To Fight Depression, San Diego Educator Offers Unique Program
Before Social and Emotional Learning became widely recognized as a critical component of teen lives, Marisa Fogelman was well ahead of the curve.
Fogelman spent two decades developing a curriculum that integrated SEL with California state standards for traditional subject matter, and put her holistic academic philosophy into practice as co-founder of the School of Universal Learning (SOUL), a charter school for students in grades 6-12.
SOUL was perhaps the first school in San Diego County to offer such a unique concept.
Now shuttered after several years of successful and promising operation, SOUL became a victim of political pressure and growing anti-charter sentiment.
Forced to close the school, Fogelman was resilient. Without losing hope, and with the support of previous SOUL parents and students, she explored ways to continue to offer essential holistic lessons for teenagers.
Thus was born Integra Development Center.
The timing turned out to be impeccable.
Although the Integra Development Center was formed before the pandemic closed schools, the current demand for what the center offers could not be more necessary.
With kids forced into remote learning, the need for social interaction in a safe environment, to ward off depression and isolation, has become paramount.
“Integra Development Center is my pivot and new venture to support students with distance learning and of course the development of the whole person,” Fogelman said.
More than just SEL, Integra – Latin for entire, complete, whole – extends learning beyond the acquisition of knowledge, according to the website, and focuses on whole child development in five primary ways: mentally, emotionally, socially, physically and personally.
The Integra Center is not a school but does provide in-person support from credentialed educators for students’ distance/hybrid/online academics.
Supporting the students are three teachers, each with a single-subject credential in English/Language Arts, Math and History/Social Science.
A key component of the center is holistic learning, offered in five areas called building blocks: mental power, emotional intelligence, social skills, physical well-being and personal development.
“I’ve always felt that Integra was crucial and was the missing piece in education, but it seems more crucial now with what kids are going through – being isolated and often depressed and disconnected,” Fogelman said.
The development center serves a variety of grades 6-12 learners who come from public schools, private schools and the home-schooled.
According to the website, its purpose is to ensure that teens have a safe place to go “where they can grow holistically, connect with guides and peers, feel surrounded by a community that supports their well-being, and further develop a sense of purpose.”
As a byproduct of the pandemic, it also provides a way for kids to go to school remotely so their parents can go to work.
“What differentiates us from being a pod in which we’re supporting students with their academics is that we also provide Integra – which was the cornerstone of SOUL and the heart of what we did,” Fogelman said.
Children in middle and high school, she said, are going through the most important period in their lives.
“They’re fortifying their identities,” she said. “They’re forming beliefs about themselves and beliefs in the world. At the same time they’re desperately trying to navigate their internal world.”
All interaction is in-person, because “we are hard-wired for connection,” she said. “It’s heart-breaking actually. Students that go to the district schools are mandated to be in front of a computer virtually the whole day.”
Integra lessons focus on the five areas of social and emotional development and are provided twice a day – 20 minutes each morning and 50 minutes in the afternoon.
“It’s a whole class,” Fogelman said.
Fogelman’s model is a small cohort of students. Current enrollment is 15 students in middle school and 13 in high school. The center currently has openings for one more middle-schooler and two more high-schoolers.
Middle-school hours are 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and high school is from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Extended time both before and after school is available, from 7:45 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Located on Second Street in downtown Encinitas near the Self-Realization Fellowship, the Integra facility is warm and inviting, with six private office spaces for students who need to work quietly or have live interactive call-ins with teachers.
A lounge area and a large community room provide working space, and an outdoor area is also available. It is within walking distance to the heart of Encinitas and two blocks from the J Street Viewpoint overlooking the ocean, where they walk to have lunch.
Students bring their own laptops, headphones, chargers and any other personal equipment they need. Nothing is shared, masks are required and rooms are sanitized before and after use.
“With the six rooms, the lounge, the community room and the outside area, they are all pretty well physically distant,” Fogelman said. “The middle-schoolers and the high-schoolers for the most part are kept separate.”
