My long trek toward retirement after 32 years as a superintendent was a rewarding one. The Houston Independent School District—the often-unwieldy, seventh-largest system in the United States, which I led for seven years—had narrowed achievement gaps and decreased the dropout rate during my tenure. In 2013, our success was honored with the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The district received a Race to the Top grant and two federal magnet school grants. It passed a $1.89 billion construction bond—the largest in Texas’ history. In spite of the accolades and achievements, including for the district’s school turnarounds and use of technology, I still had a gnawing sense of unfinished business.
When you regularly visit the campuses of a big, diverse city like Houston—a microcosm of our country and, to some extent, the world—you can’t help but be haunted by the faces and the stories of our youngest students and our most veteran educators. You hear from children who fall asleep to the sounds of gunfire in their neighborhoods or those who have fled a war-torn land with the same sounds ringing in their ears. You meet adolescents forced to assume adult responsibilities for earning money and caring for siblings in poverty-stricken homes, where food may be scarce and utilities spotty. You learn to recognize the strained and sagging body language of a high-performing student who is bearing the weight of a family’s lofty expectations.
You can spot burnout in the eyes of teachers who face their own relentless expectations and low resources, and sense the hopelessness in staff members who are strained to their limits.
You do your best to attack each problem—illiteracy, language barriers, high-stakes testing, dropout rates, achievement gaps, technology demands, massive mandates with limited funding, and on and on.
One afternoon, while sitting in Houston traffic and reflecting on my time leading the district, it hit me. That light-bulb moment. We had battled inequities, poverty, and adult political issues but had not tackled perhaps education’s biggest problem—a universal issue that exists across our schools, regardless of neighborhood or region: stress. What really ate at me was the fact that stress can be managed, and yet we had done little even to acknowledge the problem.
The next morning, I assembled a project team and began looking for proven strategies to help our students and teachers regain the focus they had lost. We discovered a pilot program in California and New York designed to improve health and wellness for underserved youths through simple breathing exercises, yoga-based stretching, and focus-building. What hooked us was the fact that Stanford University was evaluating this program.
In the fall of 2014, our district had the chance to incorporate these techniques into its own pilot schools and become part of two studies through University of Houston and University of San Diego. Not only did our students embrace the classes, which supplemented other physical activities and met state criteria for physical education, the teachers and staff also wanted to participate. And there was no juggling curriculum or putting additional demands on faculty, staff, and resources. We soon expanded the program to 14,000 students on 26 campuses and saw the same results as in previous research: fewer behavioral issues, students and teachers regaining focus, and a palpable shift toward a culture of care and compassion at each campus.
You can't help but be haunted by the faces and the stories of our youngest students and our most veteran educators."
But it’s the personal observations and testimonials that attest most vividly to the success of this work, hearing the pride of a child who has learned a life lesson in personal empowerment and self-control by “breathing.”
An epiphany is hard to ignore. So when it came time to retire, instead I took a deep breath, focused, and moved on to a new passion: combating personal and community stress, peer pressures, and the distractions of technology by making these simple strategies available to every school in the nation. The programs are there, the research is developing, and free resources and flexible funding are just a few keystrokes, an email, or a phone call away.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as A Superintendent Tackles Student Stress