The Putnam Examiner

Mahopac Schools Teach ‘Life’ Beyond Academia

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A well-rounded student is often considered to have an overall understanding of the world, along with the ability to write well and calculate. But students who haven’t grasped basic life skills – such as managing their time, being organized or knowing how to care for their social and emotional well-being – may face challenges with entering adulthood.

This is largely why the Mahopac Central School District has created a required course for middle school sixth-graders and high school freshman that focuses on helping students build and master skills for holistic success in and outside the classroom.

The sixth-grade and freshman classes were selected to participate in this credited course because they are in transition to a higher level of learning with a new (larger) school and culture. The goal of this “skills” course is to prepare each student for college and career readiness, and to educate all students to be responsible and productive members of the community.

The need for preparing students beyond academics is not unique to Mahopac. Recently, the Pew Research Center released an analysis of Census Bureau data revealing findings that most Americans say parents are doing too much for their young adult children.

“We believe incorporating real-life learning for our middle school sixth-graders and high school freshmen will help set them up for success and overall independence in school and beyond,” said Anthony DiCarlo, superintendent of Mahopac Schools.

Mahopac High School Life

Led by Assistant Principal April Ljumic, the Mahopac High School Life curriculum creation was a collaborative effort of the High School Climate Committee, in addition to feedback from a consortium of stakeholders including students, teachers, teacher leaders, clinicians, counselors and administrators. It is rooted in the high school’s core values (risk-taking, compassion, resilience and problem-solving) and the STRIVE initiative, which stands for Be Safe, Take Responsibility, Be Respectful, Act with Integrity and Value Excellence.

“This is designed to be a high-impact, low-stress class,” said Ljumic.

The goal is to introduce freshmen to the expectations and rigor of high school life and beyond, including activities and conversations centered on boosting social, emotional, non-cognitive, executive functioning and academic skills growth.

With tactics such as social media education, digital citizenship, meditation, practicing a growth mindset, and civic responsibility, the class structure varies forms of introspection work, small groups activities, guest speakers and project-based learning.

“The organization of MHS Life provides the opportunity for high school resources that are important for freshmen to get to know, such as counselors, clinicians, and our SRO (school resource officer), to give instruction in a small student setting,” said Principal Dr. Matthew Lawrence.

Perhaps the most poignant component to the class is the student self-reflection and teacher-student check-in/check-out. Students complete an individual self-reflection, which allows their MHS LIFE teachers to get a pulse on how students are doing socially, emotionally and academically.

“We’ve been blown away by the honesty and openness of the students’ self-reflections, and it has really made a positive effect on how we can effectively support them to meet their individual goals and the MHS LIFE curriculum therein,” said Ljumic

On any given school day, you’ll find no two MHS Life lessons are alike. For instance, algebra teacher Kelley Posch begins her class with a guided meditation that leads to a discussion about the growth mindset principle. The class does an exercise of matching famous people who have learned from failures and risen to success.

Some of her examples include Walt Disney, who was fired from a newspaper for “lacking imagination,” and “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling, who was rejected by 12 publishers for her first book. The students then share their learnings via a shared virtual Google classroom with fifth-graders at Austin Road Elementary School.

Down the hall, history teacher Christine Honohan leads a discussion about effective study techniques. Upstairs, English teacher Amy Mahoney and physical education teacher Dominic DeMatteo have combined classes and are discussing paradigm shifts.

Mahopac Middle School Success

Like MHS Life, the middle school curriculum, MMS Success, emphasizes strategies for personal growth and development to help sixth-graders figure out their place as good citizens in their community, and the world. The half-credit MMS Success classes are comprised of four components – technology, organization, character building/social and emotional wellness, and middle school logistics/safety.

“Middle school is a big change for sixth-grade students, no matter where they are academically,” said Principal Tom Cozzocrea. “Some students are adept in coursework but lacking the skills of navigating life as a new middle-schooler.”

With full class discussions, small groups and individual reflections submitted via Google Classroom, teachers work with students on learning and understanding different learning styles. From there, students can self-identify what type of learner they are and establish the study habits and time management techniques that work best for them.

Teachers then weave in strategies for students to explore, such as note-taking methods, establishing a study routine to accommodate their busy schedules, and how to access help for emotional self-care.

Digital citizenship is another major focus for MMS Success.

“We see a big disparity among sixth-graders on this issue,” said Cozzocrea. “Some sixth-grade students have had a cellphone for a while and are very adept with social media, and others do not yet have a phone. Our goal is for MMS Success to help build a foundation for our students with responsible digital citizenship for years to come.”

As these freshmen and sixth-graders continue their education at Mahopac, it will be interesting to follow their progress.

“Something magical is going on here,” said Ljumic.

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