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Dyer to speak in nation’s capital on breaking barriers, engaging students

POSTED: June 19, 2013 1:14 a.m.

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer will travel to Washington, D.C., next week, sharing information about collaborative educational methods that the system has implemented.

She will speak on a Tuesday panel about the model of a full-service community school district, a system that the city schools have been implementing for the past few years. She expects to also speak in front of the state school board in August, and in a state-level education improvement summit in September.

Her presentation in D.C. will be part of the Community Schools Superintendents Council, through the American Association of School Administrators.

The Gainesville system is one of the few in the nation to be included in the Rebuilding for Learning program, through the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools and Scholastic, the educational book publishing company. The initiative began in the late 2000s, with the applications for the program accepted in 2008, and emphasizes the work of the system being a true community school district.

“We met for the first time in 2009,” Dyer said, “and we did not have a time frame on the project but we assumed that we would be in professional learning and support for a couple of years, and that would get us started.”

The program gained interest following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Dyer said, explaining how the schools that had proper support systems in place had students who recovered where they were at in their education more quickly. This was when Scholastic became interested in helping to fund and provide a framework for using collaboration and an emphasis on the whole student in education.

“The framework that they theorize would work,” she said, “is that if you have learning supports, and it’s as important as instruction and management, then you would create a system where you could address barriers to learning before they would become problems.”

As part of the initiative, the Gainesville school system did away with the usual hierarchy and instead developed three teams to mirror the framework — management, instruction and learning support.

“The way those work together is key,” Dyer said. “So we have a system in our strategic plan that is aligned to this, and every month on Monday mornings one of the teams meets. And there is overlap of people from the schools. You build a web.”

The main purpose behind the program is to break down barriers students may face in education, and to affect those barriers before they become problems. Various barriers were identified, including attitude problems, cultural and language differences, bullying, lack of parental involvement and other health issues.

“When we started the work, we found that the interventions, they were more reactionary in their methods,” said Jarod Anderson, director of learning supports with the school system. “We realized we were doing very little prevention work which was going to focus on more students rather than a few.”

Dyer and Anderson explained that the Rebuilding for Learning program helps the system to be proactive rather than reactive to students who may face barriers.

“School turnaround is not just about teachers and leader involvement,” Dyer said. “It’s not just about the curriculum. The real barriers are those that are presentend that are not in those realms, and if we don’t address the barriers that kids have ... then we’re not going to improve the schools.”

Dyer said that more schools across the country are looking into this particular program. She said that the Alabama Department of Education is implementing the system in six of its schools beginning in the next school year, and the Georgia Department of Education has also expressed interest, hence why Gainesville representatives are speaking at two different events in the coming months.

It’s not something that is advertised, Dyer said, explaining that it’s more of a word-of-mouth campaign between school systems.

The trend is going toward this method of education, Dyer said, due to a demographic shift.

“There are fewer kids, demographically, who are going to do well,” she said. “If you look at who traditionally has done well, it’s higher socioeconomic groups.”

Dyer said that the poverty level is rising in the United States, which leads to lower scores and graduation rates.

“It’s a workforce and a national competitiveness issue,” she said.

Anderson added that, with diminishing resources, emphasizing collaboration and prevention is a way to address issues with a wider net of people.

Dyer said that Gainesville’s improvements have been noticeable in measurement tools, such as graduation rates and in the student health index.

“(The student health index) gathers data on things like drug abuse, bullying, alcohol use, sexual abuse, a number of different things that measure experiences that children are having,” Dyer said.

She said that education leaders at the state level looked at the results and found that Gainesville schools had significant improvements since implementing the Rebulding for Learning program.

Dyer said that this is key in the program being of interest to other school systems, as two new ratings in the College and Career Ready Performance Index are going into effect this year, with one rating system focused on finances and the other on school climate.

The school system received no direct funding for participation in the program; rather, Scholastic provides the support and resources for the involved districts. The program does pay travel expenses for semi-annual meetings, Dyer said. Teachers and administrators are provided with books and online lessons.

In D.C., and later in front of Georgia education leaders, Dyer said that these small meetings are ways to develop a larger framework for school systems to build and sustain these collaborative methods of engaging and retaining students.

“It’s kind of like it’s coming together here, for us to share with Georgia,” she said, “but it’s not happening because we’ve forced it on anyone, or tried to sell it. The results are speaking for themselves.”


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