Focusing On The Whole Student

Helping students excel with sensitivity, empathy, and guidance

While Iona Preparatory Upper School in New Rochelle has always taken a holistic approach toward education, a tragic student suicide several years ago impelled the administration to take additional measures to address mental health.

Among its action steps, the all-boys Catholic high school set out to hire an experienced social worker—which is what brought Nancy Kessler to Iona Prep 13 years ago.

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“Nancy is our go-to person for emotional health issues,” says Ed O’Neill, the school’s principal. “She has tremendous empathy. She understands our guys, and she deals with parents with great sensitivity.”

Kessler, who has an MSW in social work, has a rich background, having previously worked in an alcohol and drug abuse prevention program. At Iona, she says, she conducts outreach efforts and also meets with students one-on-one. “I work with them on individual problems, such as boyfriend/girlfriend issues, family problems, and anxiety,” she says. “I don’t focus on stress but distress. Stress can be motivating, but distress is debilitating.”

Equally important, Kessler has proven to be an enormously gifted change agent, with a passion for new ideas and a drive to put those ideas into action. Last year, she revamped an existing club—known as  SADD, or Students Against Destructive Decisions—into an innovative, proactive
wellness initiative. “We developed a ‘Wellness Week,’ where we focused on a range of health issues,” she says. “We covered nutrition and healthy snacks; we had a Yoga Day; we even designed and implemented a sleep survey.”

The survey was intended to gather information about sleep deprivation, which may lead to strategies for helping students who are too anxious or overworked to get enough sleep.

And in keeping with Iona’s spiritual mission, she helped launch a fundraising project to support Lexington Center for Recovery, a substance-abuse facility in New Rochelle.

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Kessler credits the school’s administration for giving her the support and freedom she needs to truly make a difference. “This school is the best place I’ve ever worked,” Kessler says. “They’ve let me develop exactly what I knew was needed.”

Nancy Kessler, Iona Preparatory Upper School

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