BKW to learn trauma skills and to help unprepared students

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell hands BKW Salutatorian Adrianna Fahd her diploma at the Class of 2019’s graduation in June. The district is now participating in a Harvard program to address college enrollment and college readiness.

BERNE — Berne-Knox-Westerlo will be working with two national organizations to become “trauma-skilled” as a school district, and to identify and help students most at risk for absenteeism and being unprepared for college.

BKW will work with the National Dropout Prevention Center over the next two years to train a team of staff members in “trauma-responsive skills,” Superintendent Timothy Mundell told the school board last week. The team’s training will then be applied across the district in a program that has been used in schools throughout the nation.

Sandy Addis, EdD, the director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, said that much of the current conversation on trauma and students “focuses more on the trauma than what educators have to do about it.”

He told The Enterprise that his organization offers individuals as well as entire school districts certification in being trauma-skilled, and provides training to teachers and other school staff on what they can do about trauma that students have suffered.

Students become more “resilient” after undergoing trauma by regaining autonomy, he said. This can be done by teachers asking students to help develop classroom rules, he said.

Teachers and school staff must also be aware of what could trigger children who have undergone trauma, which could be as simple as closing the door to an office, he said.

BKW was contacted by the National Dropout Prevention Center this past spring, Mundell told The Enterprise. The two-year program will start with a speaker from the organization making a presentation at the next superintendent’s conference day, followed by the training of a team of staff and then the entire district.

The program was developed over the course of three-and-a-half years, said Addis, and began last October.

Research shows three factors are involved in students who drop out of school: poor attendance, failing grades, and bad behavior, Addis said. According to research by his organization, the root problem of all these is traumatic childhood experiences, he said.

“A trauma-impacted kid tends to have a skewed perception of adults, particularly adults of authority,” he said.

According to figures from the State Education Department, BKW had a drop-out rate of just 1 percent last year, with only one student out of 76 from the class of 2018 dropping out; the state average for drop-outs is 6 percent.

Mundell said that, even if there is a connection between dropping out and trauma, BKW’s goal is to have students supported in school and prepared for life after high school.

“From where we sit, this is a social-emotional development issue,” he said.

The program would be part of what Mundell described as a multi-faceted approach to foster social-emotional development in students, such as partnering with the county to have a mental-health clinician available. Mundell said he is excited about staff learning new approaches to childhood trauma as well as building on what they have already been doing in the classroom.

Todd Daggett, the chief operating officer of the National Dropout Prevention Center and its parent organization, the not-for-profit Successful Practices Network, said the center has conversed with BKW about certification for the last few months and the center’s work will be tailored to the district.

Daggett emphasized that having trained BKW staff instruct the rest of the district staff will ensure that the program is sustained. “It’s not dependent on one person,” he said.

Trauma is not a new issue, said Daggett, but studies have shown that schools of every size are reporting more and more students experiencing adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. While the Successful Practices Network does not study the root cause of ACEs, Daggett said, some theories to explain the uptick include increased use of social media and more poverty, especially multi-generational poverty.

BKW will be the first district in the state to become certified, said Daggett. He commended the district for addressing a serious issue and acknowledging the problem.

“To pretend that there is not a crisis is selling our students short,” he said.

Harvard program

At the July 22 meeting, Mundell also announced that BKW has been chosen to take part in a study by the National Center for Rural Education Research Networks, or NCRERN, out of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

Bi Vuong, the director of the Harvard program Proving Ground, who had shepherded the NCRERN program until a director was hired this week, told The Enterprise that the project will seek to find the best practices to resolve issues of chronic absenteeism, college readiness, and college enrollment. The issues were chosen, she said, by school leaders in New York and Ohio, where school districts will take part in a network to share what is and isn’t working to resolve these issues.

“They’re a partner in this; it’s not a traditional study,” explained Vuong.

Vuong said that the idea for the program came out of a collaborative effort. In New York, the center first spoke with state education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia and Deputy Commissioner Jhone Ebert, as well as with district and Board of Cooperative Educational Services leaders such as Anita Murphy, the superintendent of Capital Region BOCES. Vuong and Mundell both said that Murphy played a large role in developing the project.

BKW is one of 30 school districts in New York participating in the five-year program, said Vuong. Another 20 districts were selected in Ohio.

The New York districts will meet three times a year, and representatives of all districts will meet together at least once a year to share feedback and ideas, she said.

Through NCRERN, a contact management system will also be created to help districts communicate, and staff at Harvard will also analyze data from programs like BOCES to help schools better understand what is and isn’t working.

Vuong currently directs the project Proving Ground, which connects urban school districts across the country to find solutions to absenteeism. At the Syracuse City School District, for example, it was discovered that absenteeism improved when parents were regularly informed not only when their child missed school, but also what they missed learning in the classroom.

Vuong said the goal is to replicate what Proving Ground is doing with urban districts with these rural districts.

The $10 million in funding for NCRERN is being supported largely (91 percent) by the United States Department of Education with the remaining 9 percent coming from New York and Ohio.

Mundell told The Enterprise on Wednesday that BKW will focus on two subject areas: chronic absenteeism, and career pathways and other options after high school.

BKW applied in March to take part in the study, Mundell said. The lengthy application process involved reviewing what BKW’s goals are to address these issues, as well as interviewing district leaders. Mundell was notified that BKW had been selected on June 20.

Vuong said that, in the application process, the center sought districts with leaders committed to learning and changing what is necessary in their district over the course of the program. The districts also had to be willing to address at least one of the issues identified in the study, she said.

BKW has an absentee rate of 8 percent in its elementary school and 15 percent in its secondary school, compared to the state average of 15 percent in elementary schools and 23 percent in high schools, according to data from the State Education Department.

Mundell told The Enterprise on Wednesday that the district rates have recently been reduced by 2 or 3 percentage points at the secondary school and 1 or 2 percentage points at the elementary school.

He said that the rates are not “dramatic,” but the district is looking for underlying causes of chronic absenteeism in the district, which refers to a student missing 18 or more out of 180 school days, or 10 percent.

Mundell added that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act has brought about more rigid guidelines on chronic absenteeism, including even students who leave the district early in the year if they have been absent 10-percent of the time.

Causes for absenteeism can range from family issues to illness, said Mundell. In some cases, BKW has tried to resolve chronic absenteeism by communicating with parents about their child’s absences, as well as establishing early on that attending school is important.

District programs will also ensure that students want to go to school, which works hand in hand with career and technical education and other programs that prepare a student for life after high school, Mundell said.

According to BKW’s list of graduates, approximately 34 percent of the Class of 2019 will be attending a four-year college; another 34 percent will be attending a two-year college; 16 percent will be joining the workforce; 8 percent will be joining the military; and 8 percent will be taking a certification program such as through BOCES or the Aesthetic Science Institute.

Mundell said he is eager to see what other districts have to offer as far as strategies in combating absenteeism and preparing students for life after graduation. He and others representing BKW will travel to meet with participants and the program’s organizers at different locations, he said.

“I’m very excited,” Mundell told the school board. “It’s an opportunity to network with other schools, but it’s also an opportunity to network with the likes of the credibility of Harvard University, and I think it says something for the work being done in our district.”


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