By Andrew Cluley
For decades Ann Arbor Public Schools like many districts have fought to close the achievement gap that has minorities, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and others not performing at the same level as other students. The two-year-old Behavior Intervention Specialist Program may be the breakthrough that leads to success in the difficult task of eliminating the achievement gap.
Grade point averages of the students involved in the program went from 1.2 before it began to 1.9 in year one and 1.94 through the first three quarters of the 2014-15 school year. Suspensions dropped from 42 in 2012-13 to 18 in 2013-14 and down to nine in the just completed year, despite the number of students increasing from 80 to 144.
These types of improvements are drawing attention. School Board president Deb Mexicotte says the change in how the district intervenes in behavior issues has been a great success. “We often talk about incremental improvements, this data is in the magnitude of a 20 to 30 percent improvement. It’s astonishing,” Mexicotte says.
The program was created to meet a mandate from the Michigan Department of Education to use Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, funds to provide early intervention services. A disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions for African-American students with Individualized Education Plans in the 2012-13 school year lead to the mandate. The program however is open to all general education students that have failing grades in two or more areas, truancy issues, or multiple disciplinary incidents.
The Behavior Intervention Specialist Program started in Ann Arbor’s comprehensive high schools and Scarlett Middle School in 2013-14. This year the program expanded into Pathways, Slauson, and Tappan, and will come to Clague in the fall.
Five strategies are being used by the Behavior Intervention Specialists to help turn-around student behavior and performance. This includes developing stronger relationships with students, teachers, and parents; incentives for positive student behaviors; creating a safe space to support socio-emotional growth for students; individualized learning plans; and weekly focus group meetings with students.
Scarlett Middle School Principal Gerald Vazquez says the key to the program’s success is the focus on relationships. “Provides opportunity to engage kids in a meaningful way to create relationships,” Vazquez says. “They can count on an adult that cares about them and their academic achievement.”
Some of the most important relationships for students though are with their peers. Incentive programs help highlight positive student behavior. Slauson Middle School Behavior Intervention Specialist Dante Dorsey says at his school it’s called the Golden Ticket Program. He says students demonstrating good behavior are entered in a drawing for small prizes. “The most important thing is that the students receive that recognition in front of their peers,” Dorsey says. “It’s an opportunity for them to be recognized in a different setting for doing something good and making a positive impact on their own selves and their peers in their education.”
A similar program at Pioneer High School is called Lunch with a Leader. Pioneer High School’s Behavior Intervention Specialist Paul Johnson says students get to have lunch with community members like Zingerman’s officials or a police officer. Johnson says it makes the students feel like they are part of the community and at the same time provides another connection between the community and Ann Arbor schools.
Jeff Nzoma serves as the Behavior Specialist Program Specialist at Pathways. He says the program is run with the idea that every student has a genius inside, and schools should help get this out so they can be positive contributors to society. This includes having students volunteer at places like the Bryant Community Center, and learn about leadership, perseverance, teamwork, and compassion through a summer achievement camp.
While the program has been successful so far in reducing suspensions and boosting grades, additional resources are needed to reach more students. Behavior Intervention Specialists are looking for additional professional development on ways to assist teachers and staff address student’s socio-emotional concerns. Funds for transportation to extra-curricular activities and to provide incentives for students that are demonstrating improvement could also help expand the program.
Elaine Brown, Executive Director Student Intervention and Support Services, says they are looking for grants to help provide funds for expansion of the program. Board Member Christine Stead supports seeking grants, but says the program has the support of the trustees, including general fund dollars if needed. “I don’t want the program to live and die based on grants,” Stead says.
The Board’s support of the program isn’t just illustrated through funding commitments. Board Member Simone Lightfoot urged Behavior Intervention Specialists to reach out to the trustees for whatever assistance is truly needed. “Invite us as trustees to share with the young people, and use our contacts in the community,” Lightfoot says. “I appreciate taking kids off campus, into the real world so they can see how to meet people, and conduct themselves, it’s great.”
The program’s very success could make general funds necessary just to keep going in the near future. The declines in suspensions and expulsions will mean the end of the Michigan Department of Education mandate for the district to spend IDEA funds on the intervention program.