Helping at-risk students succeed

//Helping at-risk students succeed

In 2003, Sabine Parish—a poor, low-performing school district in rural Louisiana—hired Dorman Jackson as superintendent because of his reputation for raising test scores. He instituted a remedial-learning program to catch and treat learning problems early, and soon, students’ academic performance started to rise.

But at a certain point, that trajectory halted. “We discovered we had carried our kids about as far as we could,” says Jackson.

After speaking with the district’s student assessment and support services department, he learned more about why: Many of these students faced significant personal roadblocks that prevented them from doing well in school, including overworked or absent parents, emotional problems, and drug and alcohol abuse.

That’s when Jackson’s staff suggested that the school work with psychologists Howard Adelman, PhD, and Linda Taylor, PhD, who co-direct the University of California, Los Angeles, School Mental Health Project and the federally funded National Center for Mental Health in Schools. They had developed a model called “the enabling component”—also referred to as “learning supports” by schools, districts and other entities that implement it. It targets the psychosocial and educational barriers to student success.

The model does that in two ways. First, it aims to consolidate and coordinate student and learning supports—the counseling services, school prevention and intervention programs, and community resources that tend to be fragmented and uncoordinated at many schools. Second, the model offers interventions to address barriers to learning and teaching, such as bringing support staff directly into the classroom to work with kids, and making better connections with and use of community resources to help struggling children and their families.

The approach appears to be working in Sabine Parish: From 2007 and 2010, graduation rates rose from 73 percent to 81.2 percent. In addition, of the state’s 60 districts, Sabine has gone from 37th in 2003 to 14th this year in academic performance.

Jackson doesn’t think the school could have gotten there without the psychological and social support the enabling component model provided. “I have appreciated gaining the knowledge that when a kid is having a problem in their family or with themselves,” Jackson says, “they’re not going to be successful unless you fix that problem.”

Now, the UCLA team is taking its work nationwide, holding forums for educational and policy leaders in 13 states and helping implement the program at the state, district and school levels.

How the model works

Adelman and Taylor’s enabling component model was developed after 30 years of research and observation in their lab school at UCLA and in the Los Angeles public schools. Through their work, Adelman and Taylor observed two trends. For one, they saw that pulling at-risk students out of class to be counseled, punished or suspended for aggressive behaviors or bullying interfered with their peer relationships and academic progress. The psychologists discovered that keeping these children in stimulating, supportive classrooms helped them to stop acting out, learn and share their own unique gifts with other kids.

Second, Adelman and Taylor noticed an enormous redundancy in schools’ mental health and social services. When they developed a program to prevent school dropout, for instance, “we soon realized that at some school sites, we were one of 15 similar programs that were trying to address risky behaviors,” Taylor says.

As they continued to see these phenomena play out in school and after school, it became clear the system needed an overhaul, Adelman says. “We thought there had to be a way to bring all of this together—not just to coordinate programs, but to really develop a major intervention framework,” he says.

Their “enabling component” encourages school action in six areas:

  1. Making innovative changes to classroom instruction. That includes bringing support personnel into the classroom, rather than taking children out of class when their behavior or inattention may have gotten out of control. It also calls for revamping teaching and intervention methods to help teachers handle problems more easily and effectively.
  2. Supporting children through transitions. Not only are children moving back and forth from school to home and from one school level to the next, many are also coping with family disruptions, such as a divorce.
  3. Connecting families to schools and school activities. This includes offering basic parenting classes, fostering more meetings between parents and teachers and involving families in homework projects, field trips and other activities.
  4. Maximizing use of community resources. Developing and maintaining strong connections with community resources can greatly enhance schools’ capacity to support these youngsters. Entities to tap include public and private agencies, colleges and universities, businesses, artists and cultural institutions, faith-based organizations and volunteer groups.
  5. Reorganizing crisis assistance and prevention. Schools need systems that can respond quickly and effectively in the wake of any crisis, whether it is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or student acting in a way that endangers others. Schools must also create safe and caring learning environments that deal preemptively with disruptive and potentially dangerous behavior such as bullying and harassment.
  6. Improving links to external mental health and behavioral services. When internal resources aren’t enough, schools should be able to refer students and families to mental health and financial assistance services in a timely fashion.

