Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools, has been telling me about a successful wrap-around program to help at-risk students. Dr. Dyer felt that the program was worth sharing with other districts in Georgia. (I am hoping to get more educators on the blog talking about what works, per the many requests from readers.)
I asked her to tell us what Gainesville is doing. Here is her detailed account.
By Dr. Merrianne Dyer
Gainesville City Schools found our best school improvement initiative in the wake of a hurricane.
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina left the Gulf Coast devastated. In the hard days that followed, schools were challenged to re-open buildings and focus traumatized children on learning. Rhonda Waltman, an assistant superintendent for student support in Mobile, AL, asked, “How can we get these children around the barriers that this disaster created and get them back to school?”
She found her answer in a somewhat unexpected place, the Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. The center, founded and directed by Dr. Linda Taylor and Dr. Howard Adelman, offers a framework that creates a Comprehensive Learning Supports System.
Dr. Waltman used their resources and guidance to find ways to address the barriers to learning after Hurricane Katrina. The work was supported financially by the Scholastic Publishing Company, who published “Rebuilding for Learning” based on this experience.
It was not long after that the framework began to draw the attention of schools and districts who struggled to address the barriers that high poverty schools face each day. Anyone who has ever worked with high-needs children knows that the barriers the children face cannot be overcome by good instruction or management alone. Reports of the results along the Gulf Coast began to spread by word of mouth, and many schools and districts across the country reached out to UCLA for assistance in addressing the socio-economic barriers that exist in their communities.
Then, in 2007, the American Association of School Administrators joined as a partner with Scholastic to support extending the use of this system to other districts across the nation.
In 2008, Gainesville City Schools was selected as one of four districts in a LEAD Collaborative to implement the work and document the results. The basic premise is that instruction, management, and student learning supports are three components that must work together systematically in an on-going manner in order to address the significant barriers that students face today. The framework offers a method of eliminating fragmentation of services and offers a coherent approach.
The work includes an emphasis on prevention and intervention to prevent or remove barriers before crisis situations develop. Community and agency supports are woven into this school improvement system.
This resource is available to any school or district free of charge through an on-line learning institute. A collaborative network of school principals, superintendents, counselors, and teachers shares ideas via the UCLA web-site. Scholastic and AASA have made it possible for us to meet together twice a year to participate in professional learning and sharing together.
For example, take the case of Anthony who struggled academically, was chronically late or absent from school, and was on probation for a drug-related charge through juvenile court. Before the comprehensive system of learning supports was in place, Anthony would have been referred to the counselor or social worker after experiencing difficulty and referred for tutoring or special after-school assistance. His parole officer would be informed. The efforts to help him would be on the margins of the school day and offered in fragments.
Now, the student data is analyzed each month by school and district teams on a district level in three groups: instruction, management, and learning supports. These teams include community non-profit agencies who serve families and children. The teams have mapped the school and community resources available that will address specific learning barriers. The resources are divided into six content areas: classroom approaches, support for transitions, family engagement, community support, crisis response, and student-family interventions. These resources are applied to a student in need in a coherent, unified, and simultaneous way.
Anthony’s needs are identified and the available resources are prescribed in a support plan that is administered before he begins to struggle. He is placed with teachers who work well with high-needs students and provides feedback and assistance. School personnel conduct a welcome meeting that includes the parole officer and parents. A faculty member is assigned to be an at school mentor, checking with him each day and offering encouragement.
The teacher-mentor finds out what sports or extra-curricular interests that Anthony has and facilitates his participating. The parent coordinator and counselor does a home visit or conducts a phone interview to introduce the school and see what resources the family might need. The Boys and Girls Club staff visits him at school, and along with the parent coordinator, facilitate enrollment in the after-school teens program and arranges the after school transportation.
The results for Gainesville have been remarkable. During a time when we had to do more with less people, we have increased our achievement, graduation rates, and decreased the discipline referrals and tribunals for students. It is important to note that this is not a program of which you can measure pre and post results; it is a way of working to ensure that students who have barriers to learning are helped systematically and coherently. A large part of our commitment to the work is to share with others. We welcome collaboration from any schools or districts who are seeking answers to the relentless problems that poverty present to a school.We all know that they are as devastating as a hurricane.
If you would like more information, visit Rebuilding for Learning, the School Mental Health Project, and the America Association of School Administrators and link to Professional Development: LEAD Collaborative.
Here is the case study of Gainesville, done by the Education Development Center. Scroll down to the “Rebuilding for Learning Case Study” document link.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog