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EXCHANGE: School works with Harvard for ways to aid students

October 10, 2019 GMT

CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) — Maria Deaton, a fifth and sixth grade language arts teacher at Unity Point School in Carbondale, sat across a desk from 10-year-old Raina Hassan.

Deaton leaned into her desk connecting with Hassan as she began to ask her a series of questions.

Last year, as she was completing fourth grade, Hassan told Deaton that she felt like she was really excelling at science, reading, social studies and math. Deaton asked the student if she’s still feeling good about those subjects into her first month of fifth grade. “Math is a little harder, but I still love it,” Hassan told Deaton during their one-on-one meeting.

Hassan reported a few other changes to Deaton as well. She’s no longer interested in cheerleading but has discovered she likes track. The two then turned to the topic of how Hassan prefers to learn.

Deaton asked if she preferred long explanations. “Sometimes,” Hassan told her. “But not when they talk too much and I get bored.” Hassan told her teacher that she prefers a shorter explanation for how something is solved, such as a complex math problem, and then an opportunity to try it herself. That helps her remember it later, she said.

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Scenes like this played out in classrooms throughout Unity Point on a Friday last month. It’s part of the school’s new initiative to craft individualized student success plans for every student in kindergarten through eighth grade. The goal is to help students learn how to form more meaningful relationships with adults, advocate for their own needs and share concerns they might have about school or their home lives.

Throughout this process, Unity Point is also serving as a testing ground for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Education Redesign Lab. Led by Director Paul Reville, the former Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the education lab seeks to craft policies that break “the iron-law correlation between socio-economic status and education outcomes,” according to the school.

Through that partnership, Harvard provided the template for Unity Point’s individualized student success plans. School officials then tweaked it to fit their own students’ needs.

The process started last year with junior high students, and has been introduced to the younger students this year.

At the beginning of the year, every student is paired with an adult at the school. Teachers, faculty and staff participate as advisers, and the older students pick who they want to work with. The students and their advisers meet at least quarterly throughout the school year for a formal check-in. But often, the students want even more time with their advisers, and that’s encouraged, said Leslie Varble, Unity Point School’s principal for instruction.

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It’s during some of these casual discussions, Varble said, that a student might mention something going on in their personal lives that is dramatically impacting their ability to learn at school. That might be an unstable housing situation or parents going through a divorce. School staff are also on the front lines of identifying child abuse, and they listen for any red flags that might warrant further investigation.

But the goals of Unity Point’s individualized student success plans cast a wide net. They are similar to the individualized education plans that the law requires for all students enrolled in special education classes. The Individualized Education Program requires at least one annual meeting that generally involves teachers, parents, administrators and others who interact with the child enrolled in special education classes to determine progress, and to review and amend goals as the student grows.

But this proven concept — helping a child by bringing together the numerous adults with whom he or she interacts — has the ability to help all students, said Superintendent Lori James-Gross. Sometimes, she said, schools overlook the students who might need extra attention for any number of reasons.

These students may not have any major behavioral problems and do well enough academically, perhaps even excel in their classes. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things going on with the child.

“You may have a really gifted kid, but a really shy gifted kid,” she said. “So maybe that child isn’t advocating for what she needs, or he doesn’t realize how he learns,” she said.

“We know we have to assist kids in identifying their strengths and weaknesses. We look at setting goals; it may be something as simple as organizational skills, just making sure they can function from one grade level to the next and keep their world organized in that way.”

For Unity Point, this initiative with Harvard builds on their previous successes working with students experiencing short-term or longer-term issues at school. They’ve also given special care to creating processes to identify various types of trauma their students may experience, and in working to create a culture that builds resilience.

To that end, a little over a decade ago, Unity Point created child study teams, which extend the types of wraparound services offered to special education students to other children with an academic or social need. The issues warranting more attention might be flagged by teachers, parents or the students themselves.

“Let’s say we have a student that is failing most of their classes, but doesn’t have an IEP, and has experienced some minor behavioral changes,” James-Gross said. “We would have every adult who works with them come to the table to talk about what’s going on.”

