Failure and Its Impact
Unfortunately, failure is a real and regular option and experience for kids at my school. Many students enroll in our school with a significant quantity of missing credits and academic skills that are far below grade level. Aside from offering credit recovery courses during intersession and recently changing from traditional semesters to trimester with block schedules to provide students with more opportunities to retake courses, we do not have structures in place to prevent failures. Instead, our structures simply prepare for and respond to failures.
As a result, many upperclassmen attend off-campus adult school and emancipate before graduating. On a positive note, we are building a culture that encourages and supports credit-deficient students who can also benefit from an additional year of emotional support to stay for a fifth year of high school. This effort was led by the residential agency after they noticed that many of our students were leaving campus underprepared to transition to independent living. We have only been intentionally keeping fifth-year seniors for two years and many students already have benefited from this change.
One condition that exists which makes it too late to learn and reach competency is a lack of interventions during trimesters. Currently, if a student falls behind and is in danger of failing a course, the school notifies invested adults through progress reports. As a school, we do not offer extra supports to prevent failures. Instead, the responsibility of helping students catch-up or re-learn is placed on the residential staff.
Additionally, we do not have an established practice of allowing students to resubmit work and reassess if they are unable to demonstrate mastery of a learning goal. In the ten years that I have worked at the school, we have never even discussed grading practices as a staff. In fact, many students’ grades are actually determined by behaviors more than learning.
If I was the leader of my school, I would work with our partner agencies to create and implement “too late to learn” alternatives. I would propose weekly after-school intervention groups for students who need additional instruction and/or support with learning task completion. Also, I would challenge the teachers to begin to implement standards-based grading and use embedded formative assessments and scheduled reassessment opportunities.
I began this school year with a new “never too late to learn” structure already in place in my classroom. Over the summer, I independently decided to challenge myself to learn and implement standards-based grading focused on ten standards/learning targets per trimester. For each standard, I am providing four scheduled opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery and plan to offer additional assessments as needed. When possible, I am using multiple assessment methods.
I will continue to …
Schools Building Agency and Identity
Schools are the first community children participate in outside of their families. Agency is developed as students learn to interact and form relationship with others in a setting away from their homes and guardians. Identity is influenced as students discover how they are treated by members of this new community.
Awareness of Choice Words at My School
As previously mentioned, my school is a residential campus for foster youth; all of the students have been removed from the care of the biological families due to abuse or abandonment. This increases the impact of the choice words of my colleagues and I say to our students. Instead of simply helping to enhance students’ agency and identity, we often work to repair the damage of the abusive words our students have internalized.
Trauma informed practices are helping us to develop an awareness of the way adverse childhood experiences affect our students. We attempt to speak in a way that connect behaviors to trauma instead of character traits. We use words such as triggered, escalated, and incident instead of temper, rage, and fight. However, we do not yet intentionally practice using choice words.
Choice Words Schoolwide
If I were the school leader, Ii would focus on the needs of our unique student population to determine how choice words can to help them learn, develop, and heal. I would work with our campus mental health experts and continue to research best practices in helping traumatized children. I would challenge the staff to also independently engage in this inquiry. I would create opportunities for school, clinical, and residential staff to discuss insights and collaborate to establish campuswide choice words best practices.
Embracing Choice Words
This school year, I am already intentionally focusing on using choice words in my communication with students. I am focusing on using affective statements as the foundation of my classroom behavior plan. I am doing this to help my students build empathy and develop positive behaviors, which are especially needed as a result of their childhood experiences. We are four weeks into the trimester and it has been challenging to remember to consistently use these choice words, but I am already noticing positive changes in my students’ behavior and the learning environment.
I am simply sharing my experiences and successful use of effective statements with my colleagues during informal conversations and staff meetings. I am intentionally refraining from pushing this practice onto them, because we are still just beginning restorative practice work as a team. I am also sharing with our restorative practice coaches. I hope that affective statements will eventually become schoolwide choice words.
I will continue to …
Do No Harm When it comes to the concept of Do No Harm, I believe it is a simple way of explaining schoolwide behavior expectations. It summaries the common positive behavior intervention supports expectations to Be Safe, Be Respectful, and Be Responsible. Additionally, it supports the rules outlined in California's Education Code. It is essential to establish Do No Harm as an expectation for all members of a school community, including the adults. In coordination with a restorative practices program, Do No Harm can help build a learning community focused on developing academic and character skills.
Discipline Policies and Practices
In my sphere of influence as a future school leader, my belief that all students have the desire and capability to learn and behave will be reflected in my discipline policies and practices. I believe that traditional discipline issues arise from students and adults’ weaknesses inability to work together in a positive manner. As a school leader, I would develop policies that focus on building structures to support restorative practices through a lens of population-specific needs, such as trauma informed practices.
Program Policies and Initiatives
I would work to examine the school’s current behavior plan and the community’s beliefs about behavior and discipline. Then, I would determine whether it is completely appropriate to replace or simply supplement current policies with ones that support restorative practices. However, I would ensure that this was done as a gradual progression to allow time for teacher, staff, and stakeholder buy-in and understanding.
Professional Development as a Community of Learners
Before pushing teachers and school staff to implement a Do No Harm initiative, I would focus on fostering an appreciation of restorative practices. During professional development, I would set a clear expectation that adults are as responsible as students to Do No Harm and repair any harm they cause. I would work to establish a team of restorative practice leaders at the school site and with their help I would prepare teachers to use affirmative statements, affirmative conversations, and circles to create a community that supports the learning of behaviors.
