Once a week, a team of teachers, administrators, and mental-health counselors here in the 2,000-student Martin County district meet to talk about students carrying emotional burdens that would stagger many adults.
There’s the middle school student with anxiety and other health problems that have resulted in dozens of school absences. A high schooler raising younger siblings after a parent’s death. Another student who might be self-medicating his mental-health problems with pot and alcohol.
A teacher on the team brings up each student’s grades and attendance records on a laptop. After writing each student’s details on a page from an easel pad, the team talks about what they’ve already tried and what more may help. A referral to community-based trauma counseling seems to be working for one student. Another teacher volunteers to reach out casually to another student to find out more about what’s going on at home.
These weekly discussions are part of a systematic effort to improve school climate and student behavior in this school district, tucked in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. As one of 71 districts that received a federal School Transformation Grant in 2014, Martin County is using its $1.5 million to implement a multitiered-system-of-supports program called Project Achieve in its middle school and its high school.
The story in this district is of teachers and administrators adapting to an educational framework that calls for behavior and social skills to be taught as intentionally as math and English, said Paul Baker, the district’s lead school psychologist and the director of the school climate work.
In addition to the attention focused on students with acute needs, the district has also put into place a set of behavioral expectations for all students, along with a standardized set of consequences for not meeting them. The district started weekly social-skills classes, and set up an incentive system to nudge students on the path to more positive behavior.
The district also has put in place a monitoring system for all students, so that teachers and administrators can spot children who may have quieter struggles, rather than focusing primarily on students with attention-grabbing behavior problems.
“What we know is that it’s not enough to have our students prepared academically,” Baker said. “We have to equip them with as many tools as we can to maximize their chance of success once they leave us.” That means taking time to teach skills like conflict resolution or goal-setting, not assuming that they’ll be picked up by children along the way.
But the school transformation work, now in its third year, is also a demonstration of how putting in place a multitiered system often requires fundamental changes in how schools, teachers, and students interact with one another.
Using MTSS to Organize Strategies
Poverty and its accompanying issues have deep roots in Martin County. A little over 50 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson shined a spotlight on the county when he helicoptered into Inez and met with an unemployed coal miner. Johnson used his travels through Appalachia in 1964 to launch the War on Poverty.
At that time, the poverty rate in Martin County was 60 percent. It is now down to 40 percent—still twice the national average—due to an infusion of federal support that started back in the 1960s and continues to this day. The coal-mining industry that once sustained Martin County is far diminished from its heyday, and the community is isolated enough that other industries haven’t taken hold.
This is not a history that Martin County residents are eager to talk about.
“All we do is focus on what we don’t have,” said Larry James, the district’s superintendent. “But we do have very nice facilities and we have tremendous teachers, as good as you can find anywhere.”
Indeed, the main street through Inez is dotted with yard signs extolling the state education department’s recent designation of “distinguished” for one of the district’s three elementary schools and its high school. The honor is particularly an achievement for Sheldon Clark High School, which in 2010-11 had been ranked among the state’s lowest-performing schools.
But the toll that generational poverty has taken on the community is reflected in the lives of its children. In its application for the school transformation grant, the county quoted from a state survey that said nearly a quarter of 14- and 15-year-olds in the 540-student high school were bullied at school, 10 percent missed a day or more of school in the prior 30 days because they didn’t feel safe, and 10 percent had attempted suicide in the past year.
Once the district’s only school psychologist, Baker said he felt limited in how much actual counseling he could undertake with his students. He would see students to assess them, and then refer them for more services. But “you don’t get to know whether something we did actually helped a kid.”
The Martin County, Ky. school district is in the third year of a five-year federally funded effort to improve school climate and student behavior in its middle school and its high school. As part of the grant, the district tracks results on several indicators. Some have shown improvement, while others, like suspension numbers, require more attention, administrators say.
Implementing a multitiered system helped the district pull together what had been scattered efforts, Baker said.
For example, the district’s Tier 1 work—the portion of a tiered system that is meant for all students—includes the behavioral matrix, which spells out exactly what classroom behavior is expected, such as raising hands, listening, arriving on time, and having classwork ready. Hardly anything is left to chance, or assumed to be already known.
Before the matrix was put in place, “the expectations were not universal,” said Patricia Murphy, the middle school coordinator for the behavioral-intervention-and-supports program. And there were also a variety of punishments students might be subject to, she said. Before creating the matrix, one act of misbehavior might be ignored by one teacher and result in an office discipline referral from another. The matrix is intended to provide consistency for everyone in the classroom.
“It’s about changing adult behavior and mindset as much as changing children’s behavior and mindset,” she said.
Middle school students are rewarded for behavior with “Cardinal Cash,” named for the district’s mascot. Sheila Frey is among the parent volunteers who bring in special desserts every Friday for children who have earned enough Cardinal Cash during the week.
Frey, whose son is in 7th grade, said she sees improvement in the school atmosphere.
“I think it’s more effective,” she said. And her son doesn’t “feel like he’s in prison.” The district is still working out what reward system would work best for its high school, said Baker, the lead school psychologist.
It’s about changing adult behavior and mindset as much as changing children’s behavior and mindset.
The middle and high school students also spend time in social-skills classes, role-playing how to deal with conflict and learning about emotional intelligence.
Does it make a difference?
“Oh gosh, yes,” said Brian Farley, an 8th grade social studies teacher. “These aren’t skills that are taught a lot,” but they’re the skills that students need for life, he said.
Catching Student Problems Early
Another powerful piece of the initiative has been universal screening aimed at ferreting out students whose emotional problems might not be as obvious. The teachers of students who are deemed at risk are briefed in intervention strategies for this particular group of students that they can start using right away.
And then there are the “get go” students—those who are struggling with the most severe problems. They receive the full attention of each school’s student-assistance team from the get-go.
A large part of the work is in training teachers and administrators so that the work becomes second nature, said Howard M. Knoff, the creator of Project Achieve. Based in Arkansas, Knoff is assisting Martin County with grant implementation.
“Those folks become the core of the leadership,” he said. “In order to maintain and sustain it, it has to be not dependent at all on the outside consultant or core coach. It has to be something that the staff is doing as part of their assignment, part of their routine.”
Two years into the program, Martin County has seen some results, including a drop in office discipline referrals.
But change is not always immediate. In the second year of the program, the middle school saw an increase in its suspension rate, the impact of a stricter district-wide suspension policy put in place after a spate of fights in high school, Baker said.
The statistics show how putting a multitiered system in place can sometimes be in tension with other district policies. Baker said the district hopes to revisit the harsher suspension policy, for example, because it doesn’t appear to have had the intended effect.
There have also been practical benefits. Noting a flare-up of fights on middle school buses, administrators made some changes, including adding a new bus run to relieve overcrowding. Major discipline issues on middle school buses dropped from 43 instances in 2014-15 to 11 instances in 2015-16.
And despite the increased suspension rate, indications are that teachers are able to handle minor discipline issues without sending students to the office, said Principal Brent Haney.
The school climate work “has been a great benefit to us, not just in the behavioral part of it, but also in the academic part. It’s a major amount of work. But if we start to see the changes, then it was worth every minute of it.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as Learning to Get Along