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    Cover photo: Students in a Compassionate Schools Project class at Cane Run Elementary go through their "mindful movement" poses.

    Photos by Mickie Winters

    The school bus slows, grunts and exhales, making its morning delivery. Crums Lane Elementary principal Anna Byrd surveys each student exiting down the bus’s four steps. She spots a hairdo to compliment, a high-five-worthy smile, a limp and reluctant descent by a lanky boy in loose khakis. Her arms open, bringing him in for a quick squeeze.

    Byrd could’ve been lifted from a children’s book, with her neat gray bob, dancer’s frame and brown eyes that hemorrhage her feelings and thoughts, no dialogue necessary. Byrd enjoys some sweet moments this morning: an older sister tying her tiny brother’s tiny shoe before guiding him inside; a fifth-grader pulling a regional spelling bee trophy out of her backpack to show it off to Byrd. A girl with stringy brown hair dives into Byrd for a hug, a near tackle. Byrd will later lean toward me, crossing her third finger over her index finger, and say, “We’re like this.” Last fall the bus dropped the girl off at her home and she found her mother unconscious from an overdose. Police brought her back to school. Byrd stayed with her past midnight trying to locate the father. Facebook messages finally worked.

    Byrd, a 20-plus-year veteran of public education, has long digested the backstories of her students. She understands the trauma backpacked from home to school: He was abandoned by his mom; his dad’s in prison; that family with eight kids was evicted; a boy with intense anger was suspended from his previous school before arriving at Crums Lane, a school that draws many students from high-poverty areas including the Lake Dreamland neighborhood and parts of west and south Louisville.

    Like all large urban districts, Jefferson County Public Schools has a challenging population — nearly 97,000 students, many coming from low-income neighborhoods. (Sixty-five percent of JCPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch). Over the last 20 years, an emphasis on high-stakes testing and accountability placed immense pressure on principals and teachers to boost academic performance. If test scores slipped backward, schools and their leaders were, essentially, scolded and reshuffled. 

    It seems a slow boomerang is underway. Because those who work with kids daily know (and have vocalized repeatedly) that if a child enters a school hurting, distracted, sad or simmering, he or she isn’t in a place to, at best, learn or, at the least, just sit and listen. Educators across the country crave programs that will help kids handle volatile emotions so they can focus in the classroom.

    Decades ago, the attitude was that parents or the church would tend to social and emotional needs. But the kids of today are much different than even one generation ago. Up to 20 percent of children in the United States experience at least one mental illness, including ADHD, anxiety and other mood disorders. Numbers have been steadily rising since 2000.

    Addressing the whole child has been the goal of several programs embedded into individual schools and district-wide. In 2015, a new approach. JCPS partnered with the University of Virginia to begin the Compassionate Schools Project, a seven-year undertaking that will measure whether dedicating 100 minutes of class time per week to “mindful” lessons (abstract, yes, but in a nutshell: calming, in tune with one’s self, thoughtful) will help students grow into kinder, more focused — maybe even smarter — kids. When Byrd heard about the project, she jumped at the opportunity. Crums Lane is one of 24 elementary schools out of 55 applicants that were randomly chosen to receive the Compassionate Schools Project (CSP) curriculum. Twenty-one schools that wanted to participate, but lost out in the lottery, were designated as “comparison” or “control” schools. (Only elementary schools are participating.)

    CSP is very much a project — a massive, scientifically rigorous, $12 million research project. It involves 20,000 kids: roughly 10,000 in CSP schools and about 9,000 in control schools. Twice a year, teams of data collectors visit all schools to assess students both receiving and not receiving CSP instruction. Researchers want to know: Does the Compassionate Schools model work? Can a giant public school system assist with the delicate, complex emotions of tens of thousands of kids?

    At the end of next school year, all 24 schools that have received funding to implement the Compassionate Schools curriculum will no longer get it. Money raised from a wide range of philanthropic donors only pays for two years of CSP. After that, should schools choose to continue the program, they must come up with the money to pay for a designated CSP teacher.

