Creating individual supports that connect students like Luke to the resources they need is what WAVE is all about. And, we believe all schools have an opportunity to do the same.
Monique Uzelac & Sarah Giddings
How can an alternative education for at-risk students look when taken to the next level—becoming learner-centered, community-supported, and embedded with social-emotional skill strategies to target students’ diverse needs? To illustrate this possibility, we need to share Luke’s story and the support structure that has put him on the cusp of a previously unreachable achievement.
Luke was raised in a chaotic household where he suffered from abuse and neglect by his drug-addicted parents. Naturally, this resulted in low attendance rates and little to no academic progress. His situation was so dire that Luke became addicted to drugs himself before he was finally removed from his parents’ custody.
When Luke enrolled at Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education (WAVE) in 2011, he was getting clean through a court intervention program. As his health improved, he continued struggling with stability in housing and education. Despite those obstacles, Luke and WAVE staff were able to make headway using a trauma-informed approach focusing on the social-emotional skills he needed to progress through high school.
At most schools, the needs of their students are only addressed Monday-Friday during typical “business” hours. At WAVE, our supports go beyond our walls and are available around the clock. For Luke, this meant multiple home and workplace visits by WAVE’s teaching and counseling staff. It’s now a joke between WAVE staff and Luke that he will never be able to escape his education.
These visits are used both to help staff understand a full picture of each student’s challenges and supports outside of school and to provide support tailored to each student’s individual needs. Staff may focus on a variety of areas during each visit, including goal setting, problem solving, counseling, academic progress reviews, and other topics. Creating individual supports that connect students like Luke to the resources they need is what WAVE is all about. And, we believe all schools have an opportunity to do the same.
Of course, these outside supports provided by WAVE staff are also found inside WAVE’s building. Each teacher at WAVE has an advisory caseload of up to 25 students. Staff and students, at the very least, talk weekly and have formal quarterly meetings. WAVE advising meetings use motivational interviewing techniques and provide students like Luke and their respective teacher with a consistent framework for their decision-making. For Luke, this has meant an ongoing focus on his self-talk, trauma-informed practices, and a commitment to building the necessary academic and social-emotional skills that have, so far, positioned him less than two credits away from graduating.
Early on in our strategy development, we realized our target group of at-risk students could not succeed if we simply handed them a computer and left them to their own devices. We knew learner-centered education meant we must focus on more than just the curricular piece of school.
Monique Uzelac & Sarah Giddings
In 2016, Luke earned more credit in one year than he had earned in his previous four years of high school. Despite his incredible growth, he still felt daunted by the idea of completing high school. Inside his head, as graduation grew closer, he was constantly criticizing himself, saying he was stupid and would never graduate. This mindset almost led Luke to drop out of school altogether, but the support structure he has at WAVE kept him from making that endgame decision. His teacher told him that if schools had survival skills at the core of their curriculum, he would have graduated before any of his peers. In fact, if there were a zombie attack tomorrow, we would all be dead in the first wave, but Luke would be just fine.
It’s important to note Luke’s story is not a glorified anomaly. He is one of many success stories at WAVE. 100% of our enrolled students meet the criteria for “at-risk” and have documented struggles in social and emotional learning competencies. Many of our students have experienced high numbers of adverse childhood experiences. They need social-emotional infused approaches in their learning to navigate and succeed in high school.
Early on in our strategy development, we realized our target group of at-risk students could not succeed if we simply handed them a computer and left them to their own devices. We knew learner-centered education meant we must focus on more than just the curricular piece of school. Luke’s story is a great example of the dynamic nature of our education model. However, we continue looking for ways to make the learning experience at WAVE even better. We want to incorporate continued academic development while also strengthening our students’ social-emotional learning. We do not want our students to graduate because they simply know and understand content. We also want them to show they can manage themselves, their emotions, and their communication with others in the world.
For our students to accomplish these goals, we constantly ask ourselves: How do we support the growth and development of these social-emotional skills as we approach curriculum and instructional practice? In the beginning, the first answer was data, then came an intentional review practice.
How Data Informed Our Approach in Cultivating Engaged Learning
Unfortunately, social-emotional learning (SEL) and mental health support is seldom integrated into general education classrooms and curricula in our nation’s schools. To combat this norm, WAVE joined a countywide effort to collect data on student self-perception. As part of this effort, all nine districts in our county administered the ACT Engage survey to all ninth grade students.
