Uplifting words shaping teens’ mental health at Ohio school

Save Our Students

MARIETTA, Ohio (KXAN) — It’s your first day as a sixth-grader at a new middle school campus. You can feel the butterflies going crazy in your stomach, and your heart is beating out of your chest. You’ve tried on five different outfits, texted your friends to get their opinions and decided to carpool with them so you don’t have to walk in by yourself. Or better yet, you’re riding the bus and won’t have to be alone.

Marietta Middle School
Marietta Middle School in Marietta, Ohio
(KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Teachers at Marietta Middle School in Marietta, Ohio, know how nerve-racking that first day at a new school can be. On top of that, the massive historic red brick building built in 1926 looks intimidating when you first pull up.

So last year, all of the staff members decorated poster boards with encouraging words and lined up in the morning outside where students get dropped off. Principal Brittany Schob told KXAN it was an encouraging sight to see on the first day of school, and they’ve decided to make it an annual tradition.

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  • Marietta MS first day of school
  • Marietta MS first day of school
  • Marietta MS first day of school
  • Marietta MS first day of school
  • Marietta MS first day of school
  • Marietta Middle School first day of school
  • Marietta MS first day of school
  • Marietta Middle School first day of school
  • Marietta MS first day of school
  • Marietta MS first day of school

This year, when new students step foot inside the school they will start noticing that the quotes and positive messages are just part of the landscape and culture on campus.

“I think the more kids see it, the more they hear it from us, then the more it just gets embedded into their daily routine,” Schob said. “It’s that positive reinforcement.”

Last school year, a local college student looking for something creative to do during national anti-bullying month came up with the idea to jazz up the boys’ and girls’ restrooms by painting the stalls with positive quotes and artwork.

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  • Marietta MS bathroom stalls
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  • Marietta MS bathroom message

In addition, larger-than-life posters have been purposefully placed at the ends of heavily traveled hallways and above walls of cream-colored vintage lockers. One of the signs is saturated with a vibrant, graffiti-style background and says, “Be better than you were yesterday.” Another one is made to look like a student is standing and looking down at their black Converse shoes on the pavement, and big bold white letters spell out, “It starts with you.” In a hallway full of classrooms upstairs, bright yellow, wild sunflowers cover a sign that says, “Plant happiness.”

Seventh-grade language arts teacher Shanaka Haney-McGowan was the catalyst behind the indoor wall decor after seeing examples in a teaching magazine on tolerance. She wanted something that would really get students’ attention, so Haney-McGowan worked with the art teacher to create original designs. They took into account the colors that would complement the hallways and coordinate with the sayings.

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A local company called Signality partnered with the campus and offered to make the signs for free. Without the donation, Haney-McGowan said the project might not have been possible. The reusable vinyl signs, which were heat-sealed to the wall, would have cost the school a total of $1,300.

“Hopefully, each kid gets a message that speaks to them whenever they need it,” said Hanes-McGowan, who added a lot of her students worry about acceptance.

More than half of the middle school students come from low-income families, and the area is made up of mostly white families.

Marietta Middle School entrance
Signs at the entrance of Marietta Middle School (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“[We don’t have] a lot of LGBTQ-plus kids for people to identify with so I think anytime kids can find somebody that they know is open and accepting of them is helpful,” Hanes-McGowan said. “We also have a drug epidemic that is huge in our area, so when kids come to school they come here to be safe and loved so we need them to feel safe and loved. So, hopefully, these signs help them do that.”

Incoming eighth-grade class president Tate Ayers, 13, took notice of the signs posted on the seventh-grade floor.

His favorite one says, “It’s not a bad life, it’s just a bad day.” Ayers believes the signs have the power to put students in a better mood.

“I think it really helps people to be more positive and that’s really what Marietta Middle School needs is more positivity,” Ayers said.

Marietta MS Principal's office
Sign hanging in the principal’s office at Marietta Middle School (KXAN Photo: Erin Cargile)

Principal Schob, whose office is also plastered with memorable quotes, said the idea of creating an uplifting atmosphere took off after the campus went through Rachel’s Challenge. The program is designed to reduce violence and teach students the importance of spreading kindness. It was created by the father of Rachel Scott, who was the first person killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

“This is an age where — self-confidence — they’re trying to figure out who they are, you know, who they fit in with,” Schob said. “We do have to work a lot with being nice to one another and how to be respectful to one another.”

Rachel’s Challenge has visited 300 school districts in Texas. In the last few years, speakers have encouraged teachers and students in Georgetown, Lake Travis and Round Rock school districts to spread kindness. It is up to each individual campus to decide how it will carry on the lessons learned.

Marietta Middle School measures the success

Schob points to a campus climate survey sent to parents and students to gauge how well their extra efforts to beef up positive messaging are working. When you compare the last two school years, student responses stayed about the same.

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Marietta Middle School campus climate survey results (Data provided by Marietta Middle School)

The jump came from parents. This last school year, almost every parent said they feel like someone at school cares about their child, and that teachers expect their children to do their very best.

There are other mental health initiatives at play on the campus. The district started bringing in additional licensed counselors from an outside agency to work with students, and the middle schoolers also go through suicide prevention training and screenings.

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