School Transformation from the Heart

Voices from the Field   07 September 2017
By Dr. Kevin Brown

 

…when we provide a safe environment for people of good will to have authentic conversations about what is best for our children, many great innovations bubble up and a positive momentum is created.

Kevin Brown

IN TODAY’S TRADITIONAL EDUCATION SYSTEM, it is easy for educators and parents alike to lose focus on what is most important. As a nation, we are addicted to high-stakes testing, grade point averages, and class rank. This makes it easy to forget our real purpose: to help young people grow and develop into honest, kind, and compassionate citizens.

Academic success has always been a major focus in the Alamo Heights district, but in 2008, we made an important expansion to our priorities. Resting on the laurels of our district’s academic accomplishments was no longer enough. Our community wanted more for its children. Acknowledging and acting on this reality, we engaged 252 people in our community to develop a brand new Strategic Plan.

As the plan was being drafted, our community’s eyes were opened to a heart-wrenching reality. Two of our students tragically died in alcohol and drug related situations, while two other children in the surrounding community died from similar issues. We could not ignore the challenges facing our students.

A social-emotional wellness component was already present in the strategic plan, and due to these events, this intention became an even more significant focus. In what is considered a very safe community and environment, we knew we couldn’t ignore the threat Alamo Heights and its children were facing. Among six other major objectives, the Strategic Plan called for us to “aggressively confront the social and emotional issues of our community.” It also gave several recommendations about how to approach these issues.

Coincidentally, a support group of five moms, whose children had varying levels of addiction issues, asked to meet me privately. They shared heartbreaking stories about their children and expressed interest in how we might be willing to address these issues for all students. They handed me a list of recommendations that was almost identical to those created by our community in the strategic plan. It was a powerful moment as we put the lists side-by-side, realizing we were allies. These moms saw they didn’t have to meet in private anymore, and they asked how they could help.

Building the Support Network

Through a three-month fundraising effort put on by these moms and our school foundation, we were able to hire a counselor to address issues strictly related to alcohol and drugs. The position has since been permanently endowed, and the counselor’s role has expanded to have impact on all our campuses. Fortunately, we hired the perfect person to fill this position, and since then, the culture around keeping children healthy has significantly changed.

The program began with what were billed as “Kitchen Table Talks.” With the idea that most big family issues are discussed at the kitchen table, our gifted counselor, Michelli Ramon, spoke to parent groups and offered herself as a resource to facilitate a conversation in their homes with other parents. She would be invited by parents to sit with them AND the parents of their children’s friends. Mrs. Ramon would facilitate a conversation between multiple families to help them discover and define what expectations they wanted to set together related to the use of alcohol or drugs. For instance, parents might agree they would not serve alcohol to minors and would contact each other if they thought their children were stepping out of line. These expectations were different for every group, and in the end, it was about them building friends and allies in the challenging job of parenting.

The main function of each parent group was to be in constant communication with each other and their respective children, to have honest conversations about the challenges that come up in each unique parenting situation, and to never provide alcohol for each other’s children. In the first year, there were more than 30 of these Kitchen Table Talks, each helping to create a micro-community of parents supporting one another to prevent drug and alcohol abuse by their children.

The next major initiative was a series of “Breaking the Silence” meetings. In our community, one of the issues we identified was the unwritten code of silence we adhered to when it came to conversations about addiction. No one would talk about why Johnny wasn’t at school for a month. In fact, rather than directly saying Johnny was in rehab, stories would be told about Johnny taking a family trip or transferring to a private school.

Breaking the Silence meetings, open to our entire community in the evenings, looked to address this avoidance through featured speakers who would open up about how they overcame an addiction or related issue. Through these heart-wrenching, vulnerable, and powerful meetings, these speakers were adding to the increased awareness we were building across our community. At first, we only had speakers from outside our community, but soon, we had our own community members step up to tell their stories. We knew we would not be able to tackle drug and alcohol issues until we made it safe to talk about them in a public manner. These events provided the perfect avenue.

In addition to these two major initiatives, we held community-wide book studies and brought in powerful speakers, like Dr. Brene Brown, who visited us twice. Mrs. Ramon, our counselor, also created a strong culture of sobriety among those in recovery. For the past few years, we have had daily AA meetings at our high school. If a student celebrates a month or year of sobriety, sometimes I am called upon to distribute chips to celebrate their accomplishment. The entire family is there, and many tears of joy are shed.

The impact this has had on our community of young learners, both those in need of help and in general, has been profound. Our learners have been empowered to intervene when there are problems, supporting one another by standing up to them. One of my favorite stories relates to our former swim team captain. He had heard Mrs. Ramon speak to a group of students about warning signs of addiction. He believed he might have a teammate with a problem. With the support of the counselor, they approached the teammate’s parents about the concern, and then, in partnership with a few other teammates, they had an intervention when the young man came home. It was a tough night, but the young man was able to face his own addiction. He went to rehab, which quite possibly saved his life. There are far too many stories like this, but they have been affirming to the work.

Today, we still have children who use and abuse alcohol and drugs, but more than anything, we have a drug solution, not a drug problem. We have incredible support and recovery efforts that truly save lives, and the work continues to inspire me.

