Every Tuesday, for one period, freshmen at ICJA divide into four groups to learn some of life’s most important lessons and skills. Seated in a semi-circle around one teacher–who serves as a mentor or facilitator more than instructor–students discuss relevant issues and challenges, including: relationships, mental health, anger and stress management, body image, self awareness, internet safety, personal safety, and drugs and alcohol prevention.

The course is part of an initiative of Madraigos Midwest, called “Steps to Healthy Living: Education Initiative of The Barry and Harriet Ray Family Foundation,” based on a program created in 2003 by The SAFE Foundation in New York. It is a researched-based, 30-week curriculum designed by social workers and teen advocates for students in grades 5-12.

This year is the fourth year that ICJA social worker, Mrs. Shuli Tsadok, LMSW, has taught the course, but it was an elective class for second semester senior girls in the past. Mrs. Lynn Kraft, Rabbi Yakov Danishefsky and Rabbi Mayer Simcha Stromer are teaching the course for the first time this year. Each grade level, beginning with freshmen, are divided into four groups to meet with their assigned course teacher. After joining an initial training last summer, the staff work together with Mrs. Tsadok and Mrs. Shira Berkowitz, LCSW, coordinator of school-based programs for Madraigos Midwest, to prepare for each week’s lesson.

ICJA students are among the nearly 1,000 students in Chicago-area Jewish day schools who have recently benefited from the program, including Hillel Torah, ACHDS, RZJHS, HSBY, JDBY-YTT, Fasman Yeshiva, Cheder Lubavitch, BYHS, TABG and LGHS.

Anecdotally and based on student survey responses, says Mrs. Berkowitz, “This program helps students build self-confidence and develop the skills needed to make healthier decisions throughout the potentially tumultuous adolescent years and beyond.” Each lesson includes activities, discussions, videos, articles and homework exercises to introduce or reinforce one issue at a time. Besides a 2,000-page curriculum, teachers have access to a Google Drive full of relevant resources to incorporate into each lesson. Mrs. Berkowitz and the team at SAFE develop new lessons to address new contemporary issues that become relevant to students, such as vaping. “It becomes a class where kids feel comfortable discussing challenging issues and current events, says Mrs. Berkowitz.

Mrs. Tsadok says, “The students are gaining practical skills that don’t get addressed in the classroom. These are lessons they need on a day-to-day basis and ones they will take with them once they leave high school.”

Rabbi Danishefsky says, “In a complex world, with information and messages coming at us in a variety of forums, it’s ever so important to develop the self-awareness and social-emotional skills that empower healthy decision making. This is equally true for adults and adolescents, and all the better to start as early as possible. Moreover, teens in our day are exposed to ‘real life’ at a very young age and they need tools to enable their success at navigating these different opportunities and challenges.”

Besides teaching the curriculum, one of the main benefits of working with the same teacher each week within the same group of peers is relationship building. Students have a safe space to ask questions that they may not have otherwise asked a teacher. For freshmen this year, who participated in two Steps classes during orientation, that meant they had a connection with a teacher prior to the first day of school. Mrs. Tsadok says, “It’s a better way to ensure we connect with every student in this school, so that we know what they need and provide support. Even on the first session, I was able to start to gauge what kind of support some of the participants may need, based on their comments and feedback.”

On numerous occasions, says Mrs. Berkowitz, Steps teachers have been able to proactively identify kids who need more support in a faster way than a typical teacher. Students who may normally be quiet in class or “fall under the radar,” says Mrs. Berkowitz, will often approach their Steps teacher.

Once students leave the program, says Mrs. Tsadok, they continue to use some of the skills and lessons learned in Steps. “We talk a lot about healthy communication skills, especially during conflicts, such as using ‘I’ statements and accepting responsibility. I get a lot of texts from former students now in college that they use the tools we discussed. When we practice, they roll their eyes because it sounds really formal, but they use it later on.”

We are grateful to partner with Madraigos Midwest to bring this relevant curriculum to ICJA. Rabbi Matanky says, “Every generation has its unique challenges and today, two of the greatest challenges we face are creating and maintaining healthy relationships in the age of the internet; and safeguarding our students and ourselves from the abuse of substances. We are very fortunate to not only have talented educators in the Academy but to have formed a close alliance with Madgraigos that has provided for us the resource of the Steps to Healthy Living curriculum. How fortunate we are to be able to recognize and address the challenges of this generation of ICJA students!”

Underlying the whole initiative and every lesson over the course of four years, is the powerful message to students that their social and emotional well-being is as important as their academic success.