I love my job as an educator. I work alongside incredibly committed teachers who are passionate about their jobs and interact daily with amazing students. We are all in this in spite of the challenges we face.
Our school district is located in Sheridan which is a small, rural town in the western part of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. We are a former logging community that has been greatly impacted by the loss of jobs in the timber industry. Today, our largest employers are the Spirit Mountain Casino, the Federal Correctional Institution, and the school district.
Sheridan has two schools, one K-8 and one high school, which collectively serves nearly 700 students. Much of our community lives in poverty and many of our students have experienced trauma in their lives. Last year alone, teachers in our K-8 building wrote close to 2,000 referrals for disruptive student behavior. As a result, our teachers were exhausted, administrators were responding to behavioral emergencies instead of providing valuable feedback to educators, parents were frustrated, and students weren’t getting the support they needed.
Historically, when our school district faced a systemic issue, we would scan research and implement solutions that had proven to work in other districts. This process had varying results. Sometimes we would land on a solution that worked but often we rolled out new initiatives that did not stick. Our participation in the CLASS/School District Collaboration Fund (SDCF) taught us that our old process gave us mixed results because we were seeking existing silver bullet solutions rather than considering the unique needs of our community.
Taking what we had learned from SDCF grant, we decided to address our referral issue by asking teachers to identify pressing problems, focus on the root causes of the problem, and design a solution that was appropriate to our local context. We found teachers felt they did not have a clear support structure for dealing with disruptive student behavior and their only tool for intervention was writing a referral. What’s more, teachers found that the referrals were negatively impacting students’ engagement with learning because they were constantly being pulled out of class.
To dig deeper into this issue, we asked ourselves: What are the root causes of this problem? What is happening in our local community? How do we create a system that addresses these causes? We looked at surveys teachers had previously taken which identified their students’ social and emotional skills and also spoke with educators and students. We learned that a lot of students who were frequently getting written up had minimal to no support outside of their classroom teacher. We also found that we had trained our teachers to believe referrals were the first line of defense when a student is having an issue in the classroom.
The need for more adult support stood out as one of the most important issues for our community. As a result, we have established a system that provides students with an opportunity to develop their social and emotional skills through classroom instruction and individualized meetings and offers teachers additional professional development to support student needs. We also created two new positions, a student manager for 5th-8th grade and a behavior coach for K-4th grade. Our student manager and behavior coach are the first line of defense when a student is having an issue in the classroom. They work with students both inside and outside the classroom to prevent further disruptions. They build relationships with the students and parents to understand why a student is having a problem in the classroom. They also work directly with teachers in supporting students who frequently disrupt the classroom by providing techniques for intervention and relationship building. Finally, we have built an early warning system as part of our professional learning community where we strive to identify students that have 2 or more referrals, and discuss how we can better support these students.
Before we implemented this process, if a student was being disruptive in the classroom, they would immediately receive a referral. Today, if there is a student who is causing distracting behavior in the classroom, the student manager or behavior coach helps to de-escalate the problem and works with the student to get back into class and continuing learning. We have noticed a dramatic shift in our school, teachers are less likely to use the referral as their first intervention. In fact, this past school year, our school had nearly a 55 percent reduction in referrals.
When we first embarked on addressing our referral issue, I remember being uncomfortable by the process because to do it correctly, we had to be methodical which took time. But slowing down, engaging our community, examining our data, and scrutinizing why we were facing this issue enabled us to build a sustainable system that honors the unique needs of our community.
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