Six schools in the Hollister School District were recently recognized as national showcases for the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program. The schools receiving the honor are Sunnyslope Elementary School, the Accelerated Achievement Academy, Calaveras Elementary, Gabilan Hills Elementary, Hollister Dual Language Academy and Ladd Lane Elementary.
The school district began participating in Capturing Kids’ Hearts programming five years ago through the Flippen Group. This is the first year of recognition for the district.
Capturing Kids’ Hearts is “all about placing high importance on adults in schools creating a culture where children are cared for and deep relationships are formed,” said Hollister School District Superintendent Diego Ochoa.
To be considered for the award, schools go through a rigorous application process: 75% of the staff must receive training in Capturing Kids’ Hearts programming; also, there must be a demonstrated increase in student attendance and academic performance—and a decrease in office referrals.
“Practicing Capturing Kids’ Hearts is something you see, but more importantly it is something you feel,” said Sunnyslope Elementary Principal Joe Rivas, adding that office referrals have dropped 20% to 30% since implementing the program. “In the first round, there are hiccups, there are obstacles. It is really that feeling when you walk on campus and the kids are happy to be here.”
Through the program, teachers are encouraged to greet students every day at the start of class with a smile, high-five, side hug, fist bump or joke.
“It is a real physical, obvious gesture that [says] ‘welcome to my classroom, you are a part of this team,’” said Ladd Lane Principal Jeannine Ostoja, who credits Capturing Kids’ Hearts with giving staff the skills to build positive relationships with students. “To walk around in the morning when the bell rings and see every teacher doing that is so awesome. Then you are sure no student gets under the radar.”
Ken Woods, principal of Calaveras Elementary School, also spoke on the importance of greeting students at the door before class.
“When you are greeting them you are saying hello, but you are also doing a quick once-over to check on their emotional state and make sure they are okay. It lets you gauge how your students are doing,” he said.
Once in the classroom, teachers and students spend the first few moments sharing the positives taking place in their lives. Affirmations are woven into daily activities at Sunnyslope. During the morning announcements, Rivas ends the broadcast by saying “I believe in you, your teachers believe in you, and together we can do anything.” The children say it aloud with him.
“At the end of each day, the kids get sent off by their teachers with a launch: ‘You are important,’ ‘you matter,’ or an inspiring quote,” Rivas said.
Another key aspect of the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program is creating social contracts.
“That is basically, rules of how we are going to treat each other,” Woods said. “There are a couple of questions you are answering when you make one. How do you want to be treated by me? How do you want to treat each other? How do you think I want to be treated by you?” These questions are answered with one-word responses, which are then posted as a visual reminder for the remainder of the school year.
Social contracts are not just for the classroom, either. Staff make social contracts as well, which are referred to throughout the year during staff meetings. Ostoja explained why having a social contract for the staff is important.
“When we get under stress sometimes, we do not follow that social contract,” she said. “To be able to refer to it, go into a meeting that you know is going to be an intense meeting, first review the social contract. I have found it most useful in situations that are a little trickier, a little more intense.”
The social contracts, greetings, sharing and positive affirmations work toward creating a culture of community in both staff and students. Monique Ruiz, principal of Gabilan Hills Elementary and the Hollister Dual Language Academy, said she saw the connections between grade-level teams “grow and grow.”
“The change has been academic, but also social. That is what community is,” Ruiz said.
Woods spoke on how that social change has affected Calaveras.
“We are a team now, and I don’t feel like we were a team when we first started,” he said. “We are a team that cares about each other, cares about our students and cares about the work we do together. That really sets our school apart when you have that bond and that connection to each other, and the work we are doing.”
Rivas believes that “when you do not know somebody, you are more inclined to be rude, to make a judgment about them.
“But, when you get to know somebody, even if you are not friends, you are less likely to be rude or do something mean,” he said. “You care about them. It develops a sense of empathy. Which in kids under the age of 10—because their brain is not fully developed—to have empathy is a very difficult thing to achieve.”
Relationships play an important role when it comes to disciplining students and addressing the root of a problem. Ruiz said there is a choice between “punishment mentality versus developing the spirit of that child. Find out what is going on with that kid. Why are they acting that way? What can we do to support that child?
“The thing about Capturing Kids’ Hearts and any program that truly transforms kids is, you have to invest in them, and it takes time to do that,” Ruiz said. “Lord knows we don’t always have time to do that, but you have to stop, you have to extend your mind and say ‘okay I am going to go back and do this because this kid is valuable and we care about them.’”
While the traditional school year was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in the district are using strategies from Capturing Kids’ Hearts in their online classes. Ochoa believes that the relationships formed and facilitated prior to the school closures have led to a smoother transition and higher participation rate among students. He said it was because students know that “teachers are interested in them as people.”
“They are interested in the personal aspect of each child,” Ochoa said. “What we have seen is the depth of those relationships transfer over from when it was face to face. We have kids letting our teachers know that there are issues that are going on in the house, and we are then able to provide support to those families.”
Looking at next school year, Rivas stressed the value in continuing with Capturing Kids’ Hearts practices.
“Now more than ever when the kids come back, they are going to need to feel loved, they are going to need a place that they feel safe,” he said. “This is where they can be loved unconditionally. My goal, when we come back, is to make sure the teachers have the ‘good things’ time in the morning where the students can share. We need to give them a way to express themselves and give them that emotional safety. This is a place you can come, have your breakfast, learn and be emotionally safe.”
Woods said his staff is going to “keep going forward, keep refining, and getting better.”
“We want to keep getting better so that we can better serve our kids, our community and each other. This is one of the best ways we can serve our students and create a space they can learn in,” he said.
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