Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Neurological Underpinnings of Belvedere Part 1

Bret and I moved here February 2008 and immediately began building our home in Belvedere. We stood on the land where our house is now and Josh Goldschmidt said to me, "You gotta like people if you are going to live here." I knew I wanted to live in Belvedere from the moment our realtor, Jim Duncan told me about it. I immediately saw I could live connected to people and to nature, and the design had amazing child and nature potential. To me, it was The Answer. To what? . . . I am about to tell you.

Then began the interviews with the press. So interesting. Erika Howsare of Cvillian and the Abode called me New Urbanist. I had no idea what that was. It seems it is a design approach to living where houses are close together and in connection with shared green spaces. It was walkable. Its design allowed people to walk to area restaurants and shops in the Town Center. Street design was shifted to focus on pedestrian population as well as cars. I was something, I was New Urbanist. Then came the discussion about LEED and "green." So I researched labels and criteria for environmentally correct building. This EarthCraft focus seemed to be what everyone wanted to talk about. But that is not what attracted me to Belvedere.

I knew that humans are hardwired to connect, and that our culture does not do a good job supporting this notion. Just the statistics from the study Hardwired to Connect are daunting:

  • Scholars at the National Research Council in 2002 estimated that at least one of every four adolescents in the US is currently at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood.
  • According to another recent study, about 21% of US children ages 9 - 17 have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder associated with at least minimum impairment. These rates appear to reflect actual increases in these problems, not changes in methods or rates of treatment.
  • Despite increased ability to treat depression, the current generation of young people is more likely to be depressed and anxious than was its parent's generation. Source
  • High levels of anxiety, or neuroticism, are not only problems in themselves, but are also associated with major depression, suicide attempts, alcohol abuse, marital problems, and a wide variety of physical ailments, including asthma, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers.
The study details the rise in suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety and disease in children over the last several decades despite a rise in material wellbeing. It states:

. . .US young people not only appear to be experiencing sharp increases in mental illness and stress and emotional problems, but also continue to suffer from high -- we as a commission believe unacceptably high -- rates of related behavioral problems such as substance abuse, school dropout, interpersonal violence, premature sexual intercourse, and teenage pregnancy. p. 9

The study also says that while children are 50% less likely to die from unintentional injuries, cancer, and heart disease since 1950, they are 140% more likely to die from homicide or suicide (which is the third leading cause of death of youth in the country). Again, I quote:

More and more, what is harming and killing our children today is mental illness, emotional distress, and behavioral problems.

Our neurological systems are designed to need contact and social interactions with other human beings of multiple generations. I found this study through a seminar I attended by Allan Schore, one of the leading thinkers in the science of attachment. Part of my training is to help people understand their attachment styles that are divided up into secure, insecure, and disorganized attachment. More specifically, it is how our early connections affect our health and perception. It is a well researched scientific field starting with psychoanalyst John Bowlby.

In his latest book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how it was precisely this social connecting that supported the health and wellbeing of a whole town in Pennsylvania. The first chapter relates the story of a population of Italian immigrants that did not have much heart disease, the leading killer among adult populations in the United States.

In Roseto, virtually no one under 55 died of a heart attack, or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over 65, the death rate from heart disease in Roseto was roughly half that of the United States as a whole. The death rate from all causes in Roseto, in fact, was something like thirty or thirty-five percent lower than it should have been.

What was the secret of this populations health? Researcher found out it was not the diet, the physical exercise level, the soil, or anything else. The secret lay in the village culture of the town:

What Wolf slowly realized was that the secret of Roseto wasn't diet or exercise or genes or the region where Roseto was situated. It had to be the Roseto itself. As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they began to realize why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited each other, stopping to chat with each other in Italian on the street, or cooking for each other in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2000 people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the town, that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.

What supported the health of the Rosetans was their connection to each other in relationship and proximity
. To me, Belvedere's design supports human connection: the narrow streets, the grid-design with alleys and narrow lots, the wide sidewalks, the shared green and public spaces. It allows for what is natural and healthy for humans to flourish as opposed to rural living the way I had been in Vermont. I felt very isolated and disconnected up there. I craved connection and community.

When Jim said "neighborhood" and "nature," I said yes! That is what I want. Proximity to nature also has many benefits. Combining close knit community connections with nature is a one-two punch for health. Part 2 of the neurological underpinnings of my neighborhood will detail just how nature supports human development and how Belvedere does and will do just that.

