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Pulaski High School Offers a Haven for Students and Faculty

The Zen Den

Aug. 29, 2017
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Photo credit: Pulaski High School website

Teresa Buss knew exactly what students at Casimir Pulaski High School on Milwaukee’s South West Side needed to cope with the stresses they were subject to nearly every day because she had been there herself. Above all, what was lacking for so many was a haven they could turn to at particularly stressful moments in their lives, even if it was just for the few minutes it might take them to regain their composure. From that realization was born a project called the Zen Den.

Now situated in a room on the second floor of Pulaski High School, the Zen Den is fitted out with art supplies, musical instruments, tools, books and various other odds and ends. Some of it has been paid for with donations, some out of Buss’ own pocket. All of it is there for one reason: to provide a temporary respite to people who are in danger of breaking under the pressures of their daily lives. 

Students and faculty are welcome to come in and draw, paint, write, play with “kinetic sand,” strum a guitar, build things out of wood, chuck paint at a wall—even take a nap. Provided they aren’t being disruptive and aren’t there obviously just to shirk schoolwork, they can stay as long as they need. Although trained as an art therapist, Buss never foresaw herself running anything like the Zen Den when she came to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Her first tour of duty, in fact, had been as an art teacher.


Coping with Stress

When she came to Pulaski in 2013 with her degree in art therapy in tow, Buss got a quick reminder of what had made her previous years in the school system so trying. “You spend most of your time making sure you are not going to be someone’s target,” she said. Unable to cope with the everyday stresses, she took a leave of absence after being back for only a year and a half. When it came time to return, she did so on the condition that she could set up the Zen Den.

Aimee Harris, a counselor at Pulaski, had high praise for what Buss has accomplished so far. “I’ve never seen anything like it in a school,” Harris said. “I think all schools could use their own Zen Den.”

Pulaski, and the pressures students face there, are certainly not unique in the MPS system. Pulaski is one of many schools in the district that are listed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as “failing to meet expectations.” Its graduation rate is an abysmal 52.3%, and slightly more than 90% of the nearly 970 students taking classes there are considered economically disadvantaged. 

Buss said teachers struggle to maintain order in classes where the headcounts often top 40. Many of the students have troubled lives at home and bring the stresses they are exposed to there with them to school. Outbreaks of violence are not uncommon. Buss said she has seen students fight each other, attack staff, and have to be forcibly restrained by administrators and teachers.

Not long into her time at Pulaski, Buss began suffering symptoms commonly associated with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder); even slight provocations could cause her to snap at students. “I started avoiding my normal routes,” Buss said. “When I ran, I started to run toward safer neighborhoods. I’d have panic attacks going to the movies. I’d have nightmares.”

Overcoming Skepticism 

Teresa Buss knew she couldn’t be the only one who was having a hard time coping. When she first opened the Zen Den, she found that most teachers and administrators were skeptical of her idea, but, little by little, more started to use it—either sending students there or coming in themselves for a break. Now, Buss believes, most faculty support her project. Helping her to build trust among teachers and administrators has been her demonstrated lack of tolerance for students who come to the Zen Den just to avoid class work. Buss keeps the door closed to troublemakers by insisting everyone follow a few simple rules.

To spend time in Buss’ Zen Den, you must agree to be respectful and mindful; be taking part in some sort of purposeful activity (unless napping); be able to keep everything confidential; and be aware that Buss is what is called a “Mandated Reporter”—meaning that she is under a legal obligation to alert the authorities if students threaten to hurt themselves or others. Most importantly, Buss doesn’t want anyone in the Zen Den who isn’t there voluntarily. She said she has turned away plenty of students after it became apparent they had been sent there by teachers against their will.

For some of the students who have taken advantage of the Zen Den, in its short existence, it has lived up to its promise.

Jocelyn Valle, a 19-year-old woman who now works for Milwaukee County Parks, spent the 2015-2016 school year at Pulaski High School. She said her early time at the school was one of endless distractions, which made concentrating on school work next to impossible. Soon, she was skipping classes regularly. It was only when she discovered the Zen Den that she started coming back.

Valle eventually left Pulaski after one year and went to an alternative school that allowed her to graduate faster. But, had it not been for the Zen Den, she doesn’t know that she could have made it that far. In the Den, she said, “the students were being quiet. You could sit there and comfortably do your work at your own pace.”

Now one of the biggest questions about the Zen Den is: Can it be replicated at other schools? Buss said MPS administrators have shown interest in her project and even come over for a tour. She is now working on a proposal meant to show how the Den might be replicated. One obstacle, she acknowledges, is a lack of paraprofessionals in the MPS system who have her specific training in art therapy. But she is still hopeful that at least the essential parts of what she is doing at Pulaski will prove transferable. Her next goal is to get an intern who could relieve her of some of her day-to-day duties while she takes time to look more deeply into the possibility of making her Zen Den project one of more widespread benefit.

“I run emotional triage all day long,” Buss said. “So I hardly have time for anything else now.”


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