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Social-Emotional Learning Academy helps students learn to manage their mental health

Herald & Review - 4/15/2024

Apr. 15—DECATUR — Bailey is the most popular "student" at the Social-Emotional Learning Academy.

The goldendoodle belongs to Principal Jessica Ellison, and while Bailey isn't officially trained to be a comfort or therapy dog, she's a natural and loves to come to school with her mistress and play with kids all day long.

"It teaches them responsibility and empathy," Ellison said while watching Bailey run and play with children in the school's courtyard.

Students enjoy getting down on the floor with Bailey to read to her, do math with her, or just sit with her, and for kids who are learning constructive ways to cope with their own problems, a big, furry friend is exactly the right prescription.

The K-12 alternative school operated by the Macon-Piatt Special Education District on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Garfield Avenue is for students with mental illness, trauma or behavioral challenges, who have an individualized learning plan (IEP), and have been having difficulty thriving in a regular education setting. The student's team — which includes parents and Decatur Public Schools staff both from the home school and from the academy — decides if placement at SELA would benefit the student. When a student reaches their goals, they can return to their regular school.

Ellison said students are first guided by staff, but gradually learn to recognize their own needs and advocate for themselves. For example, if a student needs a break to leave the class or take a walk around the school to get calmer, teachers will excuse them, but eventually the students learn to recognize when they need that break and ask.

And when their need to leave class diminishes and they're spending more time in the classroom with better behavior than they are out of it, they are approaching the time when they can return to regular school. Staff gives them cards that say "I need a break" to take with them if they're uneasy about asking aloud, and the staff at their regular school is aware that the student might need to use those cards.

Some students, however, prefer to stay at SELA. At the high school level, the student can request that.

"I feel comfortable here," said sophomore Dashon Austin, who began a small business at the school with friends Travion Perkins and Tyrene Green. Every Thursday, the boys take orders from staff and on Fridays, deliver coffee, hot chocolate or tea. The money they make goes into restocking supplies, and profit is saved up for things like lunches out or a field trip. They label each cup with the recipient's name and an inspiring quotation.

Dashon was moved back to his regular school, but asked to come back to the Social-Emotional Learning Academy. He said he fits in better there and wants to stay until he graduates.

It's the same for Tyrene, a freshman. "I get my work done," he said. "The teachers help you."

And for TreVann Allen, a third-grader, the small classes and individual attention has helped him to finally learn a skill that eluded him before.

"I know how to read and I like to earn stars," he said, and he said it more than once.

Second grader Jayden Pry enjoys doing homework now and he didn't before, he said.

And fifth grader Brody Roberts is looking forward to showing off his artwork at the family fun night on Tuesday, when students will host an art show to give their parents a peek at one of the positive activities they do at school.

Every teacher at the school is there because he or she wants to be, said the boys' teacher, Jennifer Panganiban.

"I was really missing kids and this is an awesome place," Panganiban said. "The culture is great, the community is great, everybody chooses to be here. I think that makes such a difference in a school. I love the kids. I love the program. Everybody works really well together."

For Annie Brahler, she did not picture herself teaching in an alternative program. She did her student teaching at SELA when it was in its former location. She lives in Springfield and did not intend to work in Decatur at all, but "fell in love" with the program. She's been at the school for six years now and continues to drive from her Springfield home every day because she's committed to it, she said.

"I enjoy working in the small school environment," she said. "I love working with the kids on their social-emotional skills and incorporating it into their learning. A ton of reasons, really. I fell in love with the relationships we get to build with the kids in this one-on-one environment and seeing them develop those skills and the academic growth.


Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter


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