A Kid's Map of Belvedere

This map was drawn by a couple of kids who live in Belvedere. Mapping is one of the first things I do with children when connecting with nature. Kids see things differently than adults. Enjoy!
You can see what children like to focus on: the bodies of water, the woods, the high points, and the open spaces. Also, the kids have explored all the water tunnels in the neighborhood, naming each one.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Agnor-Hurt Elementary is Awesome

When families come through Belvedere, many of them ask me about Agnor-Hurt Elementary, the Albemarle Public School district we send our children to. I have just got say, Agnor-Hurt is awesome.

I did what many parents do before they move their family to a new town; I checked out the public schools. I went to greatschools.net and tried hard to "figure it out" from a distance. I made several visits to Charlottesville before making the move to see what the schools were like. I visited the Waldorf School, Cale, Merriweather Lewis and Agnor Hurt. I was very worried about my son in particular. All he knew was a small very sheltered life in Vermont. His public school there was 100 kids k - 8th grad, and he had been with the same kids since kindergarten. We moved in the middle of his third grade year. I chose Belvedere and Agnor-Hurt became our school.

At first, it was a little daunting because of the size; about 475 students preschool through 5th grade. There were about 60-65 third graders alone (three classes of 20-24 each). We were all overwhelmed with the amount of people in Charlottesville and the kids in schools. But soon, we realized many positive things about Agnor Hurt:

  • The Diversity: Over 23 different languages spoken by students from 16 different countries. The children would never have had that exposure to the world if we had stayed in the Vermont. Nor would they have that kind of exposure if they attended private school or some other schools in the county.
  • The Prinicipal: Michele Del Gallo is amazing. I have attended many of the PTO meetings and witnessed to her organizational and leadership skills. She has really brought the team of 45 teachers, 23 assistants, and 16 support staff together. The teamwork sounds incredible. It takes a talented leader to bring so many people together and have them work efficiently and keep the moral up. She is there for most every afterschool and evening event (and there are plenty!). She makes herself available to students, parents, and all her staff. She is very inspiring to be able to work with to improve the lives of children. She also has tremendous vision for the school.
  • The Teachers: Almost half of the teachers in the school have advanced degrees. I have attended most every event I could and I have been impressed with the commitment of the teachers. The principal tells me the school is researching becoming an International Baccaluareate School because 28 of the staff members were interested in it. I come from a world that highly values homeschooling. I have listened to my friends say many bad things about organized schooling, especially public. While we all agree that the public school system does not work for everyone, I could not help but think that there is no way I could do as good a job as these teachers. They have played close attention to my son, nominated him for special programs, and helped him feel at home. There are many special supports in that school, from the Guidance Counselor Carol Fox who especially helped me make the transition mid-year with my son, to the in-school psychogist, to the Gifted and Technology teacher John Hunter. My son has already learned to make presentations in PowerPoint, something I only learned last year. I feel like this school is preparing my son for the bigger world.
  • The Parents: The PTO is really amazing, a group of parents many of whom have multiple children and a job. We do many things to support the school and their events. The list is long: Choral Programs, International Dinner, Special Assemblies, Skate Night, Chik-fil-A night, Book Fairs, Martin Luther King Play, School Dances, and more. The fundraising that we do also supports the teachers. It is an amazing circle of support for the students.
  • The Programs: Last year, the school put a lot of energy into math and the scores are there to show it. The following are quotes from a powerpoint presentation Ms. Del Gallo made at the beginning of the year:
"Agnor Hurt lead the division in math growth while maintaining our scores in reading on the 2008 SOL tests. We saw 15% gains in pass rates for each grade, bringing our overall pass rate in math up to 89.3%"

Here are some more quotes that are just amazing outstanding achievements for Adequate Yearly Progress reports:
  • 100% pass rates for 3rd Grade Special Education Students, up from 42.9% the previous year.
  • 100% pass rates for 4th Grade Special Education Studnets, up from 50% the previous year.
  • 19% increase in reading for 3rd grade free and reduced lunch students, from 66.7% to 85.7%
  • 52.5% increase in match for 3rd grade free and reduced lunch students, from 30.8% to 83.3% (check that out!!!)
  • 49.3% increase in match for 3rd grade African American students, from 38.9% to 88.2% (another huge wow!!!!)
  • 10.8% increase in math for 4th grae African American students, from 69.2% to 80%
  • 40.4% increase in math for 4th grade free and reduced lunch students, from 33.3% to 73.7%
  • 29.7% increase in math for 5th grade African American students, from 66.7% to 85.7%
  • 10.9% increase in math for 5th grade free and reduced lunch students, from 68% to 78.9%
I would say some learning is happening in that school. All the local press has reported is that Agnor-Hurt did not make Adequate Yearly Progress. I say, What? This school has made more than adequate yearly progress, it has made outstanding yearly progress. In reality, they only missed that mark by 1% in the reading levels in free and reduced lunch students. Give me a break. There is definitely a story there should be told and Greatschools.net does not tell it.

