Whole Child Alabama, the Tuscaloosa County School System, and student-athletes from the Department of Athletics came together for a special training event at The University of Alabama Student Center.

On Feb. 27, groups of TCSS students from Whole Child Alabama’s cohort schools received youth leadership training and had the chance to learn from and collaborate with UA athletes. This partnership will not only benefit both parties, but it is likely the first of its kind within the Whole Child initiative.

“Our UA athletes are trained to benefit the world by developing love inside themselves, caring about others, and serving,” said Dr. Benner, UA Helen and Pat O’Sullivan professor of special education and implementation science. “That’s what a servant leader does … learn to be a great leader through service. So, our youth will learn that, and our UA athletes have already learned that.”

Benner developed the Whole Child model and brought it to Tuscaloosa after it saw great success in schools in Tacoma, Washington. The city saw its student graduation numbers climb as well as an improvement in students’ mental health after implementing the Whole Child Framework and incorporating social and emotional learning techniques.

The mission behind the approach is to create “sustainable change in schools and communities so every child is whole – healthy, safe, challenged, supported, and engaged,” according to the Whole Child Alabama website.

A total of five youth leadership teams, one from each of the initiative’s cohort schools, attended the training event. Those TCSS schools include Buhl, Englewood, Matthews, Maxwell, and TCSS Academy. The schools selected 10-12 students to lead their teams, which then examined the school’s implementation of foundational Whole Child guidelines and goals and voted on how well it is accomplishing these goals.

Benner said he was eager to hear the great ideas and proposals the students will bring forward “to make their schools more positive and healthy.”

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, what we’ve been hearing from youth is ‘We would like to be part of the solution,’ and by that what they’re saying is ‘We want to lead the charge. … We want to be the ones making things happen,’ so I feel we want to honor that,” Benner said.

The goal is for these youth leadership teams to function similarly to the Whole Child adult leadership teams already established at some TCSS schools. These teams give students, teachers, and staff opportunities to speak up and inspire change from inside the schools.

The event also helped familiarize the students with the Whole Child School Implementation Guide and educated them on their new responsibilities as youth leaders.

TCSS students on the teams received the same leadership training as the adults, helping the students learn to collaborate to bring forth change and to foster a healthy environment inside their schools, Benner said.

UA student-athletes were assigned to each leadership team to offer them support as they created improvement plans for their schools based on the quality assessments and votes.

“We are so excited for this partnership with our UA athletic association,” TCSS and UA Whole Child Implementation Specialist Brandi Shanklin said. “We have 16 student-athletes who have volunteered to serve as mentors to our youth in TCSS.  As far as we know, there is no other system doing something like this as a part of Whole Child implementation.”

The concept for these youth leadership groups evolved from a dialogue the initiative had with students in 2021.

“Students wanted to know, ‘How do we keep this going?’ ” Shanklin said. “From there, we knew we must ensure that our students’ voices are included in implementation of Whole Child in their schools; they are the future.”

A “Warm Welcome” was held for the TCSS youth leadership team members as they arrived the morning of the training event. The public was invited to the UA Student Center – where Big Al and several UA student groups would also be – to come support and cheer on the students on Feb. 27.

“Warm Welcomes” are already implemented in the TCSS schools embracing the Whole Child approach. The intention is for “every child in their schools to be warmly welcomed by at least four different people every morning,” Benner said.

Whole Child Alabama hopes to recruit even more TCSS schools and will be hosting a summer retreat for its cohort schools at the Bryant Conference Center in July.

“UA and TCSS have a shared desire to address the need to increase academic excellence, school climate, attendance, and social and emotional learning competence in (the) Tuscaloosa County School System,” Shanklin said. “The parties believe that TCSS Whole Child offers a roadmap for transformation that leads to student success.”

The training and resources given to teachers and staff members as the schools implement the Whole Child method helps guide them toward creating the ideal environment to inspire excellence in their students.

Shanklin said “by creating warm and welcoming environments, providing opportunities for community-building within the classroom, and leading educators in exploring less punitive forms of discipline,” the schools teach their students vital lessons in managing themselves and building relationships.

TCSS-Whole Child schools have already reported improved communication of expectations inside the schools, Shanklin said, as well as a decline in the amount of disciplinary office referrals from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022.

This framework can help steer students, who might otherwise be making poor decisions for their futures, in the right direction, Benner said.

“They want to be leaders, but they’re not given opportunities to lead for good,” he said. “So, we’re confident, too, there are kids who are natural leaders, who through this approach will blossom as a leader as opposed to going down a path where they are leading, but for negative things.”

To learn more about Whole Child Alabama, visit whole-child.ua.edu.