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Secure and Healthy Learners Committee defines district problems and recommends solutions

PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM BATES
 - This Barnes Butte Elementary classroom calm corner features a beanbag chair and activities to help calm children who may be frustrated or unfocused. Calm corners are one option teachers have in place to help support secure and healthy learners.

Students in schools today exhibit extreme behaviors.

They disrupt classes with outbursts, entertain suicidal thoughts, take risks and often deal with mental health issues.

In order to address this growing concern, Crook County School District Superintendent Sara Johnson created the Secure and Healthy Learners Committee mid-year.

"When we first started moving in this direction, the district really wanted to see a system approach, not just put some funding here, put some funding there, but they really wanted to see that people had studied it," Johnson said.

The committee's charge, then, was to review what the district currently offers and make some recommendations to the board.

Last week, Director of School Improvement Joel Hoff informed school board members of the committee's progress and plan of action.

Comprised of school district directors and administrators, the committee looked into the building security piece as well as the social and emotional learning aspect.

Hoff informed the board of the latter.

A catch-phrase in the academic world today is social and emotional learning, defined as how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

First, the committee conducted a district's needs assessment with guidance from Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. The organization helps equip educators and policymakers with resources to advance social and emotional learning.

They then came up with a list of problems that needed to be solved.

"We came to discover that there is a dramatic increase in the amount of student nonacademic needs in our schools," Hoff said. "We're seeing a severe spike in mental health and other needs that are non-academic related, and we're trying to piece together how we as a district address those needs."

At the elementary level, for example, there is an increase in students exhibiting extreme behaviors that take away from classroom learning.

"We're seeing a spike in student outbursts," Hoff said.

At the secondary level, counselors are seeing an increase in student despair — students who are struggling mentally and emotionally — and an increase in student mental health issues.

"There's an increase in suicide ideations, extreme at-risk behaviors, and simply not enough adults in our system to meet those mental, social, emotional needs," Hoff reported.

"We're seeing that the nationwide increase in school violence comes internally, so it's something we want to have our arms around and be able to support our students the best we can," he added.

For the final problem, the committee realized there was no overall framework of current supports.

"We hadn't looked at all of our services and put them in a way that our staff and students could use efficiently," he said.

An early task involved counselors, administrators and a few teachers coming together to identify all resources, programs, activities and services that the district already has in place to support secure and healthy learners.

They created a three-tier chart, including things like wellness rooms, the anonymous text line, Kelso's Choices, Lutheran Community Services Northwest and alternative education.

Next, committee members analyzed the currently offered supports in terms of people, time, money, the level of implementation, the impact on secure and healthy learners, whether or not it was under-resourced, and the current need.

"It's a broad assessment of our current offerings so we can identify gaps, effective practices, non-effective practices, where we are spending our money so we can determine next steps to come up with some recommendations," Hoff explained.

The committee then came up with a handful of recommendations.

First, they want to fully utilize the supports and services that they currently have in place. This may include retraining staff, re-installing the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support program at each school, and training staff on the multi-tiered systems of support.

Secondly, the committee had some personnel recommendations. This includes expanding the system-level support personnel at Crook County Middle School by maintaining a counselor and adding time to the student success position. They also suggest having a financial plan for maintaining current counseling levels and coaching elementary teachers regarding students with extreme social and emotional needs.

Thirdly, the committee wants social and emotional skills and strategies taught to all students. The CharacterStrong program has launched for secondary students, and they are looking into curriculum for elementary students.

Finally, they want to clarify and increase behavior supports at the elementary level and align teacher skills to current student needs.

"Our action is to continue to monitor our secure and healthy learners system in order to identify those practices that are effective and those practices that are non-effective and determine our gaps," Hoff said.

Johnson said the secure and healthy learners initiative is not a fragmented approach.

"It's a system approach. All needs have been looked at and considered, and there's something in place to address all the needs," she said.

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