Fourth grade for my son has been awesome. My son is a white. The scores for his population are extremely high (in the 95%). Gifted and Technology legendary teacher John Hunter joined the staff and he is a perfect match for my son. This incredible program will allow my son access to many special programs and the schoolwide programs are just as awesome. Here is the list from the beginning of the year:
  • Framework for Quality Learning: every team will create an share a new unit
  • Continue building strong home-school connections with families
  • Adopt a sister school in Africa
  • Continued emphasis on music and art
  • Continue highly effective math strategies
  • New Agnor-Hurt Literacy Plan
  • Writing Across the Curriculum (this is awesome, we just went to the Christmas concert and the music teacher had students write essays if they wanted to be a narrator introducing songs. So creative.)
  • 75 minute blocks for both reading and math
  • Restorative/Responsive Classrooms
  • Schoolwide celebration of every student's successes
I hope to make a difference in that school somehow, too, with nature-based curriculum. Every time Bret and I come away from that school we are in awe. So, don't let an outside report influence you if you are interested in that school. And go and visit for yourself. The school saying is, We Are The Dream. It is a pretty amazing place.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Celebrations . . .

Elizabeth, this post is for you. You have written to me that you love when I talk about the land, and you gave me more money than anyone at my fundraising event for my class for families and nature, and I watched you . . . you were rapt and attentive. Your attention never waivered as I talked about the years I have spent researching and teaching about nature. I celebrate you.

This day I am 46 years young and as a gift to myself I head out onto the land early. As usual, I am instantly rewarded for my effort. Unlike many people, I like winter. I like the cold, and the frost, and the snow, and seeing the trees without their leaves against the winter sky. On this day, before 9 am, I head down to the flood plain along one of the Belvedere loops. Almost instantly, my mood lifts as if someone had come beneath my anxiety and fear and gently shifted them into joy. The frost on the plants glistens in the sun like so many jewels. I remember in Vermont sitting in rapture at the glistening of jeweled snow in the sun. In my world, bad weather is rare; what is more common are bad gear and bad preparation. Oh for the glory of winter!

I run down along the trail jumping over icy puddles and streams. The flood plain opens before me and my heart flutters when I see the plants of the plain outlined in frost; it is an icy harvest. I frolic. I run down along the road to river and as I come around the corner I run into a huge pile of white feathers. White feathers? This is obviously a kill site and one whiff of the feathers tells me a red fox plucked his prey here. Not a swan; a chicken! A roasting chicken at that, but where from? I marvel at the pattern of red fox; I often find kill sites in the middle of the road from canines like the fox and coyote, and their scat as well. I run on with a handful of white smelly feathers. As I run, I smell the red fox here and there. Their scent is very musky, like a skunk. It is especially strong around the Zone.

The cold ground makes purchase on the steep hill up from the Zone easy. As I run home along the sewer line, they are there! Tracks! When I see the strong outline of raccoon tracks, every detail of their human-like front paw I whoop with joy, pitter pattering about looking at the patterns in the frosty mud. A broad wing hawk calls right beside me and I look up and marvel at the huge raptor just above my head. It flies off calling. I continue to explore the tracks, here raccoon, there deer, here some red fox. Whoop, whoop, whoop! My heart feels three times bigger.

I run on home to celebrate. Today is my birthday and I give myself a gift of going outside. I say I am 46 years young. Not many would say I look like I am approaching 50. It is nature, I say, nature and fun and kids, and following my passions. I recently came across a book by Byrd Baylor, one of my favorite children's authors called I'm In Charge of Celebrations. I quote:

Last year
I gave myself
One hundred and eight
celebrations --
Besides the ones they close school for

This remarkable small book details how we can celebrate our lives all the time in many small ways.

I celebrate the frost and sun
I celebrate the fox and his kill
I celebrate the raptor and her call
And the tracks in the mud
I celebrate the trees without their leaves
against the November sky
And I celebrate you Elizabeth, for believing in me

Mitakuye Oyasin