James-Gross said that years-long work has made the expansion to creating individualized student success plans for every student a relatively smooth one. Most of the teachers and staff are already familiar with the concept and its ability to make a difference, she said.

Unity Point is participating in the Harvard Education Redesign Lab’s “By All Means” initiative through its participation in the Illinois Partnership for Resilience, which mostly includes school districts in the Chicagoland area.

Unity Point is also the only rural school participating in the Harvard study. Harvard is particularly interested in how its push for policies that incorporate broader community engagement to improve student outcomes can work in this smaller setting, James-Gross said. The school plans to share what it learns, and the tools it helps create, with other area school districts. In particular, Unity point will work with those that make up Resilient Southern Illinois, a consortium of local school districts that have come together to understand the impact of trauma on students and the importance of teacher and student care.

“Our work really began around the whole resiliency piece and looking at creating wraparound services for kids, especially those that are experiencing significant trauma in their lives,” James-Gross said. “Then it moved beyond that, looking at how do we provide a way in which to really recognize students’ strengths and weaknesses, allowing students to have voice and choice at school.”

Recently, in addition to the one-on-one meetings, teachers and the school’s social worker were also leading students through a lesson focused on their emotions — how to deal with the things they are feeling, and how to appropriately communicate those feelings to others.

Amanda Hilt, the school’s fifth and sixth grades literature teacher, asked her class to examine this negative statement: “I can’t do anything right.” She then asked the class to pick a better statement from a prepared list. One student raised her hand with the correct answer: “There’s a lot of things I do right. No one’s perfect.”

In a class led by Emily DeMattie, one of the school’s two social worker, students went through some stretching exercises and enjoyed a piece of candy before discussing unhealthy thought patterns. A sheet on an overhead projector explained how to avoid things like rigid thinking, jumping to conclusions and ignoring the good.

These types of softer skills can be as important to student development and long-term success in high school, college and career as those learned in books, Varble said.

The relationships they build with their advisers is also critical to their longterm development, said Mary Beth Goff, dean of students.

“For some of those kids, I feel like those relationships will continue. I think it sets them up really well for that high school transition, and then college after that, in terms of how do you create relationships with adults, and how do you advocate for yourself,” Goff said.

One of Unity Point’s primary goals with this new effort is to ease the transition from junior high to high school, which can be intimidating for some students. The small school serves parts of Carbondale, Makanda and rural Jackson County. It has about 650 students in grades pre-Kindergarten through eight grade. It is one of four feeder schools to Carbondale Community High School, which has nearly 1,000 students.

Madyson Swope, 14, of Carbondale, was in one of last year’s classes that were the first to go test the individualized student success planning process. Varble was her adviser. It was a natural fit because the two were already close, Varble said.

Swope, who is now a freshman in high school, said that if she was feeling upset about something, she would visit Varble’s room. “She just understood me really well,” Swope said. If she was angry, for instance, Varble knew that a snack and a conversation about whatever was bothering Swope usually helped her. Then, Swope said she could then go back to her day and concentrate on learning.

Swope said Varble also helped her learn to advocate for what she needs. For instance, she is highly sensitive to sounds like someone clicking a pen or chewing, and can get anxious during test taking. So one of the things she discovered by talking with Varble is that she could request a quieter space to take tests. This improved her grades. She also spent a lot of time talking to Varble about her goals for high school and beyond, and how she could communicate her needs to teachers in that larger setting. That made the transition to high school easier, Swope said.

She still has four years of high school ahead, but Swope said she’s taking steps now that will help her achieve her goals for after graduation. Swope said she hopes to earn a college scholarship for basketball. And she is interested in law or another career that involves writing and persuasion. She wants to specialize in advocating for women of color and others she feels do not always receive equitable treatment in the justice system and other arenas.

Her mom, Lyndsay King, said she believes Swope will accomplish whatever goals she sets for herself. She credits Unity Point’s administrators and teachers for helping to instill that confidence in her daughter.

“It really helped a lot,” she said of the one-on-one attention her daughter received. “She’s come a really long way. I honestly feel that if we’d been at any other school, she wouldn’t be as far as she is right now in high school.”

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Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/2l7GtlT

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Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com