LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's mid-morning at Jacob Elementary School and a group of fourth graders are walking into Lil Morris' classroom, where they quietly grab their work folders and find a seat on one of the blue exercise mats on the floor.

The class always begins with a calming routine -- a key part of a new integrated health and wellness curriculum being tested at Jacob, Slaughter and Cane Run elementary schools this year.

"We want to be able to teach students 21st century health and wellness skills within a framework of mindfulness and compassion," said Alexis Harris, project director of the Compassionate Schools Project -- an $11 million initiative that was developed by researchers at the University of Virginia.

Jefferson County Public Schools has partnered with UVA on this project, which is being independently funded through the efforts of Owsley Brown III, who was instrumental in bringing it to Louisville. Brown has said that $2 million has already been raised, which was enough to start the pilot program at the three schools.

The curriculum is being taught across all grade levels at each of the schools twice a week as part of the district's practical living program. It's a five-year project that will be implemented at 25 schools next year and during the 2017-2018 year, with 25 schools again held as a control group so researchers can study the effects of the program.

"We hope to have a major impact on children’s education nationwide in terms of academic performance, physical education and character development," Harris said. 

Students are learning about "self-awareness and self-regulation of their attention in order to be successful in the classroom," she said.

"It also includes skills to help them be able to manage their emotions and stress, so they learn how to work well with others and take care of their own well-being," Harris said. "It also includes a social awareness component that builds on relationship skills -- things like how to manage conflicts and get along with others. These are things that will be helpful to them not just in school, but in their communities as they continue to grow."

On this particular day, Morris plays the song "Lean On Me" and asks her students to write words that come to mind. 

"I don't so much want you to write words that are in the song, more about what does it make you think when you listen to words," Morris instructs her students. "Just jot down words. There is no wrong answer, there is no right answer."

With the lights dimmed and the song playing, the students are happy to comply.

"Pain, love, sad times, pride," writes D'Anthoni Vaughn, 9, who says he never heard the song before.

Nine-year-old Michael Martin-Arnold uses the words joyful, sad and happy to describe his feelings as he listens to the song. He says he likes the class because it's different from his other classes.

"It shows us a lot about feelings and helps us to control, breath and calm us down from whatever is bothering us," Michael says.

Harris says research indicates that when schools help student develop self-awareness and caring for others, they are more likely to succeed.

"These skills are crucial to a child's development emotionally, socially and academically," she said.

It's a change that Jacob Elementary principal Michael Terry is already seeing take place in his school.

"When they are put in situations where things aren't going a particular way that they'd like, they will sit down and self-regulate," he said.

Terry said district officials approached him last fall about the idea of participating in the project.

"I thought this would be great, it would impact academics, it would also impact strategies they can use in their communities as well," he said.

Teachers at the three schools went through training and were taught different yoga positions to help them become more familiar with the curriculum.

Morris, who is working with Jacob's physical education teacher -- James Wadell -- to fully implement the program, took out all of the desks in the classroom and replaced them with the blue yoga mats.

"What's different for me is that I am now focusing more on the feelings side of it, which is really what a lot of our kids need," she said. "A lot of kids are angry or they have stress from home and they don't know how to deal with that in appropriate ways."

Researchers are being careful to gear the curriculum towards the requirements and realities of public school systems, Harris said.

The Compassionate Schools Project curriculum aligns with state and federal standards for health, physical education, nutrition, social and emotional learning, and the Common Core standards for language arts, she said.

It also correlates well with Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer's Compassionate City initiative, Terry said.

"We actually built our new motto around this," Terry said. "It's building a compassionate city, one school at a time."

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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