By Kyle Palmer
On a recent morning at Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, Principal James Dierke looked out over the school’s auditorium at more than 100 eighth graders. A restless din filled the large room. Bursts of laughter and errant shouts punctuated the buzz. Most of the students seemed disinterested in Dierke’s announcements about the spring’s impending graduation, upcoming field trips, and recent birthdays.
Then, Dierke struck a bell and said, “Okay, it's quiet time.”
And just like that, a hush fell over the auditorium. Students straightened their backs and closed their eyes. Some bowed their heads. Others rested them on the backs of their chairs. The once-boisterous hall became silent and remained so for the next 15 minutes.
“Visitors are always amazed,” Dierke said afterwards, “but it works. It really is quiet time.”
“Quiet Time” isn’t just a slogan but a daily regimen at Visitacion Valley. The entire school—faculty, staff, and students—spend the first and last 15 minutes of every day in silence. Students are encouraged to use the time to meditate, but Dierke says students can simply clear their mind, think about schoolwork, or even sleep. Just as long as they are quiet.
“I’ve found that it makes people—students and teachers—more joyful,” Dierke said, “To have that time to reflect and be still is important.”
That is not always possible for his school’s students, Dierke said. He said the neighborhood around Visitacion Valley can be rife with violence and crime. “These kids hear gunshots on their way to and from school. That kind of stuff makes it hard to focus on algebra,” he said.
Besides dealing with problems outside school, Visitacion Valley faces challenges in school, too. Nearly 90 percent of Visitacion Valley’s students are classified by the district as socioeconomically disadvantaged and more than 40 percent are English Language Learners.
Dierke, who has been principal at the school for 13 years, said things reached a turning point about five years ago. “We were looking for a way to get kids to relax,” he said. “We saw kids with real post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. I noticed a lot of them missing school, fighting, and getting angry a lot. They couldn’t concentrate on school.”
An assistant principal suggested the idea for quiet time after she saw Hollywood director David Lynch speak about the program and the accompanying benefits of transcendental meditation. Lynch runs a non-profit foundation that promotes meditation in schools and also sponsors meditation retreats for under-served students.
With the help of the David Lynch Foundation and the San Francisco-based Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE), Visitacion Valley trained teachers on how to conduct Quiet Time sessions in their class. CWAE specialists counseled students on meditation techniques and five full-time staffers remain on campus to help maintain the program.
Since beginning Quiet Time, Dierke said things have improved: Daily attendance last year was more than 98 percent, and there have been fewer suspensions and higher test scores.
Angelica Mahinay, Visitacion Valley’s 8th grade student body president, said Quiet Time gives her more energy. “I get to school at 7 a.m. for softball practice. It helps me not be so tired during school,” she said.
Eighth grader Art Parkeenvincha moved to San Francisco from Canada in the middle of this year. “I can be really hyperactive,” he said. “I had never done meditation before, but now I do Quiet Time. I think of my mantra, and it helps me calm down.”
Bob Roth, Executive Director for the David Lynch Foundation, said meditation is not just a way for students to relax but has real cognitive benefits. “Meditation strengthens the areas of the brain that control our ‘fear center’,” he said. “It helps kids reduce anxiety and increase their ability to reason and concentrate.”
Principal Dierke said, as a result of Quiet Time, the school’s image is changing. “This school used to be known as the ‘fight’ school,” he said. “Now, I have other principals asking me about Quiet Time. It feels good to have that reputation.”
Two other schools in SFUSD have begun their own Quiet Time programs and a district spokesperson said other schools have begun asking questions about Visitacion Valley’s success.
Visitacion Valley also got attention from actor Russell Brand, who visited the school just before Christmas on a trip sponsored by the David Lynch Foundation. “That was crazy,” Angelica, the student body president, said. “I got to sit right by him and the whole school meditated with him.”
In addition, Dierke said regular Quiet Time has also helped teachers relax. “Only two teachers have left in the past five years, outside of retirements and district layoffs. That’s amazing for an urban middle school,” he said. He attributes that to higher levels of job satisfaction.
Physical Education teacher Barry O’Driscoll agreed that Quiet Time has helped improve the staff’s quality of life. “I was very reluctant when it first started,” he said. “I thought it was just another fad. But now I meditate twice a day, and I do it at home. I think it’s helped my golf game, too.”
Visitacion Valley still struggles with significant challenges. This year, the school has had to integrate more than 100 new students onto campus after another nearby middle school was closed by the district. Likewise, test scores have increased in recent years but still remain low compared to other SFUSD middle schools.
“We’re not perfect,” Dierke said. “Quiet Time is just like an umbrella. When you have it up, it keeps the rain off, and you can focus on trying to build a culture with kids. That’s what we’re gradually doing here.”
The payoff might be most evident in students like Angelica Mahinay, who says, “Man, when I hear students getting an attitude, or they’re saying they’re going to fight, I say, ‘Hey! Just meditate!’”
[CLARIFICATION: Visitacion Valley Middle School is located in San Francisco, not South San Francisco, as the article originally stated.]