    Byrd, who says she’s seen a positive difference in her students since CSP arrived, worries that once the money dries up at the end of 2019, and researchers begin a two-year review of mountains of data, Compassionate Schools may fade, by way of tight budgets or lost interest. “You worry about that with just about everything in public education,” she says.


    Cane Run Elementary in south Louisville feels alert and orderly — students folded into desk chairs, the faint echo of a punctuation lesson, classroom lighting as crisp as ice water. In Meaghann Clem Mattingly’s room it resembles dusk, with two soft, glowing lamps replacing the fluorescents. All is quiet, a notch above pin-drop, just the rustling of 20 fifth-graders crisscrossing their legs as they settle onto 20 blue yoga mats.

    “Find your anchors,” Mattingly instructs in a patient, low voice, placing one hand on her heart and the other on her stomach. Her students do the same. “We’re going to notice if our mind wanders away from what we’re doing, then gently bring it back,” she says.

    Most students breathe calmly, eyes closed. A few exaggerate, going from soldier on inhale to ragdoll on exhale, shoulder blades subtly flapping under polo shirts. “Today we’re going to talk about self-awareness,” Mattingly says.

    Constants exist in all CSP rooms, including Mattingly’s. A poster of a frog (the CSP mascot) smiling and touching his heart and belly — aka the body’s “anchors” — is fixed to a wall. Pieces of paper with emotions written on them — mad, sad, happy — are taped around the room. Sometimes students will line up near the one they’re feeling that day. Every teacher has a colorful ball that expands to the size of an exercise ball, representing a giant inhale. When crunched back down to the size of a basketball, it’s a cue to let it all out.

    Photo: Meaghann Clem Mattingly leads her fifth-graders through a breathing exercise.

    Teachers strike a bell. “When you can no longer hear the bell you can show me those beautiful smiles and we will begin,” Mattingly says before striking a chime with a stick. Dingggggggg! Students snap eyes shut and listen, attempting to stay with the bell’s ring until it dips to silence. The note hangs for 10, then 15 seconds. Eyes open. Mattingly confesses. “This morning I lost my keys and I (was thinking): Where did I put my keys?” she says. “But I realized I’m not listening to the bell.”

    I’ve watched about ten classes in three different schools, and all lessons unfold with nutritive purpose. The bell is a practice in focus, returning to the sound of the bell even if the mind drifts away. A game of charades instructs children to act out a scenario that triggers a feeling, like fear. On this day, a boy in Mattingly’s class pretends a dog is chasing him. A slight girl with a long puffy ponytail opens an invisible present and drops her mouth open with glee. “Surprise! Happy!” her classmates shout. 

    Sometimes Mattingly and other CSP teachers field-trip out of their rooms and over to the gym for variations of tag and chase. Naturally, the game escalates to wild shrieks and sloppy sprints. Teachers then shout for stillness so kids can feel their heart racing, acknowledging adrenaline’s presence. Take a breath, find your anchors. Do you think you can make good choices when you’re feeling so full of adrenaline?

    “You can’t be calm and threatened at the same time,” a CSP researcher will explain to me after I watch the class. When kids feel angry or fearful, stress hormones ravage the body. The brain ignites — fight or flight? Breathing slowly and intentionally distracts you, shifting your attention from fear. The nervous system messages the body: It’s OK.

    The most photogenic portion of these CSP classes, the part that’s appeared in Time Magazine and on local news is “mindful movement” — yoga that’s not called yoga (too many religious connotations). In 2013, a district in the Canton, Ohio, area shuttered its mindfulness initiative after public outcry that the program was too close to Buddhist practices. I’m told that, other than a handful of devoutly religious families in Louisville expressing concern with CSP, Louisville has embraced it.

    Each class ends with a few minutes of rest. Children plop on their mats as soothing music sets the mood. Arms form pillows behind heads and eyelids sink heavy and low. Kids love it. And how could they not? It’s probably the only time in their entire day when an adult is telling them to lie down, relax, do nothing. Just: Breathe.