The framework also emphasizes the need to build students’ sense of competence, self-determination and connections with others, rather than punishing them for “bad” behavior, says Taylor. “It’s a new way of thinking about how to deal with at-risk kids so they really feel like school is the place for them, rather than a place to avoid,” she says.

In this era of belt-tightening, the model may also save schools money by streamlining services and using resources more effectively, Adelman adds.

Growing support

Several states are implementing the model in ways tailored to their circumstances, budget and needs. In Iowa, the learning supports model is being embedded in a federally funded initiative called Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools. That program is providing at-risk schools with $14 million over three years to overhaul their social and academic climates. (Iowa was awarded the money along with 11 other states through a competitive grant process from the Office of Safe and Drug-free Schools).

In Louisiana, the model is the basis of an emerging program called the Comprehensive Learning Supports System. Districts that follow the model, like Sabine Parish, draw heavily on the enabling component concept via a statewide blueprint that spells out the ingredients of the model and how to implement it. State education leaders are currently presenting on the model and disseminating it throughout the state, as well as providing in-depth training when districts ask for it, says Louisiana Assistant State Superintendent Donna Nola-Ganey.

In Mobile, Ala., the framework received national recognition in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thanks to a strong learning supports system already in place. Because the district’s support services were so well organized, school personnel were able to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of disaster-affected children and their families, providing them with food, clothing and lodging and setting up provisional schools to help children keep on track with their studies, says Rhonda Neal-Waltman, EdD, then the city’s assistant superintendent of student support services.

Examples of how the framework operates include managing cases family by family rather than child by child and requiring all school personnel to pitch in, regardless of position. “I didn’t care what your title was—from A to Z, you were there to help that family,” Neal-Waltman says.

The effort grabbed the attention of the children’s educational publishing company Scholastic, which donated time, money and materials to spread the word about the enabling component nationwide. In partnership with Adelman and Taylor and the American Association of School Administrators, Scholastic’s community affairs division is also helping to implement the model in four school districts in four states.

In addition, the National Association of School Psychologists is promoting the work nationally in several ways. For instance, the group summarized Adelman and Taylor’s work in an advocacy document for educating local, state and national government officials (see Enhancing the Blueprint for School) (PDF, 110.55KB). NASP leaders also met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to educate him on the model, and sponsored a congressional briefing on learning and social-emotional supports for military, foster and homeless children.

“For us, learning supports is really about trying to help folks understand that you don’t think about kids’ social and emotional needs as something you do after you address their academic achievement,” says NASP Past President Kathleen M. Minke, PhD. “If you don’t address their social and emotional needs as part of their whole school experience, you will never get the degree of academic achievement that our nation is seeking through school reform.”

School districts that have embraced Adelman and Taylor’s model are excited by its promise and its early results, though it’s not an easy fix. If a district decides to “go all the way” and change its organizational charts to better integrate the enabling component into academics, for instance, it can mean new job titles, new job duties and other shake-ups, Neal-Waltman says.

“Did I have people who either had to get used to this change or get off the train?” she says. “Yes, I did.”

Though this kind of widespread change is never easy, many hope the model can help stem the tide of high dropout rates, truancy and problem behaviors. Grant Parish, La., Superintendent Sheila Jackson, for example, says she hopes the restructuring can help address students’ aggressive behaviors.

“We serve many children of poverty who have been raised to use physical aggression to resolve issues,” she says. “And we’re always being punitive rather than proactive.”

She envisions the framework will teach educators more effective ways to help students communicate their needs and problems. “I’m not naïve enough to believe that we can change where they live or the culture they return to each day,” she says, “but we can at least equip them with the skills to manage it better.”

Meanwhile, Jackson, of Sabine Parish, says he’s convinced the model will continue to improve children’s psychosocial well-being and academic success.

“Eventually, we’re going to be No. 1 in our state,” he says. “And when we are, it will be because we’re addressing the needs of the total child.”