Marysville School: Rising from ashes through ‘mindfulness’

Rising from the ashes of a 2009 fire, Marysville School is now a top performer with unique program

One of the kindergartners who takes part in the Mindfulness program at Marsyville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)
One of the kindergartners who takes part in the Mindfulness program at Marysville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Eight years ago this month, Portlanders watched in disbelief as the historic Marysville School went up in flames.

From the ashes, Marysville School has undergone a major transformation. What started as a way to cope with trauma has become a unique way to approach every school day: the fire has fueled an entire school practicing “mindfulness.”

Rising from the ashes

Marysville Schools Principal Lana Penley in her office in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)
Marysville School Principal Lana Penley in her office in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)

On November 10, 2009, all 500 students and staff at Marysville School escaped the massive flames, but the K-8 school was badly damaged. At the time, Lana Penley was in her 2nd year as principal.

Watch: KOIN coverage as Marysville re-opened

“I still think about that day, absolutely,” Penley told KOIN 6 News, fighting back tears. “I’m feeling emotional right now thinking about it.”

She said “what I feel right now is 2 things. There’s this sadness for what happened and there is such a gift that has brought myself, personally, and the school to the place we are right now.”

When Marysville re-opened in January 2013, they decided to try something different.

“The truth is there was a lot of pain still there and there was trauma still there and we were coming back to the place where the trauma happened,” she said.

From the ashes, they decided to embrace mindfulness.

“Mindfulness,” Penley said, “is all about showing up fully present, with a sense of kindness. And imagine a school where everyone is trying to do that.”

What’s evolved, she said, is a school-wide ecosystem of care.

‘It makes me feel calm and ready to learn’

From the moment you enter the building, there’s music and soft lighting.

“You know you’re entering a special place and where you’ll be treated as special,” Principal Penley said. “We want you to treat other people in that same way.”

Students, dedicated teachers and staff start their day practicing mindfulness. Kindergartners focus on their breathing, getting their bodies and minds ready for the school day.”

Kindergartners taking part in the Mindfulness program at Marsyville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)
Kindergartners taking part in the Mindfulness program at Marsyville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)

One kindergartner, Amoura Schulkers, said, “It makes me feel calm and nice and ready to learn.”

This isn’t just for the little ones. Mindfulness is also practiced with middle schoolers.

“Middle school students are very emotional and they’re kind of all over the place when they come in in the morning,” teacher Madeleine Allen told KOIN 6 News. “So we want to get them in a right, good place and they recognize they need it.”

Inside Mindfulness at Marysville School

As part of a curriculum called MindUP, students learn how their brains work.

One of the middle school students who takes part in the Mindfulness program at Marsyville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)
Fourth-grader JD Baker-Hughes takes part in the Mindfulness program at Marsyville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)

Fourth-grader JD Baker-Hughes explained it this way:

“The prefrontal cortex, which is the front of the brain part, up here, it’s the mindfulness, the decisions that overcome the non-mindful, which is like the amygdala. Because the amygdala mostly wants you to start punching and reacting extreme.”

This year, the school is also incorporating yoga as students learn to navigate things like stress and anxiety with positive responses and an optimistic outlook.

Principal Lana Penley said they’re seeing results, like fewer kids sent to the office and higher teacher retention. Academically, Marysville is now the top-performing Title One K-8 school in the Portland School District for math and reading.

But, most importantly, Penley said students are approaching the world with kindness and care.

One piece of the MindUP curriculum includes an every-other-week lesson for the whole school. In this lesson, the school focuses on gratitude, joy and compassion, and, Penley said, “We teach them that with intention here.”

“They are my teachers every day, too,” she said. “I see them practicing it and it reminds me, ‘Whoa, I have to check myself.’ I feel they’re really special and the world needs to learn from them and what they’re doing.”

Kindergartners taking part in the Mindfulness program at Marsyville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)
Kindergartners taking part in the Mindfulness program at Marsyville School in Southeast Portland, October 17, 2017 (KOIN)