Originally published April 15, 2022 by My Burbank.

By Devin Herenda

Faculty members and students of Burbank High School are working together to strengthen the on-campus curriculum through their Building Bulldogs program.

This social-emotional learning model was initiated by BHS Principal Dr. Thomas Crowther, who asked the Physical Education Department to build a system catering to student needs during the pandemic.

BHS Athletic Director and Physical Education Department Chair Alli McKain, who had no prior experience with social-emotional learning, then conducted research and consulted with Crowther and BHS Counselor Gabby Sharaga. The three have since implemented the beneficial new academic program with the help of other counselors and physical education instructors. Additionally, Ellya Asatryan, a student who is in her junior year at BHS, has likewise contributed to fostering the program for herself and her classmates.

McKain has a history of participating in sports, which she says led to her feeling “a sense of belonging, strength in (her) identity as an athlete, and a connection to (her) school community.” While creating Building Bulldogs, she wanted to elicit similar feelings in BHS students.

The resulting learning system has been included in the BHS academic program for ninth-grade students and student-athletes of all sports since in-person learning resumed in the fall of 2021. Building Bulldogs focuses on students working together while completing various tasks assigned in their physical education classes. This presents them with a chance to connect with their peers as they participate in group activities. It also recognizes members of the BHS student body who may be in need of supplementary services.

“The program is designed to equip students with the tools necessary to face life’s challenges, both on and off the field and court,” McKain said. “The Building Bulldogs lessons incorporate themes like teamwork, collaboration, and communication into kinesthetic activities and have helped identify students who are in need of professional support services.”

In addition to independently leading Building Bulldogs, BHS personnel have partnered with Wayfinder, an organization that supplies a variety of tools promoting social-emotional learning practices. Helping students approach life with a purposeful and healthy mental outlook is a focal point for Wayfinder. Their shared interests with BHS have cultivated a system that helps students feel at home on campus as they learn more about themselves.

“The curriculum is used to support students in developing a sense of belonging and connection to our school campus,” Sharaga said. “Through lessons implemented in both P.E. classes and with our student-athletes, students have the opportunity to better understand their sense of self and engage in social-emotional learning.”

Wayfinder has also shared the Building Bulldogs story with the academic news outlet, Education Week. An article on Asatryan’s experiences as a student ambassador for the program will be in a future edition of their magazine. Furthermore, Asatryan spoke about leading the program at a recent educational summit attended by more than 2,000 educators from across the country. Asatryan now informs fellow students on Building Bulldogs through her BHS broadcast journalism class and communicates student needs to BHS faculty members.

As Building Bulldogs is flourishing, a vote from the Burbank Teachers Association will be required in order to expand social-emotional learning at BHS. This will also be dependent upon how the school’s bell schedule evolves over the next few years, Crowther says. For the time being, however, Building Bulldogs will continue to be offered to ninth-grade students.

This curriculum has thus far proven to be advantageous for teachers and pupils of BHS. Though she was unfamiliar with this approach not long ago, McKain is now a vocal advocate of social-emotional learning since witnessing the results of Building Bulldogs.

“I have learned more about the students and athletes of Burbank High School, and in return, they have learned more about me,” McKain said of the Building Bulldogs impact. “Because of this, we share a deeper understanding and connection that has contributed to a more positive classroom and team culture with a greater sense of belonging to the school.”

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