Wellness Wednesdays: How One Indy HS Addresses Students’ Social-Emotional Needs

Thrival Indy Academy is a public school that provides counseling and yoga not only for students, but for families and the community as well.

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While many studies prove the benefits of social and emotional learning for children, finding mental health support and wellness classes can be difficult for families who live in low-income areas. 

That’s why the founders of Thrival Indy Academy, a public high school on Indianapolis’s east side, decided to make this support an integral part of their school. Thrival offers students ready access to therapists, grief counseling, yoga and more. But school leaders knew that to maximize the impact, they would have to extend these services not only beyond the school day, but beyond serving students.

Thrival, which opened in fall 2020, now offers yoga classes and various types of counseling to families — and to anyone living nearby.

“A lot of people in this area don’t have fair or equal access to mental health care,” said Jessica Gordon, the school’s director of social and emotional learning. “We saw a problem and wanted to give a solution.” 

Thrival tries to “normalize mental health” by having “wellness Wednesdays” an entire day for students to take part in “self-discovery, self-love exercises,” said Gordon. While those days don’t include any academic work, students begin with a 30-minute mindful session where they do exercises that help them understand how to regulate their thoughts and emotions. Then, they gather in groups to learn about a wide range of topics including financial literacy, conflict resolution, robotics and college applications, she added. 

Thrival is an independently run school that uses city funds and is located within a city-owned building. It is an innovation school, meaning its leaders have more freedom to set the curricula and agenda for students’ days than a typical public school does. Attendance is free for Indianapolis residents. The school started with ninth grade and has been adding a grade each year; in spring 2024, it will graduate its first class of seniors. Right now, the school has about 100 students, with class sizes typically limited to about 15, said Principal Diamond Hunter. 

While Thrival was started with student mental health in mind, the idea to branch out to the community this year came from a brainstorming session, said Courtney Senousy, the school’s executive director. “When we put this together, we said, in a perfect world, what would we do based on the needs of kiddos?”

Because students spend only a fraction of their day in school, Gordon said, staff knew that “if we could target the entire family unit and not just the child, it was going to help everyone in the long run.” 

Funding for this effort comes from a $500,000 grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation and the state Family and Social Services Administration’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction. The money will cover the program until the end of the 2024 school year, said Senousy. 

Sherrie Raven, the director of social-emotional learning implementation for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), said she has not heard of any other schools that offer counseling to parents and community members.

She praised Thrival’s tiered approach to offering wraparound services, from regular SEL lessons to counseling, depending on students’ needs. Thrival has a “pretty innovative and creative model,” she added. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this” program in other schools, Senousy said. 

So far, it has been much easier to get students to sign up for counseling than to entice parents or neighbors, Gordon said. She estimated that about half of Thrival’s students have had some type of therapy outside of school. “Parents are quick to get their children signed up, but not as quick for themselves,” she said. 

Inside the school, parents or teachers can request a counseling session for students, and students can ask for one themselves. Most referrals have come from teachers who see a child disengaged or crying, Gordon said. The official referral process includes notifying parents. Gordon and one other therapist work in the school every day, providing weekly sessions that generally last 30 to 50 minutes.

“This generation normalizes mental health,” she said, adding that it is not difficult to get students to address their problems. “I’ve had students come in and say, ‘I have anxiety.’ They don’t have shame about having thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves.” 

“In the beginning, it was kind of taboo,” Hunter said, but the pandemic made many people more comfortable talking about mental health.

Gordon said the school also runs online and in-person individual and family therapy counseling, yoga and grief support sessions for parents and community members. People who participate virtually can leave their camera off if they desire. “Our hope is they eventually come in person,” she said, “but you can’t force this on anybody.”

In one case, a student suggested her mother could use therapy, and she signed up, Gordon said. In another example, a community member attended grief counseling and then brought along two other residents who had experienced similar circumstances.

“It’s a slow-moving process,” Gordon added. 

For the school’s teachers, said Gordon, early statistics indicate they are feeling less depression and anxiety. Faculty report a 25% increase in being able to teach effectively, she said. 

Early results from students are also positive. Students report a 69% decrease in suicidal thoughts, a 30% reduction in anger and a 40% increase in self-esteem. Gordon said she will continue gathering statistics every 30 days.

Raven said it typically takes three to five years for school reforms to show lasting results. But if Thrival is successful, she added, administrators should begin to see an increase in positive behaviors from students and a decrease in antisocial actions. Ultimately, the work should result in an increase in academic achievement, she said.

While this model might be too expensive to replicate exactly in other schools, she added, research shows that every dollar spent on social-emotional learning for students returns $11 to schools. This means it could be worthwhile for other schools to incorporate some version of Thrival’s program, she added. 

“We didn’t have these services” growing up, said Senousy. “There were things that were never addressed. That’s not normal. If we normalize the conversation about mental health, then we’re setting these students up for success the rest of their lives.” 

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