MLES begins school year with focus on mental health

By WILLIAM MARLOW / Special to the Reporter

MT LAUREL — The first full week of classes for Shelby County Schools began on Monday, Aug. 16, and for students at Mt Laurel Elementary School, much of the week has been spent developing relationships with classmates and teachers and preparing for the new school year.

“Everybody’s been happy so far to be back, and we’ve been rocking and rolling since the first day of school,” Principal Celita Carmichael said. “This week and into the next few weeks is all about building relationships and really getting to know the students and making them just have a positive experience.”

Students ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade had classes at the school this week, with teachers welcoming students and going over classroom routines.

However, Carmichael said back-to-school preparations extend far beyond class orientation, adding that she and her administrative staff spend much of the summer meeting with various teams and committees in anticipation for a new school year.

“My administrative office staff works all summer and I’m very fortunate to have a continuous school improvement team and grade-level chairs that also helps us prepare when we get to that point,” she said. “Several heads are better than one, and that way, we’re able to look at preparation from every angle.”

A staggered starting schedule was implemented as part of the SCS reopening plan, due to school occupancy constraints relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Students having a last name starting with A-J starting on Thursday, Aug. 12 while students with a last name starting with K-Z will begin classes on Friday, Aug. 13.

However, all in-person students returned to campus on Monday, Aug. 16. As part of the SCS reopening plan, the school is also adopting additional COVID-19 safety protocols such as optional masking and frequent hand-washing.

Mental health is also a focus of student wellbeing this school year, Carmichael said, largely in part due to the pandemic.

“This has been something that we have focused on this year. Together, as a faculty we’re doing this. We started to have a focus on this last year as well, but with COVID, we’re really able to implement more of it,” she said. We are just really honing in on students’ needs ,and learning how to understand what our students go through.”

As part of the initiative, students can share weekly check-ins with teachers on private bulletin boards in class.

“It could be simply as ‘I’m not good today’ or ‘I’m doing great’, however they are feeling, but this is conducted completely private so students can express themselves comfortably. We feel it has really been a big help,” she said.

Carmichael said she learned of the initiative after attending a conference in July hosted by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

“We had several excellent speakers, with much of the conversations evolving around emotional poverty and relationships,” she said. “Emotional poverty can span across demographics,  especially after everything that has happened with COVID.”

Due to the stress of the pandemic, the initiative was also eventually extended to include the school’s faculty and staff.

“Students feed off their teachers and knowing when they need a break or need to take some time, and having that balance, we can make sure that both our faculty and students are always safe and at their best,” she said.

Fifth grade teacher Aundrea Blevins recognizes the value of teachers, having grown up in a family of educators. Both Blevins’ parents as well as her sister have all served as teachers.

“I wanted to make that same difference, and so I felt that I could shape children’ lives more by being a teacher,” Blevins said.

Even as she enters her 16th year as an educator, Blevins said her love for the profession remains and described this upcoming school semester as the best year yet.

“It’s the happiest job in the world, and the children are amazing. As hard as it can be sometimes, it’s all worth it because they truly are just blessings and gifts from God,” Blevins said. “I just feel very honored to be able to get to work with them every day.”

Blevins described her favorite moment of the school day as when she first enters her classroom in the mornings and sees her smiling students.