By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) – Although the doors at Rocky Mountain Prep are closed, teachers have found a way to keep students together.

Principal Sara Carlson Striegel says the new Compass Circles program she just rolled out this year was implemented to help children develop socially and emotionally. But now, that program is taking on a critical role to address students’ mental health.

“Now more than ever, we are desperate for connection,” Carlson Striegel said. “If we hadn’t of had Compass, there wouldn’t be a space built in for staff, students, and myself to own the feelings that come out of this, the anxiety, the fear, the depression, the sadness, the uncertainty, and that weighs really heavily, and it weighs really heavily on kids.”

Before the pandemic, students would have physical circle time to share their feelings. Now, every Friday, students meet on Zoom. Their teacher, Ellie Roberts, facilitates a positive, constructive discussion.

Students participate in the Compass Circles program at Rocky Mountain Prep before the pandemic. (credit: Rocky Mountain Prep)

“I have seen them grow more as people, I’ve seen them deepen connections with each other and with me through circle,” Roberts said.

On the Zoom calls, the elementary students have a chance to share how they are feeling, and Roberts asks students to think of ways to support their peers as they navigate through life’s challenges.

“It’s really powerful to see a student name in front of a group of peers that they are feeling lonely, or that they are feeling afraid, or ecstatic about something happening in their lives,” Roberts said.

At the end of every Zoom call, Roberts asks students to share their appreciations for the week.

(credit: CBS)

“Every good teacher aims to educate the whole child, and what I love about Compass is that it really allows us to educate the whole child,” Roberts said.

Rocky Mountain Prep fourth grader, Betsy Villanueva Ruiz, 10, says she loves the program.

“It makes everyone calmer, it makes you want to talk to people more, and gets people out of their shell,” Villanueva Ruiz said.

Matthew Manzanares, 10, works on his laptop for a virtual learning assignment. (credit: Misty Manzanares)

Her classmate, Matthew Manzanares, 10, agrees.

“What changed from not having circle to having circle was the kids, the way they would show up to school was kind of sad, but after we started circle, a lot of kids started feeling a lot better, because they could share how they are feeling,” Manzanares said. “It helps you make bonds with other people you might have not known and you might have not seen before.”

Carlson Striegel said she knows of a few other schools in the Denver metro currently implementing similar programs, and she would encourage other schools that haven’t already to consider putting them into the curriculum.

Carlson Striegel said, “any program that teaches all of us to do a better job of identifying our emotions and to resonate with humans in a more empathetic way is worth the time.”

Kati Weis

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