Aligning with Our Community’s Needs

Within all of this positive work, we needed to identify the underlying issues that were causing children to drink or abuse alcohol in our community. In such an academically competitive environment as ours, anxiety and depression can be prevalent among many of our young learners. Often, our children are overscheduled in sports leagues, community service, church, and school activities. While these offer many great opportunities for children to pursue their passions and interests, sometimes there’s too big a focus on building a resume and not enough on balancing the needs of the individual child.

To address this imbalance, we surveyed all children in grades 7, 9, and 11 with the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets Survey to determine their most pressing needs. Using the survey results as our guide, we performed a program evaluation of our entire PK-12 counseling services using an outside evaluator. We completely aligned the work we do with the needs of our children. Now, our counselors meet monthly, collaborating on great projects that focus on student wellness. They have reached out to the surrounding medical community as well, collaborating with pediatricians and mental health professionals regularly to keep the lines of communication open when serving children.

Reevaluating What We are Asking of Learners

One example of where we took specific action was around the issue of homework. Excessive homework was identified as one of the culprits of over-stressed children during our community-wide strategic planning process. We realized homework was not always intentionally designed to be engaging. Sometimes we would see an assignment with 40 math problems, when 10 would suffice. Of course, homework is one of those topics where ten different people will have ten different opinions, but we tried to get a community consensus on how much and what type of homework is appropriate.

For instance, in preparing our guidelines, we started by asking how much sleep a child should get a night. Then, how much time is spent getting ready for school, eating, and actually going to school? How much free time should children have available when outside of our building? What about after-school practices and music lessons? All of these factors were considered for different age groups. We also reviewed the extensive (and fairly non-conclusive) research that is out there. So, after all the factors above were considered, how much time is left for homework?  

Once those questions were answered, we asked ourselves questions about whether homework is actually needed, and if so, how can we be intentional about both the quantity and quality of it. Our homework guidelines are very important to us. We still assign homework, but we are much more intentional when doing so.

Also, when it comes to exams, we set up a testing calendar to avoid loading up tests all on one day. Each core subject matter is assigned a specific day throughout the week for when exams or major projects should occur. For instance, Social Studies and Math may be limited to Mondays and Thursdays, while Science and English get Tuesday or Wednesday.

By the way, since the inception of these guidelines, ACT scores have actually increased significantly. Although we don’t necessarily attribute this increase to the guidelines, they certainly haven’t hurt student learning.

Creating Engaging Opportunities

There are many other ways we are addressing social and emotional issues. For instance, each week, every child engages in a 30-minute “class meeting.” In these meetings, the teacher leads the children through a discussion, reading, or activity related to a variety of topics. These age-appropriate experiences are developed by campus- and district-level committees. We often use outside resources, like Common Sense Media or youth suicide prevention programs—Riding the Waves in elementary and Look, Listen and Link at secondary. This allows us to have powerful conversations about important topics, such as empathy, mistreatment, finding your strengths, cyberbullying, and test anxiety.

We have also tried to rethink the way we offer a vast array of courses and experiences with the idea that they will engage children in school and reduce anxiety and depression. For instance, for PE, our learners can take Yoga or CrossFit. For science, they can take Forensic Science, Astronomy, or our famous Rocketry class. We have added more than 30 courses at the secondary level in response to student voice that count toward graduation. At the middle school level, four days a week students get to take a 30-minute mini-enrichment course of their choice. These include just about any topic you can imagine from computer coding to fly fishing to cooking. Every 3-6 weeks, learners get to choose a new mini-course, and you often see them so excited that they are running to class. They love these non-graded courses that are fun, low-stress, novel, and enriching.

Affirming Our Staff as Learners

We completed all of the initiatives of our Strategic Plan in 2014, so in 2015, we developed a Profile of a Learner. This profile contains the characteristics and attributes we want for everyone in our district, including students, staff, and parents. One of the six major areas in our Profile of a Learner is: “Develop a Healthy Sense of Self.”

As a way of elevating the importance of this Profile, every month we highlight one or more teachers who exemplify a specific aspect of our Profile, since they are modeling this for our children. Whether they demonstrate creating positive relationships or showing humility or empathy, we affirm who they are by doing a video feature, honoring them at a school board meeting, and pushing out the video to our entire community. This is very well received and enhances the Profile in such a positive manner.

Closing

In the 21st Century, children have unprecedented opportunities academically, as well as in the arts, sports, and leadership. In our district, we still place a heavy emphasis on all of these areas. We have found, though, that our efforts in addressing the whole child have uniquely enhanced student success in every other area. In other words, we don’t see this as an “either-or” proposition but, rather, as a “both-and” one. Seeing it this way has enabled us to transform our schools to be much more learner-centered.

This work has taken courage and vulnerability, and it isn’t done yet. I have found that when we provide a safe environment for people of good will to have authentic conversations about what is best for our children, many great innovations bubble up and positive momentum is created. We have not only provided this safe space for conversations about social and emotional issues but also in every other facet of our district—academics, athletics, the arts, and leadership. Listening to students, parents and staff—even when it is hard—is key to education transformation. I am incredibly optimistic about our future because we have demonstrated a long-term willingness to have those tough conversations and commit ourselves to continuous learning and improvement. It is embedded in our organizational culture. The journey has inspired us all, and the best is yet to come.

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