NEVADA, Iowa — Kedra Hamilton teaches first and second grade at the same school she attended. The location of the building is about the only thing that’s the same. “Teaching is getting harder,” said Hamilton. “Our kids have a lot of trauma in their lives.” But at Central Elementary in Nevada, they refuse to lose control of their classrooms, or to let bad things define their students. Principal Chris deNeui said, “It’s not perfect. It’s hard. We do hard work here, but what we have is because of all of the people that are invested here.”
They are invested in students like 10-year-old Ricky Huerta. He used to show up for class, in his words, “like a bomb.” “I would like blow up. Start getting mad. Sometimes throw stuff,” said Huerta. He said his teachers and a special guidance counselor taught him how to understand and to control his emotions. “Sometimes I would scream at my little brothers. Like, I regret that. And I said ‘sorry’ to them, and they forgave me. Like, it was hard at home because there was so much stuff to make me blow up.” When asked how he feels now, Huerta replied, “Calmer.”
That sort of turnaround is one example of what Principal deNeui calls Capturing Kids’ Hearts. It’s the name of the program the district paid around $150,000 to implement five years ago when administrators started coming to grips with the new challenges entering their classrooms. Now, everyone from the teachers to bus drivers to food staff has specialized training to help children suffering from trauma. They spend another $10,000 to $15,000 each year brushing up on those skills and enacting other strategies. Principal deNeui said, “We want kids to know that this is a place where they will be treated with respect, but we also want them to treat others with respect.”
That is why Mrs. Hamilton starts each year now by drafting a social contract. The students brainstorm and agree on exactly how they will behave and how they will treat their teachers. “I’m also not willing to allow for a student to strike a teacher intentionally. I’m just not OK with that,” said deNeui. “I feel like it’s sending a message that it’s OK to use violence, and that’s the opposite of what we’re doing. So, to support my staff I would suspend kids out of school, which I don’t like to do.”
Principal deNeui said she believes children need love, and children need consequences. “When [our students are] 19 and the cops get a hold of them because they punched someone, [the police are] not going to look the other way and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. You’re angry.’ Or, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. You have a disability.’ Instead of evacuating well-behaved kids into the hallway during a violent outburst, students struggling with behavior get a special place to calm down and deal with what caused the outburst. Huerta said, “[My counselor] would help me calm down, talk about what happened, and if I had any problems at home or school.” deNeui said, “[Capturing Kids’ Hearts] is about teaching them strategies to cope with real life. And real life is full of disappointment. And real life is full of doing hard things. And that’s something I say to kids almost every day. You can do hard things, and we bring it back to things they can relate to.”
When asked if she can keep teaching for a long time, Mrs. Hamilton replied with a smile, “I can. Yes. Yes! Right now. Yes.”
The principal at another one of Iowa’s national showcase schools said Capturing Kids’ Hearts works because it makes the children understand they are loved, and that makes the children want to please the adults. Five years ago, Aurora Heights Elementary in Newton enacted the program. Principal Jim Gilbert said office referrals for discipline have dropped 70 percent over the past two years.