Meeting students’ needs

Brattleboro School Board hosts third community conversation

BRATTLEBORO — The adults, perched on wooden seats designed to fit elementary-aged students, shifted their weight and stretched their legs.

At the front of the Green Street School library, Special Education Coordinator Shelley Wilson explained a PowerPoint image of a triangle divided into blue, green, yellow, and red sections.

The Brattleboro Town School Board held the third of four community forums on Jan. 21. The well-attended forum focused on methods that the schools and Early Education Services use to educate students with a wide range of academic and behavioral needs.

According to Wilson and her fellow presenters, multiple factors, such as poverty and homelessness, influence students' learning and behavior.

State data for the 2013-14 academic year show that nearly 63 percent of students in Brattleboro's three elementary schools qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. During the same school year, 49 kids and their families here were considered homeless.

Wilson pointed to different color blocks in the triangle projected on a screen at the front of the library. Each block represented a different tier, she said. Students can move from one tier to the next throughout the school day.

“A lot of kids would rather be known as a wise guy and pointed at for acting out than for not being smart enough,” said Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli.

In the academic realm, Tier I represents the common curriculum presented to all students. For the behavioral realm, Tier I represents the universal school behaviors expected of all students.

The majority of students, said Wilson and presenters including Curriculum Coordinator Lyle Holiday, meet Tier I academic and behavior expectations.

The next level, Tier II, serves 5 percent to 10 percent of students.

Students who excel at a topic or behavior may require additional challenges to stay engaged in classroom activities. These students will receive extra work or projects under Tier II Enrichment.

Students struggling to meet academic or behavioral expectations receive extra support such as small-group work, additional instruction, or one-on-one guidance, all under the umbrella of Tier II Intervention.

Sometimes, though, another 1 percent to 5 percent of students need specialized Tier III Intervention, the presenters explained. This can include classes from a special educator or a plan to replace a disruptive behavior with a positive one.

The presenters stressed that each student can rest at any tier at any time in the day. For instance, a student who excels in math may receive Tier II Enrichment work during math activities but require Tier II Intervention activities for reading. Or a student may spend his or her classroom time meeting Tier I behavior expectations but require Tier III Intervention at recess.

Educators adjust to students' needs daily, the presenters said.

Parents in the audience asked how the schools deal with problem behaviors.

According to Wilson, the first step is identifying what needs meet the problem behavior of the student.

“It's a lot of digging and detective work,” Wilson said.

The second step is finding a positive replacement behavior that meets the same need. For example, if a child hides during the transition to library time, educators discern why the child hides - then design a new behavior the child can take, like asking the librarian if he or she can visit Wilson's office.

Including parents on developing and reinforcing the replacement behavior helps create consistency for students, the presenters said.

The presenters explained that the schools prefer positive reinforcement to punishment when working with students.

Oak Grove School, Green Street School, and Early Education Services participate in a federal and statewide program called Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) that uses a variety of positive reinforcements to change students' unwanted behavior.

Students act out less in their classrooms and more often during less-structured times like recess and bus trips home, the presenters said.

Green Street School Principal Mark Speno said that each school tracks academic and behavioral reports so they can pinpoint the best response.

Speno said that this year the schools installed video cameras on the school buses. The videos helped the administration determine that the district needed to employ a third school bus.

Kids were crammed into the two existing school buses and couldn't help but act out, Speno said. Since adding a third bus, misbehavior has “steadily declined.”

One form of positive reinforcement that Green Street uses, Speno said, is writing up positive behavior such as making good decisions and displaying good citizenship. Each month, the school chooses up to three kids to highlight in the school newsletter.

Green Street has also instituted student leadership programs including a restorative justice program and peer mentoring, Speno said. More than 50 students have participated in some form of leadership program.

According to Windham Southeast Supervisory Union staff and administration, a variety of factors influence students' learning and behavior. At the presentation they focused on poverty and homelessness.

According to Vermont Agency of Education data for the 2013-2014 school year, the statewide average for students receiving free and reduced lunch is 40.7 percent, presenters reported.

State data show that approximately 62.69 percent of kids in K-6 in Brattleboro qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. At Green Street, 70 percent of students qualify for the lunch program. Sixty-one percent of Academy students qualify, as does 57 percent of the student body at Oak Grove.

The three town schools have a student population of 768.

Of the four towns used as comparisons during the presentation, Brattleboro ranked third.

Rutland City's two elementary schools - 485 students in all - had 70.34 percent of its students on the federal lunch program. Bennington's three town elementary schools - 836 students in all - averaged 63.03 percent.

Springfield's two elementary schools, housing 595 students, ranked fourth with an average of 49.57 percent.

According to presenters, the schools' number of homeless families fluctuates throughout the year. For example, the number of homeless families with kids in grades K-6 is 17. When figures include the entire school year, starting in September, that number jumps to 32.

In the previous academic year, the elementary schools counted 49 homeless families. Twenty-two families had children in kindergarden and first grades, which are considered prime skill-building years.

Wilson said the state includes in its definition of homelessness those families living on the streets, in shelters, and in motels.

According to Deb Gass, the executive director of Early Education Services (EES), and Marisa Duncan-Holley, director of special education, the numbers aren't much better for students in the early-education programs or support programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start.

As of last August, they said, 51 percent of the 95 families enrolled in Head Start had earnings below the federal poverty line. Only four percent of families earned above the poverty threshold.

In the Early Head Start program, according to data gathered by EES, 70 out of 103 families here earn below 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Homelessness, parents lacking a high school diploma, unemployment, and mothers seeking mental health services also factor in children's early-education outcomes, Gass said.

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