Gainesville City Schools benefits from lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Gainesville superintendent Merrianne Dyer

Gainesville superintendent Merrianne Dyer

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

15 comments Add your comment

[...] Article from…Gainesville City Schools benefits from lessons from Hurricane Katrina – Atlanta Journal [...]

[...] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 1:24 [...]


May 29th, 2012
1:53 pm

I can’t figure out how Gainesville has enough personnel who can spend this kind of time with multiple students (because many, many of our students come to school with these types of problems) . Our teachers are strained to the breaking point, not only with classes but with “duties,” so fitting in the time to meet, daily encourage, assemble teams, etc seems a foggy dream to me. I try to identify kids in trouble and go to bat for them, but it isn’t widespread nor is it long-term. How do they do it?

Ron F.

May 29th, 2012
2:15 pm

catlady; they do it because they decided, top to bottom, that it was important. The whole system uses the plan. I’m with you on the frustration involved in trying to help when there isn’t a sustainable system in place for helping individuals. It’s not hard to do, but it takes a system-wide focus to make it sustainable.


May 29th, 2012
3:51 pm

An intelligent, creative administrator. Few and far between.


May 29th, 2012
7:41 pm

“I can’t figure out how Gainesville has enough personnel who can spend this kind of time with multiple students ”
“How do they do it?”
It takes a courageous leader; one who believes in total transparency. It takes a system work culture that is willing to take close to ten days of furloughs in order to save teacher’s jobs. It takes distributive leadership; leaders taking on additional duties and responsibilities, and allowing teacher leaders to come to the forefront to lead. It is not an easy task by any means, but when you start with the “end in mind”, it puts things into perspective. What are we really working so hard towards? Our goal is not only to get students from one grade level to the next, but it is to take students from Kindergarten to walking across that stage, and being ready for the next phase of life—-career ready!
Lastly as Ron F. stated – “it takes a system-wide focus to make it sustainable.” That’s why our system them is : ONE GAINESVILLE!

High school administrator

May 29th, 2012
8:23 pm

I am interested In seeing their results. Can they quantify them? This is very similar to what Dufoor and Eaker espouse in their work promoting Professional Learning Communities. Providing system wide safety nets for identified students before they begin to falter takes buy in from the top system administrators if it is going to be successful. I applaud them for working outside of conventional paradigms which only add more work for teachers and do not help students.


May 29th, 2012
8:45 pm

“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……The teacher-mentor finds out what sports or extra-curricular interests that Anthony has and facilitates his participating.”

I do not know much about today’s politically correct, feel good teaching methods, but I do know that Anthony would not have played for my old ball coach. Bad grades would get you benched quicker than bad playing…

Reminds me of those car lot ads that say “Bad credit, no problem. We had a customer who just went through a bankruptcy and we were able to get him into a new Tahoe.”

Ron F.

May 29th, 2012
9:11 pm

Lee: there’s a lot more to it than just getting a felon on the football team. You have to learn how kids from poverty think and find the thing that hooks them, the thing that gets their interest, and use it as a carrot to dangle and help focus them. If we stop believing that we can find a way to help a kid, then we’ll never get past the miserable graduation rates. Take a school in APS or Dekalb- if they truly focused on the specific needs of the kids instead of high publicity “programs” that any idiot could recite, then they might actually reach some of the multitude that continuously fail and end up dropping out. I’ve spent years doing this in my school, and it works with a lot of kids- enough to significantly improve their chances at graduation. But it takes time, a lot of commitment, and patience. I’m glad to see a system like Gainesville that is willing to step up and do something individually applicable that might just help kids. God knows we’ve seen enough money thrown around the metro area that resulted in nothing.

Support Staff

May 30th, 2012
7:39 am

We have been doing something similar in Cobb for the past four years. The district received a grant for $8 million from the safe schools/healthy students federal program. We have been providing mental health services free of charge to students and families. There is numerous data to back up the success. Now that the funding is over, no one wants to find ways to continue this program – and it could be done without ever touching the school budget. The priority just isn’t there.


May 30th, 2012
8:50 am

I think we might see more results like this if DCSS and APS were broken up into 6 or more systems. They are too large to provide this type of service.


May 30th, 2012
9:43 am

I attended a workshop where a representative from Gainesville City Schools (I think it was their grad coach) went into great detail about how they use data to identify and track students. It was impressive.

Proud Teacher

May 30th, 2012
10:40 am

This is a great idea, but in order for it to work well, someone must use some common sense in what is expected of the classroom teacher. Teaching 25-35 students in each class, mentoring/tutoring those students, and spending quality time with the at-risk while attending meetings upon meeting on how to please all of the political factions’ demands on politically correct teaching/mentoring/maintaining scores remains a teacher’s nightmare.

[...] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 7:28 [...]

[...] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : repeat; } – Today, 2:08 [...]