    With how fervently Mayor Greg Fischer touts Louisville as a compassionate city, perhaps it’s no wonder the University of Virginia partnered with JCPS (under then-superintendent Donna Hargens) for the Compassionate Schools Project. But it’s a little more involved than just a joint passion for compassion.

    Several years ago the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education set out to complete a comprehensive study of mindfulness in schools. There had been a few small-scale studies, like one in Wisconsin that showed four- to six-year-olds performed better in school after participating in a program similar to CSP. According to Time, another study in North Carolina showed just two weeks of mindfulness training with preschoolers resulted in happier, more self-aware kids. Other studies have shown similar promise, even linking the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors during early childhood to better health, educational attainment and financial stability later in life.

    Photo: The Compassionate Schools curriculum includes some activities you might find in traditional PE, like a tagging game.

    But UVA’s Patrick Tolan, the principal investigator for CSP, says there’s never been a large-scale randomized study. That random part is key because if only schools eager to adopt mindfulness hopped onboard and showed positive results, a big question would remain: Did the curriculum work? Or was it more a building full of motivated leaders? Tolan and I meet one morning for breakfast during one of his many treks from Charlottesville to Louisville. Tolan, a tall, polite, straightforward man of science, says UVA wanted to implement its compassionate curriculum in a big, diverse school system. “We wanted to do it in a school system that the rest of America could say was like us,” he says. “If we did it in San Francisco or New York, people would say, ‘Oh, that’s not us.’”

    They not only needed a district interested in adopting the curriculum, but one that would agree to basically become a county-sized laboratory. Researchers would need comparison schools for true scientific analysis. So even if schools wanted the program, they’d have to accept leaving it up to a lottery and, if not chosen, there was another caveat: They could keep whatever anti-bullying or social and emotional programs they currently had in place, but nothing like CSP could be introduced, at least not until 2021 when data collection and assessment would be complete.

    That’s because after the two-year active implementation of the curriculum, researchers will assess a random sampling of about 5,400 students for another two years. For some kids, that means following them past elementary school and into middle school. Students will complete tests that feel like video games to see if they’re able to complete a task without distraction. There will be physical tests to gauge balance (body control) and written surveys and, of course, heaps of behavioral and academic data. “A lot of times with social and emotional learning, some of the impacts emerge over time,” explains Alexis Harris, CSP’s project director based in Louisville. “They may grow over time or they may fade over time. We need to follow students beyond just the end of the program to see what happens.” (Tolan’s guess is that the more exposure students have to the curriculum, the more impactful CSP will be.)

    All things considered, this Compassionate Schools Project was a big ask for a district. But when Owsley Brown III asks, folks in Louisville listen. Brown, an active philanthropist and the son of Christy Brown and the late Brown-Forman chairman and CEO Owsley Brown II, is a UVA alum. At a young age, he says, he was profoundly moved by the contemplative practice of Trappist monk Thomas Merton. “I have found that it grounds me and helps orient me toward what’s most important in life — compassion, love, health and joy!” he shared in an email. So when he discovered the Compassionate Schools Project at his alma mater and learned of its desire for an urban testing ground, Owsley Brown III advised Mayor Greg Fischer and then-superintendent Donna Hargens that JCPS might be just the right fit. (Brown is in charge of fundraising for the project.) 

    If all goes well and CSP proves beneficial, Tolan hopes districts across the country will adopt the curriculum, potentially helping a whole generation of students. And, possibly, teachers. Stress from challenging classrooms grates on many. “We lose one out of every two teachers five to seven years after they get their degree. They burn out,” Tolan says. “If we can decrease that burnout by 10 percent or 5 percent . . . that’s going to help the school system.” 

    As of 2021, when data collection is complete, CSP will make the curriculum free for anyone interested. Until then, comparison schools must remain without it. LaWanda Hazard-Irvin, principal of Kerrick Elementary off Dixie Highway, says she was disappointed when she signed her school up for the CSP lottery and was ultimately chosen as a comparison school. She believed in the model. She’d witnessed the benefits of mindfulness in her building. Hazard-Irvin says a former counselor used to pull about ten of the most troubled students into mindfulness activities regularly. “Teaching them how to get off that ledge,” she recalls. “It was beautiful to see.”

