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Gainesville schools’ grant program a beacon for others

Learning support systems’ success for Gainesville becomes model for Alabama

POSTED: September 7, 2013 11:30 p.m.

When Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer applied the city school system for a grant program tying it to “unified and comprehensive systems of learning support,” she could not envision that, five years later, an entire state would be adopting that same support structure, in part due to the city’s success in the program.

In fact, she almost didn’t apply for the program at all.

“When the proposal came out, I looked at it,” Dyer said. “But at that time we were in such a (budget) deficit, I didn’t think I needed to spend the time doing it. So it was at the last minute that I applied, and I think so many times how valuable it’s been and how we might have missed it.”

Today, the Gainesville system is a case study in how effective the learning support system can be when applied properly. In fact, Alabama is implementing the system across the state, in no small part due to the success Gainesville has demonstrated.

Since the district committed to the guidelines in 2008, its graduation rate increased from 73.3 percent to 87.2 percent within two years. The percentage of students absent 10 or more days decreased from 21 percent to 5 percent, while the percentage of tardy students was reduced by 11 percent.

“When I first became superintendent, I looked at the data overall of the whole system, and it was really glaring in the ninth grade, how many people were repeating ninth grade,” Dyer said. “I went down to Gainesville High School and looked in files. Why could this happen? It really was — over and over — it really was nothing that had to do with teaching and instruction. It was homelessness, it was drugs, they had babies. They didn’t speak English, or were undocumented. It was all these things.”

Since then, the teen pregnancy rate was reduced by 40 percent. Disciplinary tribunals decreased by 27 percent, and bus referrals were reduced by 49 percent.

The key behind the program is to be proactive rather than reactive.

“Prior to the system, you’re making attempts to prevent things from occurring, but a lot of it is just reaction,” said Jamey Moore, city schools’ director of curriculum and instruction. “Reacting to what the data’s saying. But this forces us at every level to look and say, ‘Here’s what the actual data’s telling us. What can we do to prevent these things from occurring?’ So it takes you that step back.”

For example, in increasing attendance, the system has asked that teachers and administrators be out and about in the mornings, greeting students with smiles and by their names. All students are encouraged to eat breakfast. In essence, it’s creating a welcoming environment where students want to come and engage with others.

Another example is in how the system decreased bus discipline referrals. Now, students sign contracts which detail how they are expected to behave while on the bus. They also receive training on proper bus conduct.

“We were seeing a rise in the number of disciplinary referrals that were coming from bus behavior, and that was our data point,” Moore said. “We could have just continued to react to that data point each year, but instead we said, ‘OK, what are the things that we’re not doing upfront before those behaviors occur?’ instead of ‘Here’s how we’ll respond after.’”

Dyer also pointed to the system’s response to bullying.

“We would do a whole-school assembly,” she said. “Sometimes we would bring in someone for a program. The counselors would do classroom guidance units, and then if somebody bullied, we would do counseling or discipline. Which sounds like we’re addressing it.”

Now schools involve students in the process of developing anti-bullying programs and lessons, as well as bringing anti-bullying messages into the classroom. An example would be a language arts class using literature with an example of someone being bullied.

“For me, prevention is the key that answers everything,” said Jarod Anderson, director of the learning supports program.

“I guess it’s just so funny because it just seems so common sense,” he added. “We’ve just been so trained to wait and react.”

The learning supports program was initially developed based on the work of UCLA’s Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor with schools in Los Angeles, Ohio, Hawaii, Arizona and California. Adelman and Taylor determined that improving student achievement should come from central leadership.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Scholastic Publishing Company reached out to the affected school districts to see how they could help with the rebuilding process. In discussing with the Mobile County (Ala.) Public School System as to how it seemed to rebound so quickly, school system representatives told Scholastic they had relied on the teachings of Adelman and Taylor.

From there, Scholastic contacted UCLA to develop a research project in examining the impact of central leadership in applying the framework established by Adelman and Taylor. They decided to begin with four school districts to participate in the pilot program.

Gainesville was joined by Indian River in Florida, Jefferson County in Kentucky and Sabine Parrish in Louisiana. But after the first year, Gainesville was the only one left in the program.

“There was a leadership change in two of the four ... and then the fourth one just couldn’t get it done,” Dyer said. “They could not get their board to move along with them.

“(The program) put pretty rigid requirements the first year,” she added. “We had to commit to do the work to try.”

The city school district has become a model, with school representatives invited to speak at various conferences since 2011 about how the program has improved statistics. In fact, a Gainesville representative will be speaking at the Sept. 15-17 Education Works Leadership Institute sponsored by the Georgia Department of Education, as well as the November National Dropout Prevention Conference.

Dyer said that being a model for the learning support system is “an accomplishment,” particularly as Alabama moves forward in implementing it in all public schools. But she is most happy the school system’s success can lend itself to Adelman’s and Taylor’s work.

“Most people look at Dr. Dyer’s greatest accomplishment as superintendent as bringing Gainesville out of deficit and restoring trust with the community,” Moore said. “Twenty years from now, people will look at this and see the incredible life change for those students that may not have even had the chance to graduate, but now are.”


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