Hutchinson school district works to address pandemic impacts on kids

Two years into this pandemic and many people are studying the impacts on children.

Teens have had more distance learning than younger children at a time in their life when there’s already a lot of stress at school and at home.

For 15 years, Hutchinson has had a program called REACH to help high school students with social, emotional and academic stressors. In the pandemic, leaders feel the program is more important now more than ever before. This year, Hutchinson Public Schools also started a REACH program at Hutchinson Middle School.

"I think kids are learning to be kids again. They are learning how to be students. You think, the last two years they’ve grown up behind a screen," says Chad Harlander the founder and director of REACH.

REACH stands for Relationships, Education, Accountability, Character and Hard Work. It’s a class during the school day that is taught by social workers and counselors instead of teachers.    The staff will help with homework or give the students a shoulder to cry on. Whatever it is that they need that day.

"We’re just here to wrap our arms around you and say what do you need today? You need a high five today? You need a fist bump; you want to talk about what happened yesterday or last night?   We just want to be there for them," says Valerie Huepenbecke, one of the counselors who leads the middle school program.

Students say it’s like having a second family. That’s how 7th grader Alberto Hidalgo describes it.  "I told a story about my family once, about someone I loved who passed away, and I started crying here, but no one cared because this is a safe place," says Alberto.

Eighth-grader Miah Hacker had heard good things about the class and stopped by one day to ask if she could join.  "I heard REACH was really good. It helps with mental health and homework, and it’s helped me a lot," says Hacker.

"Kids are not only behind academically, they are behind socially and emotionally as well," says Harlander.

"Right now, I know this is unpopular, but the focus needs to be on their emotional and social and to get our kids reconnected to one another," he adds.

REACH requires students to stay after school to catch up on homework when they fall behind and they get the students involved in service projects and writing letters of appreciation. "When you’re doing well, we’re the first to give you a high five," says Harlander. "If you’re doing wrong, we’re the first to hold you accountable, so you can grow as a person," he added.

Forty other Minnesota schools have added REACH programs after seeing the success in Hutchinson and there are schools in South Dakota that have created a model as well. Harlander hopes more school systems will consider adding this curriculum to middle schools as well.