    Other comparison schools have also expressed disappointment. And UVA’s Tolan has heard pleas for CSP to go where it’s most needed, rather than just assigning it at random. But science doesn’t operate that way. “People want to know: Is it working? I would love to say let’s do it everywhere,” Tolan says. “That’s not my training. That’s not my agreement. We have to know it works. Because if it doesn’t work, let’s not keep arguing it’s great, even thought it looks great. My training is you don’t want to trust what it feels like.”


    “Hi angry! Hi sad! Hi happy,” Mattingly says to Cane Run first-graders who ring a pretend doorbell, contort their faces into scowls, pouts and smiles and are ultimately welcomed into Mattingly’s pretend home. “Come on in! See how I don’t turn away any visiting feelings?”

    It’s a warm September Monday afternoon and the first-graders are out of sorts, more fidgety than usual. One girl arrived to Mattingly’s class in tears. Another curls herself into a ball and rolls around. A boy crawls under a chair and hides. The school is on lockdown, blinds drawn, lights in hallways dimmed. Outside, about a half-dozen police offers in bulletproof vests have just left. A drive-by-shooting suspect near Cane Run wound up on school property for a brief moment. No kids were outside. No one was hurt. Students didn’t even know what happened. But the lockdown alone has left Mattingly with a hyper crew.

    She’s a pro, an enthusiastic supporter of the project, the literal poster girl for CSP. Look at any brochure or video. She’s in it. CSP offers a week-long training session for all CSP teachers and support throughout the year, even offering before-and-after school mindfulness sessions for staff — chair yoga, breathing, silent moments of gratitude.

    Photo: Cane Run principal Kim Coslow believes that the Compassionate Schools Project is making a difference.
    So much so that when the money from CSP ran out, she reorganized computer and arts programs so she could find money for a CSP teacher.

    Mattingly, a 37-year-old former kindergarten teacher with brown hair, thin features and a slightly husky voice says teaching CSP is harder than academics. She loves it, but it takes muscle to stay calm and understanding in a class all about calm and understanding, especially on a day when no amount of chimes, music, stretches or breathing leads to focus. “I’m exhausted at the end of the day,” she says.

    Mattingly’s in her third year teaching the Compassionate Schools curriculum. The project has been implemented in phases. In 2015, three pilot schools started the project. More schools were added each year leading to this year’s total — 24 schools with CSP curriculum, 21 comparison schools.

    As one of three pilot schools, Cane Run lost its funding for the program at the end of last school year. Cane Run’s principal, Kim Coslow, decided it must endure. She rearranged how the school allotted time and teachers for art and computers so she could afford two fulltime CSP teachers. Jacob Elementary, another pilot school, eliminated the program after its CSP teacher retired. Slaughter Elementary, the third pilot school, has formed its own compassionate curriculum called Peaceful Experiences Around Compassionate Education, or PEACE.

    While reviewing district data for a few schools involved in CSP, I look at behavior referrals for the last couple years. While the total number of referrals don’t show any dramatic decrease, I spot a few instances of improvements. At Cane Run, for example, the number of times a student hit a faculty member was cut nearly in half in the 2016-2017 school year when compared to 2015-2016 data. 

    Mattingly and Coslow say data points don’t show the full picture. “We have seen a decrease in the number of students who hit crisis. So they have struggles and they get here when they’re upset,” Coslow says, raising her hand to her forehead. “Now they have coping strategies to get them back down. So that they’re not full-blown throwing chairs so that teachers can teach.”

    Coslow also says the number of kids who flee class out of frustration (“runners,” she calls them) is dropping. Some opt for a designated “pause place,” usually a little square mat where kids are encouraged to take three to five breaths. Sometimes a plastic jar full of glitter water does the trick. Kids shake it vigorously, entranced as the sparkles drift to the bottom like snow.

