Everyone needs to learn resiliency skills, according to Missoula-founded Brightways Learning, a private K-12 education nonprofit.
“If you do everything by yourself, you’ll only be as big as yourself,” said Lisa Kerscher, development director for Brightways Learning.
Teachers suffer “compassion fatigue” and also need support and tips for how to be resilient in the face of class-to-class, day-to-day, year-to-year demands of students, administrators, parents and curriculum changes, said Jen Lutey, Kersch’s business partner, executive director and the company’s first professional hire way back in 2004.
Bottom line: The company teaches others – students and teachers – how to build social and emotional resiliency skills to better handle whatever life throws their way. It teaches how to build a “web of support” in order to meet academic goals and succeed in the classroom and life.
Westin Lutey, a 9-year-old Lolo Elementary fourth-grader and Jen Lutey’s son, said the student-centered Phlight Club helped him reduce his shyness. He joined older Seeley-Swan School students at Camp Paxson recently to learn resiliency skills that can help anyone of any age – not only at-risk students.
Phlight Club is a popular games and hands-on collaborative workshop that helps students narrow down a list of adults who support them at home and in school.
The purpose is to help them realize that behind any successful student lies a healthy “web of support” waiting in the wings whenever life throws unexpected curve balls.
“I am kind of shy, but once I started it, I got pretty used to it,” said Westin. “It became more fun.”
Westin can readily list his support group: his parents, an uncle, his babysitter, his grandpa and grandma, friends’ parents and teachers.
For a child to know that he or she can fall back on reliable adults while navigating school, society, peer pressures, social media and home life can make all the difference – and Brightways seems to be flexible in connecting others.
Initially a software design and data company, Brightways Learning has since branched out to offer its Brightways Global Academy, which includes a comprehensive, personalized education that meets each child’s unique learning needs and an online student management system that helps others stay on track for academic and bounce-back success.
“We have several different services, but our student support system is the biggest,” said Jen Lutey, who once worked in Alaska school districts, where many of her colleagues were Montana-born-and-bred teachers and administrators.
Montana school districts contracted to some degree with Brightways Learning include Seeley-Swan Elementary, Drummond, Lolo and Lavina in eastern Montana.
But since Brightways Learning thrives on federal grants, its highest number of current clients are in Alaska – where 17 schools partner with “Kersch,” Lutey and contractor teachers/leaders who conduct student workshops on site.
Many of the native communities in Alaska secure federal grants to help support the partnership, said Lutey. But in Montana, it’s a different story.
“Funding for education in Montana is so hard,” said Kerscher.
“It’s low state funding compared to usual and a heavy local responsibility,” added Lutey. “Especially for rural schools, the tax base is pretty thin.”
Montana’s seven reservations compete for federal dollars with reservations nationwide, whereas Alaska, Lutey said, relies on separate state-specific native federal grants.
However, Brightways Learning serves mostly rural schools, where resources may be few or nonexistent for students and teachers seeking ClassBright, a company program that specifically helps districts develop and retain teachers willing to work collaboratively.
But that doesn’t mean MCPS in town flies off their radar. To the contrary, as Kerscher and Lutey want to work with local schools.
“MCPS is a big boat to turn,” said Kerscher. “But our specialty is the rural schools. We work to get a district to adopt a program as a whole, we customize for each district and we pride ourselves in not being in a box. Every school and program is unique.”
Erin O’Reilly, education adjunct instructor at the University of Montana, applies the company concepts in two ways. She teaches education psychology and methodology classes to future teachers, who in turn will model the same for their future K-12 students.
A company educators conference last summer helped inspire her, O’Reilly said.
She now teaches her education students how to problem-solve so they can teach resiliency and collaborative skills.
“It’s modeling and building in expectations if a social problem arises between students,” said O’Reilly, a Missoula native, UM graduate and social studies teacher working on her doctorate in education leadership and higher education.
“You have to have the skills to have a frustrating conversation that surrounds conflicting views,” O’Reilly said. “It’s productive because it allows them to be a resilient learner, have more open-mindedness, listen to what the other person is saying and allows them to rethink their argument or have a more solid argument in areas they don’t agree on.”
Ideally, future educators model the process and help build more resilient students while building a web of support for themselves, too.
Brightways Learning’s method is built around how the brain works – particularly the adolescent brain, said O’Reilly. It encompasses memory, social and emotional learning within a teacher’s instructional design strategies, too.
“It’s not just being a mentor or an advocate,” added O’Reilly. “I am a piece of that web. It’s an introspective look at how they can look at the web of support they have of themselves and how they’re taking care of themselves so they are the very best when they go into the classroom.”
Kerscher and Lutey also help schools set up the ClassBright Evaluate software system, among other programs for schools and individualized learning.
Westin said Phlight Club helped him become more trusting of others – and that he would recommend it to others.
“It’s an opportunity for adults and youth to connect,” added Kerscher, who has a masters in journalism from UM. “It has transformed lives, truly.”
The company website provides a wide range of information: https://www.brightwayslearning.org/.