transformative skills to gain self-awareness, confidence, self-regulation and resilience.”
Supporters of the program said that the program is research-based and has empirical evidence showing that children are benefiting from it. Many urged the board to bring it back to classrooms as soon as possible. Multiple elementary school students shared their experience dealing with anger, stress and sometimes bullying through mindfulness practices taught by instructors.
LaReese Stitts-Hunt said that after her first-born child was murdered one day before his seventh birthday, her second son, now 14-years-old, benefited from the program while she was not able to offer him the help he needed.
“He got what he needed from Mindful Life, from the instructors, from the love that carried over through all the things you saw here,” she said. “He got that through the instructors, that translated to the teachers, that translated to the administrators, and trickled over to me, the parent.”
For the school year of 2018-19, the program partnered with 22 school sites, while the upcoming school year of 2019-20 had only eight confirmed contracts with schools pending the district’s approval. Board member Mister Phillips expressed concern over the decrease in the number of school partners and asked the district to look into reasons behind the 14 schools’ decision to discontinue mindfulness program in classrooms.
Martine Blake, WCCUSD’s Director of Community Engagement, introduced the concept of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), along with a set of requirements for partner school sites that would adopt the SEL curriculum. While most board members agreed with the SEL framework, which Superintendent Matthew Duffy said was “the next best thing” in the absence of a clear definition of mindfulness, their opinions varied on standards required for all mindfulness partners contained in a working draft.
Board member Valerie Cuevas said that she has high expectations for the program and emphasized the need for specific training required for people to become mindfulness instructors, urging Mindful Life to make sure their educators have certification and that there is third-party evaluation system in place. Some of the proponents of the program mentioned dealing with trauma through mindfulness practices. However, Cuevas pointed out that could become a liability issue for the board.
“I can go into your program right now and say I’m a mindfulness instructor and probably still be able to do some of the benefit,” she said, “because at the end of the day, some of it has to do with just an adult being in a child’s life and making a connection with them.”
Board member Consuelo Lara said that, while the supporters’ testimony is important and valid, there needs to be formalized training for mindfulness practitioners, because the children are the most vulnerable and unprofessional intervention could lead to re-traumatization.
Larochette said that he received his certification from Mindfulness Schools, an Emeryville organization that says it “has trained over 50,000 educators, parents and mental health professionals,” according to its website. Larochette did a one-year fellowship there, but said he did not graduate when he realized youth in Richmond needed their own curriculum.
Larochette told the board that he has documentation proving that all instructors have received 80 hours of training to get their certification, which Community Engagement Director Blake later said that the district staff have not received. Larochette said, as a former WCCCUSD employee for 11 years, he agreed with Cuevas’ view on setting up clearer standards but felt that Mindful Life Project is being held to a different set of criteria than other district partners.
“I don’t necessarily think that that means you’ve been singled out. I think that this is an opportunity, a challenge,” Cuevas said. “What would mindfulness say about this opportunity? It’s an opportunity to figure out how we are going to work through this together.”
Board member Stephanie Hernandez-Jarvis and Tom Panas voted in favor of continuing the contracts with Mindful Life Project. Hernandez-Jarvis said that while she agrees with the need for high expectations and independent third-party evaluation for the certification process, taking away the mindfulness service at schools right now would create “a bigger void.”
“We don’t just halt the program because we are working towards it. We continue to improve it. And we don’t put down programs that have worked for school consistently,” she said. “I’ve taught. I’ve done this. I’ve been in education almost ten years. And I can see when there’s not a SEL curriculum, when there’s not mindfulness, it has a direct impact on the learning, on the teaching,” she added.
Another major item on Wednesday’s meeting agenda was the district’s school year budget, which could impact the board’s decision on whether to approve Mindful Life Project’s proposed budget of $66,000. Panas clarified that that budget would be school site money that falls under the jurisdiction of School Site Council (SSC) and does not have an impact on the district’s overall budget.
Photograph by Edward Booth.
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