Heart-Mind in Schools: Purpose Secondary's Journey

Our Heart-Mind in Schools Project, generously funded by the Vancouver Foundation and another joint funder, is currently in its third year. The project provides staff at each of the nine school sites opportunities to attend 4 workshops focused on the implementation of system wide SEL (social and emotional learning). These workshops are guided by the Heart-Mind Well-Being Framework, and participating schools are provided with ongoing implementation support and resource materials. The journey of each “Heart-Mind School” is unique, as each school community integrates Heart-Mind well-being into their own school culture and community, by fostering relationships between students, staff, and families; learning a shared language centred around SEL; having an emphasis on staff well- being; and through a careful curation of the school’s strengths and overall environment.

Purpose Secondary, a tuition-free, fee-free independent school in New Westminster, BC run by the Lower Mainland Purpose Society is one of the nine pilot schools taking part in the Heart-Mind in Schools Project. Many of the 80 students attending have arrived at Purpose after the conventional school system could not offer them the holistic support they need in order to thrive. According to the school’s Principal, Merrilyn Cook-Nordheimer, it comes as an immense comfort to new families when they hear about Purpose’s focus on educating the heart. Families often become collaborators with the school as they themselves learn strategies to support Heart-Mind well-being in their homes.

Every week, Merrilyn writes a Principal’s Bulletin that explores the qualities of Heart-Mind well-being, highlighting a “Student of the Week”. Students are acknowledged not for their academic performance, but rather for “trying their best” and demonstrating the positive attributes of the Heart-Mind Well-Being Framework: Gets Along With Others, Solves Problems Peacefully, Alert & Engaged, Secure & Calm, and Compassionate & Kind. One Grade 9 student, for instance, was recently nominated by staff for showing kindness during P.E. class, taking extra care to make sure that another student was equally included.

Such an inclusive culture helps students to redefine their identities, often transforming from “guarded, anxious and isolated” when they first enter the school, to “social and connected”. An emphasis on SEL is integral to helping students form the safe relationships that help restore their trust in others. Conversations and activities to support well-being, such as grounding exercises, are infused into both classrooms and staff meetings as part of the school’s daily routines.

The pandemic, however, has tested Purpose Secondary in a new way: Merrilyn describes kids returning to school appearing “flat, anxious and disengaged”, stating that “you could hear a pin drop in each classroom”. It has required time, creativity, and a concerted effort to reestablish a cohesive and connected environment at the school, while strictly adhering to public safety guidelines. Maintaining a focus on Heart-Mind well-being has helped guide this process.

Upon the return to school, Staff filmed a comedic video as a lighthearted yet direct way to introduce students to the new COVID precautions. As the space at the school was not large enough to accommodate physical distancing, the heritage hotel next door generously allowed the school to use its facilities, free of charge, for the school’s Grade 8 and 9 Program.

While students can no longer go off school site during breaks or lunch hour, and must remain at their desks, additional community organizations have stepped up to help revive the spirit of connection and inclusivity at Purpose. The Dirty Apron Cooking school provides a subsidized  lunch that is delivered daily by the Company of Disciples who have applied for grants to cover the cost of the daily lunches. Students are able to share in the experience of eating together, even if they are physically separated. Outdoor education has become a key part of daily life at Purpose, with students and staff going outside 2-3 times each day–walking along a nearby river or long afternoon walks to such places as Colony Farms or Deer Lake Park. “Clubs Day” has also had a renaissance, with knitting club, cooking classes, and board games club, with the games made safe to play with COVID-safe Plexiglass partitions. These are just a few of the ways in which Purpose Secondary has fostered the kind of environment in which social and emotional learning can take place.








A testament to the value of the school’s welcoming atmosphere, one student, who had previously found it challenging to attend school consistently, stayed up the night before the re-opening of school in June and biked there to arrive two hours before it opened. Since the return, Merrilyn has noticed a deepened sense of appreciation that students have for each other and for their school community.

Throughout it’s journey as a Heart-Mind School, strategies to educate the heart are continually being interwoven into each aspect of Purpose Secondary’s culture. In early 2021, the school has plans to move from their current 7,500 sq. ft. space to a 20,000 sq. ft. location The new campus will include meditation and yoga space – and plenty of room for Heart-Mind Well-being to continue to grow in its new environment.

We are so inspired by the dedication of staff and administration at Purpose Secondary School, and very grateful to have this caring and Heart- Mind Well-being centred school as part of our Heart-Mind in School Project.


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