Changing the Course of History, One Classroom at a Time
Home to the Choctaw Nation, Durant, OK, is a small rural town with a diverse school population—more than a third of the children attending Durant’s schools are Native American. The community faced numerous challenges that were affecting students’ academic performance. Poverty, high school dropout rates, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse were problems affecting many of the students. These risk factors were further exacerbated by a lack of access to mental health services in the community.
School administrators and community leaders were justifiably concerned, recognizing that, unless these barriers to learning were addressed, outcomes such as improved academic success and reduced high school dropout rates would not be possible. As a result, the community got together and applied for funding from the Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative. With a successful application, Durant’s SS/HS community collaborative, which was funded in 2003, set out to turn things around in their community’s schools.
Durant’s SS/HS initiative implemented two important, evidence-based classroom programs to help the students: the Second Step and the Lifeskills programs. These two programs help children develop the social and emotional aptitude needed to overcome barriers to academic success as well as the problems they will encounter as they grow. The Second Step program teaches children problem-solving skills, impulse control, and anger management. The program is integrated into required classroom curricula for children ages 4 to 14. The LifeSkills program teaches junior high students how to resist peer pressure and identifies other factors associated with substance use.
Durant’s SS/HS program coordinator, Greg Howse, said that administrators, teachers, and school staff embraced the attitude and approach of the Carnegie Council on Education when the SS/HS initiative began. The Carnegie Council says: “ School systems are not responsible for meeting every need of their students. But when the need directly affects learning, the school must meet the challenge.”
For example, in addition to the Second Step and Lifeskills programs, many of Durant’s students and families needed additional help and support buying clothing and food, accessing medical care, navigating the complexities of community social services, and accessing counseling services.
“A student can’t come into class and learn to add and subtract if his stomach is growling or if his mom and dad just had another terrible fight,” said Howse.
To address this issue, the Durant SS/HS initiative started a Student Assistance Program (SAP) that supported school-based social workers to help students and families in need. SAP is a team approach that uses school counselors, school nurses, principals, and teachers to discuss and plan ways to meet any barriers to learning that a student may encounter. During the last school year, Durant’s SAP handled 1,943 referrals.
Good attendance is an obvious key to academic success, as students who regularly attend school are more likely to perform well. Durant’s Truancy Court program targets fifth- through ninth-grade students who have excessive rates of unexcused absences. Overseen by district judges and district attorneys, the program identifies the reasons for students’ absences and works with parents, social workers, and school officials—all required to attend Truancy Court with the student—to remedy the causes behind the truancy. Followup may include counseling sessions for families, and the program requires students to demonstrate improved attendance and academic performance to avoid penalties. This successful program has led to a sharp decrease in truancy and an improvement in students’ grade point averages.
These programs and the others implemented by Durant’s SS/HS initiative represented progress, but programs and services alone were not enough to ensure long-term success. Durant’s SS/HS initiative recognized the need for community support to ensure that these programs and services would be sustained. The initiative developed a two-part communications strategy that involved raising awareness of their activities and seeking direct involvement by various stakeholders. First, the initiative sought the support and endorsement of school administrators and faculty by demonstrating that their goals of addressing the social and emotional barriers to learning were having a positive influence on academic performance. As a result, SS/HS staff were viewed by the school administrators and faculty as an integral part of the student support programs that were there to help classrooms run smoother and schools perform better.
With the school administrators and faculty singing the initiative’s praises, SS/HS staff then reached out to community leaders and parents. They approached their local radio station and local newspaper, the Durant Daily Democrat, and both agreed to air public service announcements (PSAs) on the impact of the SS/HS initiative on student success. A series of PSAs focusing on character education featured prominent local spokespeople, including the chief of the Choctaw Nation, a State senator, the mayor, a judge, and even the local college basketball coach.
Durant’s police chief was so supportive of the initiative that he made sure all of the community’s law enforcement officers had bumper stickers on their rescue vehicles to show support for SS/HS. “Even the dog catcher has a bumper sticker that shows support for Safe Schools/Healthy Students on his truck,” said Delinda Knox, community liaison for SS/HS.
To maintain support, the project director made presentations to school staff, the school board, the Kiwanis Club, and other community groups to update them on the results and achievements of Durant’s SS/HS initiative. Their efforts have paid off. Durant’s school board has made several SS/HS programs—including Second Step, LifeSkills, and SAP—an integral part of the district’s educational process. Support from parents, the school district, and community leaders means that the benefits of the SS/HS initiative will long outlive the grant money.