Taking this effort a step further, WAVE also included student focus groups with 10% of our school population over three years. Additionally, we began collecting annual data from school improvement surveys, parent surveys, and staff observations. Through this data, we have identified key areas of difficulty for at-risk students.
For specific examples of need, our data shows the majority of our students struggle with self-awareness and management. They do not know how to accurately identify their thoughts and feelings and struggle with impulsivity and managing their anger. When they come to us, they lack confidence in their ability to succeed at school, and many equate themselves with failure. After all, their lack of “success” in traditional school is why they are at WAVE in the first place. Like we said, Luke is not an anomaly.
This intentional work requires in-depth understanding of social-emotional skills and has become a teacher-led, school-wide project that incorporates consistent review points.
Monique Uzelac & Sarah Giddings
In many cases, our students have also developed unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. Front and center is avoidance. We receive a high degree of referrals from students who struggle with chronic absenteeism, disciplinary issues, and a pattern of unhealthy behaviors. From this information, we constantly adjust and evolve our programming, including being a part of a countywide social justice partnership and an adaptive leadership network, as well as offering cultural literacy opportunities and professional learning for all school staff. This professional learning for staff enhances our student-staff relationships and continues to make our personalized curriculum responsive to students’ needs. We reflect on professional learning together and use this reflection as encouragement to keep an ongoing focus on student data.
If we recognize during our regular staff meetings that a student is exhibiting signs of self-harm or produces work that indicates such a concern, we have protocols for how to intervene and adapt their work so they can express their authentic thoughts and emotions in positive ways. We also have a documentation system, so we can track what interventions are or are not working. And, we have a readily-accessible list of global interventions we could use for that child.
Constant Review Points Continue Pushing our Work to the Edge
Our course review practice is particularly distinct from other schools that only provide advisory time or offer specific courses that may use positive SEL practices. At WAVE, we embed social-emotional learning vocabulary, student self-assessments, and opportunities for staff and students to engage in discussion of SEL skills in the context of each subject area. This work begins as soon as a student enters our program. Each student has an advisory teacher who completes an in-person orientation, in-depth interview, and needs-assessment process.
The intake interview is a structured question series that elicits information about the student’s SEL competencies and their past history as a learner in and out of school. For Luke, his advisor read the intake interview answers about his past school experiences, as well as his history of personal trauma, and together they set goals for self-management. Practices for Luke included work on regulating his emotions when he feels frustrated or upset and positive ways of managing these emotions. This intentional work requires in-depth understanding of social-emotional skills and has become a teacher-led, school-wide project that incorporates consistent review points.
With these needs in mind, curriculum development includes specific teaching of skills across the CASEL core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. We adopted CASEL’s core competencies after working through multiple projects dedicated to SEL. Staff understanding of various SEL domains required a common language and understanding of the skills we wanted to target with our students, and CASEL provided a great structure.
Students like Luke inspire us to become better at what we do and make us take a hard look at the areas of support we could better provide.
Monique Uzelac & Sarah Giddings
Further connecting our SEL work with proven strategies, we participated in an extensive University of Michigan study about providing cognitive behavioral therapy in schools, which aligned well with the CASEL core competencies. Their study, Trails to Wellness, provides a resource for schools to offer evidence-based mental health supports for students with anxiety and depression. Looking to continue this work once the study concluded, we applied and received an SEL Innovation Fund grant in order to partner with outside training from MINT (Motivational Interviewing Network of Training), as well as the lead investigator for the Trails to Wellness project. We are currently conducting online course reviews and updating components that will integrate common language about these skills into content-area classes. When we spend the time working with students on SEL skills, we know they are able to take advantage of the personalized curricular components of our program.
The Journey Continues
As WAVE staff continue to improve our countywide, alternative school program for at-risk youth, we will continue asking ourselves how these SEL strategies can be further integrated into the day-to-day learning for these kids. Students like Luke inspire us to become better at what we do and make us take a hard look at the areas of support we could better provide. We know when we help our students improve their mental health, their relationship with school and academics also improves. This will set the stage for future positive outcomes.
When Luke walks across that graduation stage in a few short weeks, he will begin writing the next chapter of his life with the academic and mental health skills he needs to succeed in the future. As a staff, we could not be prouder of his achievement, knowing we have equipped him with the SEL skills that have allowed him to see a new world of possibilities.