    Coslow turns to Mattingly: “Our little fourth-grade friend has not left the classroom in a couple weeks,” she reports.

    “Wow,” Mattingly says, nodding.


    “Come to your mindful mountain,” a young, ponytailed teacher in yoga pants and a CSP T-shirt instructs, standing tall with her hands at her side, palms facing out. It’s a rainy Monday morning at McFerran Preparatory Academy, a school that touches both the Old Louisville and Park Hill neighborhoods. Margaret Welp leads 30 fifth-graders through their “mindful movements.”

    She bends down. “Push your body out and back for downward dog,” she says from an upside-down “V” position. “This looks so wrong,” one girl in a skirt mutters. Welp has taped boxes around mats to try to keep students contained to their spaces, but limbs cross the borders both intentionally and by accident. “I expect you to attempt,” Welp says, keeping her cool, eyeing students who sit motionless.

    Glenna Hess, an implementation specialist with CSP, leans toward me. “Fifth grade is the toughest grade in elementary school,” she says. We’re both here to observe CSP at McFerran, an elementary school located next to an electrical substation and across the street from a bulky brick warehouse that stores crime scene evidence for Louisville Metro Police. McFerran is one of the last schools added to the CSP project. This is the school’s first year with the curriculum. These fifth-graders came into the year expecting physical education two days a week, not mindful movement, not a classroom lined with black yoga mats, Christmas lights and flower drapes.

    “It’s a shift for our kids to go from traditional PE model to Compassionate Schools,” Welp admits. “That was the biggest battle in the beginning, especially with our older kids.” For the most part, the 24 schools implementing CSP have fit it into their schedule by eliminating traditional PE. The Compassionate Schools Project meets PE standards because it covers health, self-care and incorporates movement like stretching and games that spike the heart rate. One teacher at Cane Run plays music throughout her class and sneaks in some dance moves.

    More than kids, Hess says, some former PE teachers have bristled when handed their new compassionate curriculum. “Some of the guys who are coaches were like, ‘When am I going to teach basketball?’” she says. “The seasoned teachers are the hardest ones to move along.”

    One fresh-faced PE teacher downstairs from Welp teaches CSP in the gym. The papers designating emotions — mad, sad, happy — are posted on bleachers and an overheard projector shows a slide of the seven universal emotions onto a white cinderblock wall, past the basketball hoop. It all feels a bit mismatched. But the PE teacher has earnestly accepted his charge. It’s entirely endearing to watch this PE teacher in his gray Nike pants lift his PE teacher whistle and blow that shrill familiar sound, alerting 19 squealing kindergartners that it’s time to freeze from their game of tag so they could “find their anchors.”

    Hess, a petite stylish woman recruited out of retirement, was hired by CSP to make sure schools carry out the program as scientists intended. She’s a veteran with this sort of thing. Under superintendent Sheldon Berman, she helped implement the CARE for Kids program at JCPS, another initiative with goals of increasing empathy in classrooms and building strong relationships. It eventually fizzled. Before CARE for Kids, in the ’90s, Hess worked on the Child Development Project, a program focused on social and emotional learning that JCPS and other districts nationwide took part in. A few other programs sprouted from that.

    She’s crossing her fingers that CSP sticks. “It’s not just a cute little program. It has purpose. It takes the social and emotional skills that are needed, that students lack,” she says. “And they have intentional time set aside for that.” CARE for Kids and other similar programs were often inserted into academic class time. One teacher described CARE for Kids to me as “one more thing I had to do.” (A lot of teachers still incorporate CARE for Kids in their classrooms.)

    Hess knows these next few years will be critical to the fate of CSP. Schools that like it will start scrambling for funds. “I think realistically there has to be some money from the district,” Hess says.

    Late this spring, schools will make individual requests to the school board for money. That may be a time when JCPS puts dollars behind compassionate schools. As for acting superintendent Marty Pollio, who often talks on the need to improve school climate, he says he’s supportive of CSP. “There is value for all students in learning how to tap into what they are feeling, why they are feeling that way and how they can help regulate their emotions,” he says. “We have to teach students the skills to be successful in life and in the classroom. We know that students who control their emotions spend more time in the classroom learning.”


