Capturing Kids’ Hearts program connects teachers and students

First grade teacher Mrs. Tzanetatos embraces a student before class Thursday morning at Fair Oaks Ranch Community School as a part of their Capturing Kids' Hearts kindness program. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Every morning at Fair Oaks Ranch Community School, all of the school’s nearly 1,000 students crowd outside of their classrooms eager to greet their teachers and begin a day full of learning.

Some community members might believe that every student in the Santa Clarita Valley anticipates the start of the school day as eagerly as the Falcons of Fair Oaks Ranch. However, that’s not always the case, Principal Julie McBride said.

Students talk often about how a large portion of their day is spent in class, but it never quite seems like that when you’re on campus, according to the principal. Some students would attribute it to the cool handshakes or individualized greetings that precede the start of every class while others might cite the awareness that teachers have when dealing with emotional or upset students.

But a large majority of the school would say it’s all of these things, because there’s a truly a culture built around kindness on campus thanks to the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program that’s been established.

“The whole premise of the program is improving the connection between adults and children, because kids need to feel a connection to teachers in order to succeed,” McBride said. “It’s based on certain premises,” and includes a social contract, which changes from grade to grade and class to class.

The contract covers how children should behave in class, on the playground and during interactions with their peers, but there are many other aspects to the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program, McBride said, adding that it has been amazing in addressing the social-emotional needs of students, which is what it’s all about — “teachers understanding their students better.”

Most of the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program is centered around connecting the school through kindness, having a growth mindset and being happy, student Amanda Brewer said, adding the program helped foster the spread of a kindness club featuring fifth- and sixth-grade kindness crusaders.

The club and its crusaders are overseen by teachers Bonnie Russon and Ken Newton, “The most amazing teachers at school,” said Amiyah Taylor, a sixth-grade kindness crusader.

“We’ve always been an amazing school but now that we have a kindness club, I feel like we can spread the amazingness even more,” Taylor said.

Most students are in the club for no other reason than to spread joy and put a smile on the face of others, according to various kindness crusaders. The group has hosted weekly meetings since late September and, so far, has had at least one new student join at every meetup.

The 50 or so members of the club can often be spotted creating posters around school, attending grade-level assemblies and doing anything in their power to improve the day of their peers. This includes maintaining a classroom shoutout wall, which is a piece of the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program that displays the affirmations handed down from teachers to students.

“Some have buckets, some have boxes, some have walls (dedicated to affirmations), but the whole purpose is to make somebody’s day,” McBride said. All teachers select a kid and write something positive, but, lately, students — and even parents — have participated in the act.

As an affirmer, you’re supposed to give two affirmations a day, but you can give more if you find kids who are deserving, student Ava Bender said. “Everybody should be an affirmer because it pushes them to do good things,” and it makes others feel special about themselves.

An example of an affirmation can be something as simple as a strip of paper saying, “You have a good sense of humor,” Bender said, before mentioning that the strips can serve as a timeline of kindness. “It’s cool because anybody can come up and see them, so if people are feeling down then they can cheer up.”

As the crusaders continued to share the kind acts they perform around school, which included quieting kids in the cafeteria, sharing advice on how to handle embarrassing situations and other similar scenarios, the group explained how their educational experience has improved since the Capturing Kids’ Hearts program came to campus.

“I feel it strengthens your connection with teachers,” said Brewer. “Instead of seeing them as somebody who’s there to give you work, it makes you feel like you’re their friend. It makes your mindset better about going to school and learning.”

Fifth grade teacher Mrs. Russon embraces a student before class Thursday morning at Fair Oaks Ranch Community School as a part of their Capturing Kids’ Hearts kindness program. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Other schools that don’t have a kindness club should try it out, said Connor Anderson, another one of Fair Oaks’ kindness crusaders. “If it doesn’t work, then you got back to having a normal school. But if it does work, then you can have a more comfortable environment and a better connection with the teachers and kids around you.”

McBride said the program truly fosters a family within the classroom environment, which was a sentiment echoed by club members.

“Mrs. Russon has helped us more than we can imagine, and being in her class really helped make us who we are now,” Taylor said.

“Kindness helps make the education experience better, and with everybody being so kind, so positive and so loving, it really makes you feel like you’re at home,” Brewer said.

“And that’s the goal,” McBride added. “In the end, it’s just about our connection with kids, so it’s interesting to hear them talk about it and share how they’ve been impacted.”

The principal added the program has been very beneficial for all school stakeholders, including parents, teachers and students. “As Connor said, you want to be at a place where people are positive and happy.”

Most of the kindness crusaders will head to La Mesa Junior High School and Golden Valley High School in the future, which are two schools in the Hart District that have already implemented the same program, McBride said.

“It’s amazing for their socioemotional needs. Academics are important, but if we’re not meeting the kids’ socioemotional needs, then what are the academics doing?” McBride said. “We’re growing an adult,” and pretty soon kindness will become second nature to them with no questions asked.

“We’re super excited to see how the various grades develop in the long term,” McBride said. “I can’t imagine what the future holds for us. It’s a powerful thing.”

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