Five years ago, Andrea Dix, a Stockton Grade School teacher, was focused on math and science curriculums and standards. She cared about her students, but she didn’t think she had the time to develop relationships with them.
That changed as the school began to shift its focus to social-emotional learning and character development. In August 2017, Stockton Unified School District 271 was announced as one of the school districts selected to take part in the Mercury 7 Kansans Can School Redesign Project.
“We began to focus on building relationships with students,” Dix said. “It’s hard to admit where I was. I was all about curriculum. Then, I started taking the time to really get to know my students and what their lives outside of school were like. As I started giving them what they needed, I saw their academics soar.”
Dix has been a teacher for 16 years – 15 of those at Stockton. She recently had a large class of students with high social-emotional needs. For one girl in particular, school wasn’t a priority for her or her family. Dix spent time getting to know the student and her circumstances outside of the classroom.
“I saw that student bloom,” Dix said. “She was looking for my acceptance. I believed in her, and she bloomed.”
Stockton Grade School educators began to focus more on building relationships with students and getting to the root of behavioral problems rather than jumping to consequences for behavioral problems, Dix said.
“It’s that change of mindset,” she said. “How can I help? You can’t educate a child if the child’s needs aren’t being met.”
Stockton Grade School was recently certified as a 2021 State School of Character by Character.org. The State Schools of Character award program recognizes schools and districts that have worked to enhance social, emotional and character development. Character.org certifies schools and districts at the state level that demonstrate a dedicated focus on character development, which has been shown to have a positive effect on academic achievement, student behavior and school climate, according to character.org.
Stacey Green, principal of Stockton Grade School, said she noticed a change in the student population and family dynamics during the 2016-2017 school year.
“Kids came to school not ready to learn,” Green said. “We were seeing more students with trauma.”
The school has taken several steps to help. Staff members meet students’ needs for safety, belonging, competence and autonomy by using trauma-informed practices. The grade school also has adopted the mantra: You are safe. You are loved. You have people.
Stockton Grade School had about one week during the 2020-2021 school year when students had to do remote learning. Still, staff members said, the pandemic has put extra stress on educators and students. Even the youngest students were worried about their parents’ job losses and income depletion, Dix said.
“I think the pandemic has caused trauma, directly and indirectly,” she said.
Another program, Zones of Regulation, was implemented a few years ago. All teachers check-in with their students before learning begins in the classroom. Cards on classroom walls relate to how a student is feeling – red indicates anger and not ready to learn; yellow is frustrated; blue indicates a student is sad, tired or hurt; and green indicates a student is feeling good and ready to learn.
“Zones have significantly impacted students’ abilities to name emotions, take a break before behaviors happen and find coping skills that work to not act out of their core values,” Stockton wrote in its State School of Character application.
The school also has partnered with High Plains Mental health to have a mental health liaison come to the school three timers per month through a grant from the Kansas State Department of Education’s (KSDE) Mental Health Intervention Team Program. The liaison helps with clinical referrals and bridges the gap between the school and mental health centers.
Stockton Grade School also has implemented community groups, Green and Dix said. For example, Dix has 15 students in her community group. They are all ages, from prekindergarten through seventh grade. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the groups met for 30 minutes each school day and would spend time talking about the good and bad things about their day; writing in a gratitude journal; learning about character development; and more.
Community involvement also has been key in the redesign process and has helped with character development. Parents are encouraged to attend quarterly meetings where other parents and teachers lead discussions on initiatives, such as trauma-responsive schools, standards-based grading, civic engagement opportunities, community groups and character education.
“Having parents voice concerns in a positive environment where questions are encouraged has helped form a unified front and given parents a leadership role to take out into the community and be optimistic advocates for the school,” Stockton Grade School wrote in their application.
While the school and staff members have seen a positive change, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Has it gotten better? Overall, yes,” Green said. “While it feels really hard right now, it’s what is best for our students, but hopefully it bleeds over into their family life, too.”
That hard work is helping pave the way for other districts, Green said.
“It gives us a vehicle to help others grow and learn,” she said.
And while it hasn’t been an easy journey, it has been worth it.
“I’ve had the most fun teaching school this year,” Dix said. “I love my students. I’m reenergized. This has been an amazing thing for Stockton. Things have gotten better. We still have behaviors, but we’re doing something to change the behaviors – not just punishment. We think about what the student is trying to tell us with the outburst. We are working to develop the whole child.”
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