The Richland 44 School District, northern Richland County, North Dakota, has been recognized for its efforts in ensuring student safety, healing and resilience.

Richland 44 High School, Colfax, North Dakota, is one of the schools profiled in “Serving the Whole Person,” by Ruthie Caparas. Benefits of social emotional learning (SEL) in rural school districts were examined by Caparas.

In addition to Richland 44 High School and Richland Elementary, Abercrombie, North Dakota, Caparas also studied Wilton Public School, Wilton, North Dakota. Her findings were presented by the North Dakota Regional Education Association, North Dakota Department of Public Instruction and the nonprofit organization WestEd.

“Although Wilton and Richland 44 began adopting (SEL) strategies at different times — with Wilton starting its journey around 2013 and Richland 44 in 2018 — leaders and staff from both districts emphasized the importance of sustainability,” Caparas wrote. “By adopting these practices gradually and improving them over time, schools can more easily incorporate them into their regular routines and are more likely to sustain these approaches in the long term.'

Dr. Britney Gandhi is Richland 44’s superintendent and high school principal. She joined the district in 2018, as it was responding to the investigation of hazing incidents at Richland 44 High School. Chris Potter, current high school counselor, also joined that year.

“The news splashed across local headlines, fragmenting trust between the school district and the Richland community, and prompting a turnover in administration,” Caparas wrote. “As Potter describes, the new leaders immediately recognized that ‘relationships, resilience, coping and the emotions of the kids were going to be a key focus for us in order to rebuild and heal a community that had been deeply wounded.’”

“Student wellbeing is our number one priority, both social-emotionally and academically,” Gandhi said. “We know that some students cannot achieve academically until their social-emotional needs have been met.”

Gandhi said she is grateful that the Richland 44 School Board, a seven-member body currently led by President Nathan Berseth, recognizes the importance of well-rounded students. The board has also prioritized the importance by providing funding for more than one counselor.

“(Potter) has been instrumental in advocating for student needs, aligning services and leading students in social-emotional learning. This programming has since been extended to our elementary,” Gandhi said.

Earlier in 2021, Vice President Craig Olson and Nicole Rostad Holdman were re-elected to the Richland 44 School Board. Both spoke about the necessity of educating and for the whole student.

“I supported hiring another full-time counselor so that both our elementary and junior-senior high schools would have a full-time counselor on site,” Rostad Holdman said previously. “I also support implementing the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework as recommended by our administration.”

Richland 44’s administrators, faculty, parents and community members collaborated, Caparas wrote. They created strategies “for rebuilding trust and creating a districtwide environment in which every student feels physically and psychologically safe, supported and ready to learn.”

“According to Richland 44’s staff, SEL and restorative practices have helped students recognize and articulate their emotions, show compassion toward others and create a more actively caring school climate,” Caparas wrote.

Rostad Holdman was among the individuals speaking out about changes. She said she hopes other school districts will recognize that school safety requires active investments in SEL and student mental health.

“Even if it’s not coming at you with a newspaper headline, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Rostad Holdman said.

The Richland 44 board is completed by directors Scott Hendrickson, Todd Johnson, Jody Lingen and Amy Lee Lehmann. Elicia Hofmann is elementary principal.

“Recognition of our team’s efforts — particularly Chris’ — is well-deserved and will serve as a model through the state,” Gandhi said.

Richland 44’s next school board meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 21 at Richland 44 High School.

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