School pilots new space for mental health

Center aims to address students’ well-being


Renee Owens

English teacher Carl Ponzio leads a community circle during tutorial in April. Ponzio advocates student wellness in his classroom.

Julianne Alvares , Co-Editor-in-Chief

As part of a districtwide push to prioritize student mental health, Branham is piloting a Wellness Center dedicated to supporting students’ mental health. Social worker Kevin Nguyen heads the center, which was piloted the district to help
better understand the needs of students.

As part of their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) the CHUSD board created four goals, one of which is developing a school climate that a student’s “promotes physical and emotional well-being” is one of their four goals. The district has also partnered with the from the California-based agency Uplift and to provide additional counseling services.

Branham is the first school in the district to have a dedicated wellness center. In addition to counseling and health services, the center also features a “mindful meditation” space for students to relax. This space would be a quiet room for students to relax and “decompress”. He also adds that students are always welcome to relax on couches in the Wellness Center. Later in the year workshops and discussion nights will be held in the center to help educate parents and others about how to help care for their students who may be struggling. Workshops will also be held to give students resources and strategies.

Changing the climate of the classroom

The CDC outlines a School Health Index that measures how well schools are helping students well-being. The index consists of 10 components, including health education, school health services, school counseling and social

The health, physical, and nutritional education and services are covered with
physical education and school lunches. Nguyen plans to help to institute programs to help with social and emotional climate as well with staff wellness and community/family engagement. He said that he also wants to help create a better climate.
“I want it to be a space for families to create this culture on campus,” Nguyen said. “That’s what I see my role is: On the
one hand serving students who are here, but also serving their family and connecting them to the larger community.”

He also aims to organize professional development days centered around addressing the needs of different students such as teaching students with trauma and how to not trigger them.
Nguyen’s personal focus on wellness is focusing on the eight sections of wellness: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, environmental, social and occupational.

“The idea is to keep them balanced and recognize where you are in each of these spaces,” he said. “The emotional or social, that feeling of connectives, which are the main ones that I want now for
this campus, creating that culture.”

“Culture is everything”

English teacher Carl Ponzio aims to create a safe place for students to express themselves. This type of space, he believes, helps to create a better dialogue between students and staff which helps staff better support them.

“Classroom culture is everything,” Ponzio said. “If your classroom is not inviting and students don’t necessarily
know if that they have a safe place to go or feel comfortable with a teacher then they might not be as willing to open up.”

In the first two weeks of school Ponzio’s class established guidelines and getting to know each other. Ponzio shares stories about himself in this period and says that being vulnerable in front of his
students helps create a good classroom environment. He stresses the importance of teacher involvement in student success and wellness.
“We have to make sure as staff members that we are going out of our way to be really inviting and establish relationships with our kids,” he said. “That way we can listen to them.”

The culture of wellness not only exists at district and school levels students are also making efforts to improve culture and a sense of belonging on campus.

“Everyone’s worth something”

Junior Nikka Meguerditchian is working with Ponzio and Nguyen to start a mental health awareness club that, in addition to educating students about mental illness and providing support, aims to help students who are struggling to feel less isolated.

“My goal is for the students who feel unwanted to feel wanted and for them to have a purpose,” she said. “I want students to be more involved with one another.”

Meguerditchian is not alone in her goalto help students who may be struggling with mental illness. Nguyen notes that students come to him wanting to be involved to make Branham a better place.

“I love that students are so adamant and serious,” he said. They want to make a change about mental health. There are
so many students that have come up to me just wanting to know what they can do. They’re very curious and excited about the prospect of a wellness center.”

Nguyen plans to host support groups, yoga and meditation seminars before school, along with community activities
such as game night. Meguerditchian wants a “mental health buddy” program where students are encouraged to check
in on students who may be going through a tough time. Her goal ultimately is to make everyone feel important and welcome.

“I don’t want others to feel useless or like they’re not worth anything,” she said “Everyone’s worth something.”