The students don’t come every day. For now, until demand increases, she said it’s working out well to have two cohorts.
“We do charge which is a bit of a challenge for me,” Fogelman said. “I opened a charter school because I’m a firm believer that everybody should have equal access.”
She eventually plans to make the Integra Development Center a nonprofit, but currently it is privately funded.
The two-day a week program is $650/month and the three-day a week program is $950/month.
She said she hopes to be able to offer scholarships eventually.
Students come from all parts of the county – Scripps Ranch, Carlsbad, Encinitas, Poway, Carmel Valley and other areas. San Diego Unified, San Dieguito Union and Poway Unified are among the school districts represented.
Integra has been described by parents and students as a way to inspire emotional confidence, internal stability, and personal and collective responsibility.
The curriculum was designed to help teens understand their place in the world, their inner worth and value, and their unique ability to shine.
Fogelman said Integra seeks to ensure that students graduate high school with the tools and skills needed to thrive. She has called it “innovation in education.”
One parent said that traditional schools often overlook the full range of what today’s children need, forcing students to live more in a structured box without seeing “the beauty of the kids who live outside the lines.”
The whole-child Integra program, said another parent, has given her child confidence, improved personal responsibility, emotional growth and anxiety management.
Last year, Grace, a former SOUL student, said Integra “has created a judgment-free safe space and ensures that everyone is able to speak about how they really feel and what is going on in their lives. Integra has taught me to understand my feelings and actions.”
Said another former SOUL student of Integra, “It’s teaching how to handle setbacks and keep moving forward.”
Although Integra can help all teenagers with adjustments necessary for healthy adulthood, the greatest benefits can be realized for kids who struggle in regular school and aren’t being accepted by their peers.
It’s often because they do not feel safe or respected, and they’re not thriving emotionally or academically. Emotional issues and bullying can interfere with learning in profound and lasting ways, Fogelman said.
The Integra program has been championed by parents and students who say there is no tolerance for cliques, bullying, gender role stereotypes or isolation. Students say it “feels like a family.”
Many former students have followed Fogelman to the Integra Center, although word has spread to other communities.
How to Thrive
Parent Sarah VanDenBerg said the center doesn’t just explore how to survive. “It’s how do you thrive?” she said. “How do you find your purpose? What’s your passion?
“It’s things that even some adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s struggle with because they’ve never figured those things out. Incorporating that at this age is such an incredible gift.”
VanDenBerg and her husband live in Scripps Ranch with their two sons who attend sixth and eighth grades at Marshall Middle School in the San Diego Unified School District.
She said they work online from the Integra Center with Zoom calls and independent work from 8 a.m. to noon. After that is lunch and other homework, and they finish the day with the Integra class and discussion.
VanDenBerg said Fogelman and the Integra Center foster a sense of acceptance and community. “They said at the beginning that one of the most egregious things you could do is to make someone feel unaccepted,” she said. “They expect kindness and acceptance and that’s just the norm.”
She said her sons said they would not be doing well right now if they did not have the Integra Center.
Everett, 14, said, “I enjoy Integra because it’s a place where everyone feels accepted.”
His brother Lucas, 11, said, “Integra is a new great way of learning because you learn life skills, not just book skills.”
“They’re getting what they need,” said their mother. “They’re getting socialization, they’re getting these other layers that they don’t get in the public school.
“I’ve always felt a lot of things were missing in the public school and what she [Fogelman] provides really fills in those gaps.”
VanDenBerg said she has no health concerns because the doors and windows are kept open for air flow, masks are required, temperatures are checked each day when students arrive, and all common spaces are wiped down regularly. They also ensure that cohorts of students are below a certain size.
“She’s on top of it,” she said of Fogelman. “She wants to keep the teachers and the students healthy.”
VanDenBerg said her biggest concern with the pandemic was her children’s mental health and lack of socialization.