Do No Harm in My School
Approximately five years ago, I participated in my school’s Building Effective Schools Together Committee, which worked with Jeff Sprague with the University of Oregon's Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior to build and support the implementation of a schoolwide behavior plan based on positive behavior intervention supports. Working with stakeholders, we established schoolwide and classroom behavior expectations, corrective consequences, and rewards. We were simultaneously trained in trauma informed care by our partner agency. Within two years, we had strong data to validate the effectiveness of our efforts. However, due to lack of maintenance and support, our system has deteriorated to almost simply words in our student handbook. The concept of Do No Harm is inexplicably addressed by our school wide expectations to Be Safe, Be Respectful and Be Responsible, but they are not consistently supported--even through just simple corrective consequences and rewards. Last spring, our staff began restorative practice training, but we, adults, are still working at the participant level. We have only been trained to host relationship building talking circles with our students.
Sit with Me
My school’s current lack of Do No Harm culture is of great concern to me. In fact, it is one of the reasons I began this program. Due our students’ history of abuse and resulting trauma, they need and deserve to be taught behavior in a supportive--rather than punitive or permissive--environment. Currently, we are struggling to simply get the teachers to behave in a way that Does No Harm. Fortunately, my principal is working with a team of restorative practice leaders from the county office to implement a Do No Harm culture.
I will continue to:
First of all, my school, San Pasqual Academy (SPA), does not have a mission statement Approximately four years ago, I remember participating in a discussion during a school staff meeting about the need for a mission statement, but no one has ever followed through on the conversation. Also, our campus, which is a residential school for foster youth run as a collaboration between multiple partner agencies, does not have a mission statement.
My school district, San Diego County Office of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools (SDCOE JCCS), does have a mission statement, but it was created under previous leadership and is currently just embedded at the bottom of district newsletters. The mission statement is as follows:
JCCS educators are committed to high expectations, social justice, and equality for all students. They value diversity and strive to eradicate institutionalized racism and discrimination in all forms. Their priority is to raise achievement of all students while eliminating the achievement gap between students of color and white students. They accomplish this through the delivery of culturally and linguistically responsive standards-driven instruction, courageous and advocacy-oriented leadership, and relevant professional development. All JCCS community members stand personally committed and professionally accountable for the achievement of this mission.
At last week’s district-wide school year kickoff celebration, it was not even mentioned. Additionally, we do not refer to this statement or its contents during campus professional development. It is in need of an update in order to reflect the work that is currently taking place.
In order to best support our students through focused collaboration, work is needed on three vision/mission statements. There should be one for the entire campus, one for the school, and an updated one for the school district. At SPA, the founders and representatives from all partner agencies should come together to create one statement of vision for the entire campus. After this is created, each partner agency should create a mission statement that clearly states how their organization can support the vision. In order to prepare to draft a mission statement that aligns with both the district and campus vision statements, it would be best if this happened after SDCOE JCCS updated its mission statement.
Before my school can even begin to connect our school’s mission to our stakeholders, we need to first understand our role in relation to the goals of our primary partners--New Alternatives, Incorporated and San Diego Health and Human Services.
As previously stated, SPA is a residential campus. Our students’ “parents” are actually multiple “invested adults” from various agencies, such as houseparents, clinicians, county social workers, and student advocates. Over the past two years, frustration about a lack of communication between the “school side” (SDCOE JCCS) and the “residential side” (New Alternatives, Inc.) has been expressed.
Our classrooms are located squarely the middle of campus and staff often walk through our corridors during school but very few walk into the classrooms. (Conversely, the student/houseparent houses are located within a few hundred feet of our classrooms but very few teachers walk into the houses.) The houseparents recently attempted to form a Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) but backed off due to a lack of support by the school administration. A few have also offered to volunteer in our classrooms, but this has not yet been implemented. Unfortunately, residential staff primarily enter classrooms to intervene during student behavior indents.
An easy step to begin to help the two “sides” work as one group of adults who are educating and raising the youth in our care would be to simply focus on welcoming the houseparents and lead staff into the academic settings of our campus.
If I was a School Leader
If I was in an official leadership position at SPA, I would work to bring many of the traditional parent-teacher communication structures that are in place in many traditional schools to our campus. For example, I would support the formation of the PTO, create a system to support classroom volunteers, bring back parent-teacher conferences, start a weekly newsletter, build a webpage, share a calendar, and use social media to share learning and participation opportunities. Additionally, I would work with the district, teachers, and PTO to host workshop nights for all invested adults, including houseparents and lead staff, focused on topics such as Common Core State Standards, digital citizenship, Google Apps for Education (GAFE), and our learning management system, Haiku. In addition to welcoming the invested adults into the learning environment, I would empower my teachers to feel comfortable making home visits (we could even roleplay if necessary!), nudge them to socialize with campus adults during extracurricular activities, and simply make an effort to learn at least the names of the adults and the house number of each student.
Instead of continuing the practice of making suggesting to my principal of ways to help the residential staff feel more connected to our classrooms and even offering to host campus workshops, I recently decided that I am going to instead focus my efforts on doing a better job of modeling the practices I would like to see implemented schoolwide. I want to increase face-to-face interactions with houseparents and lead staff through actions such as home visits. Also, I want to continue to use technology to share the learning taking place in my classroom through a public classroom webpage, social media, apps, and even simple texts. Later in the year, I may host a technology workshop night focused on Haiku and GAFE. However, I am going to limit myself to just working with my students’ invested adults to avoid the feelings of frustration and disappointment that often result from pitching my big ideas to my principal. Even though this is not my ideal plan, I understand that creating a warm welcoming environment has the potential to spread to make my school a more welcoming place.
My Commitments to Make SPA a More Welcoming Place