    Crums Lane principal Anna Byrd shows me a picture that a second grader drew in CSP class. Students were instructed to draw things that make them happy. The little girl drew herself and her dad as blue and green blocky figures with literal ear-to-ear grins. Her mother is drawn as a brown stick figure off to the side. Byrd happened to be in the room during the lesson. “She turned to me and said, ‘Ms. Byrd, my mom doesn’t love me.’ That little girl is probably dead right,” Byrd says, her eyes pained. “I said, ‘Your father loves you. Your grandmother loves you. And we love you.’”

    Traditionally in public education, the counselor’s office might have filled the role of compassionate space attempting to unlock the hurt. But these days, counselors and school social workers must juggle a lot more, like individualized education plans for students with special needs and behavior assessments. There’s less time to spend one-on-one with kids. “When you have kids as high risk as we (have), we can’t have enough interventions,” says Byrd as she walks through the hall, occasionally making eye contact with a child and scratching the air with her index finger — the Crums Lane sign for “I love you.”

    Byrd gathers four fifth-graders for me — Blyden, Isaiah, Justice and Mikayla. Byrd urges them to tell me their thoughts about CSP. “They’re honest,” she says. “They’ll tell you if they don’t like it.” They may be honest, but it’s also true that these four recently stood in their school library and read testimonials on the benefits of compassionate schools to Owsley Brown III and a group of philanthropists. (CSP is still trying to raise about $3.75 million of the project’s total $12 million cost.)

    Blyden reads his letter first: “CSP is calming and fun. I have a short temper…Now I can keep my temper down by going to a pause place.” Sitting in Byrd’s office at a table with glittery pumpkins and a glass dish full of mints and butterscotch, our conversation strays from their written statements. Isaiah, an outgoing boy with chipmunk cheeks and what he describes as “bad anger issues,” shares that last year he graduated from therapy. “I said, ‘I really don’t think I need you anymore because Compassionate Schools is helping me,’” he says. “I had two or three appointments, then I quit because I was doing so well.”

    The group starts discussing what stresses them out. At first, answers are predictable: girls who “think they’re better than everybody” and start fights. Bullies, the unanimous thorn. Blyden says he’s scared he’ll get to high school and get a “supreme (urge) to fight back” if someone needles him. “I’m scared I might get into a whole lot of trouble.”

    Mikayla, a tall girl with purple-framed glasses, clings to different worries. “I’m in AP (Advanced Placement) and I’m going to have a whole lot of pressure on me. Plus, a whole lot of stuff at home,” she says, tears creeping into her eyes. “My dad’s sick. And I’m a daddy’s girl.” Isaiah pats her shoulder, then speaks. “I’m scared of how the future will work. How technology will work. I’m scared of healthcare and the people who are, like, not rich or poor.”

    “The middle class,” his classmates say. 

    “Yes,” he says. “They say in the future that healthcare will start going up and up. Say they’re sick and they don’t have a healthcare card and they have money, but they still can’t afford it.”

    I’d been wondering and reading about what’s causing anxiety in kids, why schools across the country feel so drawn to programs like CSP. Theories exist — social media, overly organized, busy lives that create a “stress framework” around children, difficult socioeconomic situations that have strained the poor and working class. Maybe CSP will neutralize some of that and instill a little empathy and self-love along the way. Maybe something else will come along by the time researchers have completed their analysis. 

    Blyden looks down, nervously. “Say you’re in high school and this super rich kid gets access to these guns,” he says. “And if you fight with them, you’ll get shot and killed.” His classmates sit silent for a moment, just a heartbeat or two. Isaiah then leaps into a rapid-fire tutorial on robot cops (“Real RoboCops!”) in Iraq. But Justice, who is sitting across from Blyden, quietly inches toward him, gives a reassuring nod and checks in. “You OK, Blyden?”

    This originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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