At Our Alternative School, Intervention Round Tables Support the Whole...

Voices | Whole-Child Learning

At Our Alternative School, Intervention Round Tables Support the Whole Learner

By Megan Guzman     Apr 23, 2019

At Our Alternative School, Intervention Round Tables Support the Whole Learner
Collier High School

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

I sat at my first round table meeting, listening to my colleague talk about how one of my ninth graders, Sadie, had been calling out answers, talking during independent work and having difficulty staying seated during math class. I was baffled.

Sadie had been struggling in my English class too, but not in these ways. Frankly, she often presented as lethargic in my class and I was concerned with her work avoidance and the way she pulled her hair and spoke negatively about herself. As the meeting progressed, I learned that she was expressing similar behaviors in her history class, but not her math, science or art classes.

Something wasn’t right.

It was only after each one of us had a chance to present our observations to the team that we were able to connect the dots. Sadie’s behaviors were different in her morning classes. By the time she got to me in eighth period, she had time to wind down after gym and lunch, and though her behaviors were still concerning, they were more subdued.

We spent the remainder of the meeting discussing strategies that were effective for Sadie and coming up with an action plan to put into place immediately, which included music integration, a social skills support group and tutoring.

Round tables are one of the unique ways we work together to meet each student’s needs at Collier High School, which is operated by a non-profit organization, Collier Youth Services. Situated atop a 260-acre campus in Marlboro, N.J., our 165-student school provides therapeutic programs and other related services in conjunction with academics to help students reach their full potential, not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well. Our motto: “Where small miracles happen everyday.”

So, What’s Alternative About Our School?

I’m a ninth grade English teacher at Collier and all of my students are classified with a disability and have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that qualifies them for special education services. Most of them are referred to our small private school through out-of-district placement, meaning that at the recommendation of the IEP team, the district pays for the student to attend an outside school because there isn’t a school in the district that meets the child’s needs. This process can be long and hard-fought and requires students go through psychological and academic testing.

After a student is referred to us and formally accepted, we work with their sending district to create an individualized plan that will address the student’s needs. Every student is entrusted to a licensed clinical social worker or licensed professional counselor whom they are required to see for at least three 40-minutes sessions a month. However, the clinicians are also always available to the student if they are struggling or in crisis. We offer multiple therapeutic groups a year based on the needs of the current population of students, such as bereavement, foster/adoption, social skills and LGBTQ support groups.

It’s not just the student experience that’s alternative, it’s a different experience for teachers too. When I first started at Collier in 2016, I didn’t realize how unique the position was. From a teaching perspective, Collier is ideal in many ways. Our school has a low student-teacher ratio, averaging about 4:1, which enables us to provide more individualized attention.

Additionally, our campus is designed to provide therapeutic experiences for our students, which helps us connect and build positive relationships with students. We have a ropes course with a zip line and rock wall that we use to help students develop confidence and perseverance. We have trails through the woods for hiking and mountain biking, which help students express energy in a positive way. And we develop a sense of environmental responsibility by working in our chicken coop and tending to our rain and vegetable gardens. Aside from equine therapy, most related services are available directly on campus. Having such a diverse range of services allows us to treat each student holistically.

Teaching at an alternative school has its challenges too, though, from writing lengthy progress reports for IEPs and attending frequent student meetings to supporting students through emotional breakdowns during class to frequently getting new students through our rolling admissions process.

Though I’ve taught freshmen before, my lessons don’t always work with these students the way they had in my prior schools. A two-week project might take four weeks. My worksheets often require significant modifications because they’re too cluttered for my students with dyslexia, visually impairments or ADHD. Some students are excessively absent, so units needed to be modified to run self-paced.

Having to meet the diverse needs of these struggling learners and keeping them engaged can be overwhelming. But for me, what makes the teacher experience at Collier so unique is the collaborative nature of our work and knowing we're not in it alone. Round table meetings are a great example of the collective approach we take to supporting students at our school.

Helping Sadie Grow

Sadie’s round table meeting was particularly memorable, not just because it was my first, but because she was experiencing difficulty in many of her classes. As I entered the room, I was surprised to see so many people in attendance. I expected to see her counselor, who had called the meeting a few days prior, her teachers and maybe an administrator. But there were staff members from the occupational therapy (OT) and speech departments, as well as a few of her previous teachers from our middle school.

Sadie’s counselor shared context about her living situation and the Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant (LDTC) explained her cognitive assessment scores relative to her abilities. Then, Sadie’s speech therapist provided insight into her executive functioning deficits and her occupational therapist described the coping skills that benefited her in the OT room and could potentially help in other classes. Past and present teachers compared notes on which strategies were most effective in their classrooms. Everyone in that room had something to contribute to Sadie’s intervention plan.

When we wrapped the meeting, we had a plan in place. We’d give Sadie a few minutes to play the piano before homeroom to help her self-regulate until fifth period, when she was able to visit the OT room for about 10 minutes before going to lunch. We generated a list of effective prompts to guide her back to work and committed to using the same ones consistently across classes. She was allowed to listen to music while completing independent work, and would be encouraged to take a break from class if she needed one. Sadie would also begin attending a social skills group once a week and would see a tutor one or two times a week during lunch.

With these supports in place, Sadie showed steady progress in diminishing her distracting classroom behaviors. By June, some of her other behaviors, like the hair-pulling and self-deprecating remarks, had lessened. She was able to focus more in class and even made the honor roll.

Sadie’s growth is of course unique, but it’s not uncommon to see this kind of turnaround at Collier. These official round tables, with everyone in attendance, are scheduled on an as-needed basis for students who are struggling significantly, but more often, collaboration like this takes place through email, while passing each other in the hall or at a staff meeting. Identifying student strengths, weaknesses and consistent behaviors we need to address collectively, enables us to come up with an immediate action plan, like we did for Sadie. We try to identify needs that are not necessarily addressed in an IEP—ones that don’t wax and wane depending on the day, but are consistent across learning environments.

To me, the system works so well because we offer a variety of strategies to develop identified and perceived weaknesses, and commit to long-term improvement practices. Our collaborative conversations help us identify student patterns, facilitate critical intervention strategies and create consistency across learning environments. When we collaborate in this way, we see growth, but Collier has taught me that it takes extra time, patience and collaboration.

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