“I know they can catch up academically,” she said. “I’m not worried about that. All the kids are going to be behind academically.”
The program, she said is not just keeping them stable. “They’re not just maintaining their basic level,” she said. “They’re really learning new things. The energy is so positive.”
When normal school resumes, she’d like to continue with the program. Better yet would be if schools could incorporate Integra principles into their daily lessons, she said. “If all the school systems could be aware of this, that would be incredible.”
“I am forever grateful for Marisa and her ability to, on the drop of a dime, pivot and provide, once again, what our community needs for our teens,” said Integra Center parent Julie Anderson.
“Marisa has known for quite a while that social and emotional learning is the core foundation to a healthy growing teen. And with schools attempting distance learning, SEL is not being met, and our youth is sadly suffering.”
Students can fall behind in academics, and later catch up, Anderson said. “But what about the emotional trauma? How do you erase that? Won’t that scar be carried for life? How about let’s prevent that trauma in the first place?”
Anderson’s daughter attended SOUL from its inception and both have been strong supporters of the Integra program ever since.
“Integra Development Center has provided a sense of normalcy to our family,” Anderson said. “I don’t know where we would be without Integra. It’s like the light that makes my daughter’s world bright. Without it, I think her world would be dark and she would be so isolated and depressed.”
Besides being a credentialed teacher, Fogelman is a college readiness counselor and provides one-on-one counseling for high school students for 15 minutes each week.
“At a typical San Dieguito Union High School District school, the student/counselor ratio is 400+/1, and a student would be lucky to receive that much time in their entire high school career, let alone a single year,” said Anderson, a La Costa resident.
With the pandemic closing in-person learning, Anderson and her 10th-grade daughter Skye decided on Audeo II, an independent study charter school in Oceanside.
“Because they have been teaching online for almost 30 years now, why reinvent the wheel?” Anderson said. “It has been smooth sailing and my daughter loves school. Combined with in-person Integra three days a week, it is our perfect Covid concoction.”
She said her daughter is excited to go to Integra each day and is thriving as a result.
“The Integra program has given me a really great opportunity to be able to socialize with other kids while we are homeschooling,” Skye said. “It has also given me the opportunity to learn and participate in these wonderful Integra lessons. Integra really helps me discover who I am, and what my passions and purpose in life are, while having fun with all my friends.”
“The experience she is receiving from Marisa is priceless,” Anderson said. “Marisa is the founder of Integra. It is her creation, her life purpose, and her gift to share with all her students.”
Adriana Galvan, psychology professor at UCLA, says adolescence is a period of remarkable growth and brain development. Her area of focus is on how cognitive and social behaviors change from childhood to adulthood.
In a recent UCLA webinar titled “Understanding Adolescence from Neurons to Cultures,” Galvan said adolescents do well when systems are provided that promote young people’s identity, sense of meaning and confidence.
Mentors outside the immediate family can be very helpful, and having a trusted place and space to express those feelings is important, she said.
“We spend time as adults working to unlearn the habits, patterns, behaviors and beliefs we developed as children or adolescents that don’t serve us,” Fogelman said. “This is a reactive approach to life. At Integra, we believe in being both proactive and responsive.
“Additionally, when we create a safe space for adolescents to express themselves, we begin to alleviate the anxiety, depression and stress that once capitalized upon their well-being.”
Breaking down stereotypical gender roles is also a critical component. “The transformation we’ve seen in kids is palpable,” she said.
Fogelman is considering offering the program over the summer. And next fall, when students may be attending school full-time, she may provide Integra as an after-school program.
She advocates for a holistic curriculum as part of every student’s education. Her eventual goal is to have Integra integrated into public schools, by perhaps offering the curriculum online or serving as an education consultant to help schools implement the program.
The result of that, she said, would be “a generation of adolescents who are self-aware, empathetic problem-solvers who live their lives with intention. They’d naturally have a strong sense of self, be motivated to pursue their passions and purpose, be in service to others, and achieve their own version of success.”