As students trickle into Bas Wolf’s classroom at Highlands Ranch High School, he greets each one by name, asks how they are. Sometimes, a hug accompanies the greeting.
“Star Wars” posters, American flags and inspirational quotes cover the walls — “You are not finished when you lose. You are finished when you quit.” In one corner sits a coffee machine. The sleeves of the cups are labeled with a list of emotions. Sometimes, it’s easier to circle how you’re feeling that day, rather than saying it out loud.
“I love helping kids through the tears and anxiety of today and moving them towards the skills they’ll need to be awesome in their futures,” says Wolf, 43, who has taught at Highlands Ranch High School for 16 of his 20 years as an educator. “I want my classroom to feel like a place where students can breathe. Ultimately, I want it to feel like a home they didn’t know they were missing.”
Wolf teaches the school’s Alternative Cooperative Education, or ACE, program, which helps prepare students who are at risk of dropping out or struggling to find their niche, for career paths and post-secondary education. As part of the class, students reflect on personal strengths and needs and learn skills for employment, such as budgeting and creating a resume. The goal is to help them transition from high school to being able to successfully live independently.
The class has a significant focus on mental health. Many of the students have challenging home lives, work part-time jobs and simply want someone to talk to, says Wolf.
Wolf describes the stress in many of the kids he teaches as “pervasive,” their anxiety as “intense.”
A large part of that he blames on the relentlessness of social media, which he compares to a stream swirling around students.
“They don’t know how to navigate a day without looking at their screens and social media,” Wolf says of students. “Every kid’s life is displayed in a very raw way. Everything has to be posted. There is nothing that isn’t under scrutiny.”
Jayden Parks, a student in Wolf’s class, agrees.
Her home life is challenging for a variety of reasons, she says. That, coupled with anxiety and low self-esteem caused by social media, she says, have been taxing on her mental health. Parks uses Instagram and Snapchat throughout the day to look at photos, talk to friends and keep up with the latest news and celebrity gossip. She finds that she often compares herself to other teens on the sites who have hundreds of followers.
ACE, she says, has helped give her the support she needs to find balance in her life.
She’s learned how to better express her emotions and she has found a passion for helping others. She and her classmate, Tennissen Rockett, are trying to start a coffee cart that would travel around the school, so all students could use the sleeves of coffee cups to express themselves.
And then there’s Wolf.
He “gives the kids tough love,” Parks says. “They can go to him for anything, he understands.”
Wolf, who calls himself a professional hugger, is fierce about helping teens succeed.
He begins his classes with a check-in: Students share about their week before rating how they feel on a scale from one to 10. One student is dealing with a chronic illness. Another student’s car broke down over the weekend. One is living with a friend’s family. Another’s parents have been arguing.
Wolf makes eye contact with each student. Sometimes, he gives advice. But mostly, he listens with compassion.
At the moment, Highlands Ranch High School is the only school in the Douglas County School District with an ACE program.
Wolf hopes to see that change.
There is more to school than learning curriculum, he says. School also is about forming relationships with peers, relationships between students and teachers. It’s about guiding young people and helping them feel heard. And social media’s pressures and negative effects complicate that mission.
Right now, Wolf says, many young people are finding a false sense of value in social media.
Life at school “looks the same on the surface, but it is so vastly different for these kids,” he says of the stress and anxiety he sees in the hallways. “It’s a step in the right direction to say we need to prioritize the pain that our kids are going through.”
He has two goals for his students:
“Survive today and have an amazing future. Every day, there are kids coming in and I tell them they just need to survive today.”