17 December 2008

School students meditate

School sees quiet gains as its students meditate

By Rhonda Bodfield

ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.02.2008

Students Danielle Eagle, 16, left, and Jasmine Contreras, 14, practice meditation at the Museum School for the Visual Arts.
greg bryan/ Arizona Daily Star

For 10 to 20 minutes twice a day, some students and teachers at alternative education programs in the Tucson Unified School District close their eyes and shush their minds.

There are no chants or incense sticks or burning candles, although some will use a mantra — a phrase repeated over and over to themselves — to help slow their thoughts.

Despite its simplicity, the practitioners report they're seeing significant benefits from Transcendental Meditation, the trademarked technique created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi more than 50 years ago.

Priscilla Ramos, an 18-year-old senior at Project MORE High School, said she was only passing some classes before. Now, even though she's carrying 10 classes in an attempt to graduate on time, she's focused and making A's and B's.

Favian Marquez, a 17-year-old at MORE, said he used to "blow up really fast." Last month, some guy picked a fight with him on the bus, he said, shoving him and ultimately punching him in the face. "I got mad, but I controlled myself. I just said, 'It isn't worth it.' It's just helped me with my anger a lot."

David Tran, 16, said he immediately felt the calming effects after his first session, even though he'd scoffed at it beforehand. Even his mother noticed he was less anxious and sleeping better, he said; she even asked him if he was feverish.

The director of the district's alternative education department, Robert Mackay, acknowledges it all sounded a bit far-fetched to him when a teacher came back from a conference talking it up.

Mackay said the students who come to him often are troubled, some with severe family and academic issues. In some cases, his programs are their last hope of graduating.
"I had grave doubts because I had never seen some of these kids ever stop moving or talking. I expected that we'd have a 15-minute discussion and that would be it," he said.

Instead, he heard the pitch, including testimonials from schools around the nation using it with populations no less difficult than his.

Mackay went through the training first in fall 2006, along with his teachers. His blood pressure dropped so much that it was the equivalent of what he would see with a prescription pill. His teachers have been known to ask before launching into a discussion if he's done his meditation for the day — and if the answer is no, will postpone the discussion for another time.

As for the students, he found them less aggressive, less anxious, even happier. And they didn't go right back into wild mode after it was over, either.

The program was offered as an elective last year, and 40 MORE students signed up. This year, because of a new focus on academics, it can't be fit into the school day, but there are still more than 20 students who regularly come before and after school to meditate. "That's saying something," Mackay said. "It's hard to keep a kid here. When the bill rings, you almost have to get out of the way."

Meditation also is being offered as an elective at the Museum School for the Visual Arts, with about 20 students enrolled.

In January, the Drake Alternative Middle School will begin the program schoolwide, and staffs at the TeenAge Parent School and the Broadway Bridge alternative schools are both getting training.

Dynah Oviedo Lim, a TUSD number-cruncher, said preliminary achievement results with only one year of data are inconclusive. But some of the findings on its social aspects are encouraging, she said. The meditators began the year with higher anxiety than a control group of students but ended with lower anxiety. Their happiness increased from mildly happy to pretty happy, while the control group reported no change in happiness levels. They also reported higher self-esteem.

The program is voluntary. Students who don't want to participate can spend quiet time doing something else.

And it's free to the district, which has received about $150,000 in grants from the David Lynch Foundation. Lynch, a director known for his unconventional work, which includes the "Twin Peaks" television series, has credited the practice with transforming his own life and career, and has donated millions to share it with students nationwide.

Research studies, including some funded by the National Institutes of Health, have linked meditation with a host of benefits, including stronger creativity, better academic performance and reduced stress.

But some critics, such as Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have expressed concern about the practice, saying it's rooted in ancient Eastern religious traditions.

"It has no place in public schools," Lynn said. "There are other meditation exercises that schools could use that do not have this connection to a religious group, but no one's coming and promoting them to educators," he said.

"The risk is that it helps to promote one religious philosophy over others. In the long run, this is just a bad idea."

Denise Denniston Gerace, who is working with TUSD on the training, said there is a growing awareness of alternative paths to mental and physical wellness. But even with Eastern practices such as yoga taking off in this country, some misperceptions linger. And the big one, she said, is that Transcendental Meditation is religious-based.

"It's a mechanical technique. The idea that it's religious is left over from 50 years ago, when it was possible to disregard contributions from somewhere else by simply saying it must be a religious practice," she said.

On occasion, the critics win. Among the more high-profile cases: In 2006, parents at Terra Linda High School in California protested plans for the program and funding was withdrawn.

Mackay said he hasn't received any complaints from parents, although a few have called with questions and some have asked for training themselves.

Brisa Gutierrez can just draw on what she's seen in her own classroom.

In her fourth year of teaching English and social studies at MORE, Gutierrez tells of one student who was troublesome for years. He was unruly and disruptive. His grades were up and down. "He was out of control, actually," she said.

After he began meditation, she said, "not only did I see a radical change in his behavior, but his academic performance shot up. We're talking day and night."

The boy graduated and is now employed full time.

"This should be in schools across the nation," Gutierrez said, adding that many of her more vulnerable students are bombarded in their neighborhoods with violence and drugs.

"This just gives them a chance to quiet the brain. And just for me, anecdotally, it's amazing to see what's happening as a result."

● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at rbodfield@azstarnet.com.
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