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Students Face Many Out-of-School Challenges. I Should Know.

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By Christine Brandt

I remember middle school as an incredibly challenging time in my life. When I was twelve years old, my mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That same year, my parents divorced and my dad came out as being gay and was diagnosed with HIV. My dad was homeless for a while and my mom became a single mother raising three children. The stress of this was too much. I tried committing suicide. It's safe to say that school was far from my first priority.

Today, as the principal of Jason Lee Middle School, a high-poverty, high-mobility school located in Tacoma, Wash., I work with countless students facing many similarly daunting life experiences. From homelessness to abuse, from hunger to the huge responsibility of being caretakers for siblings, our students have so much to wrestle with outside the classroom. Hearing these incredible student stories helps me to understand the holistic shift necessary in education to address the physical, social, and emotional needs of students in order for them to develop academically. 

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Our journey to support the whole student began in 2014, when Jason Lee chose to take AVID® (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a college preparatory system, school-wide. AVID focuses on systems, leadership, instruction, and culture to help students take control of their own learning. Jason Lee also signed on to the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative (TWCI), a district-wide effort to ensure that every Tacoma student is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Using these approaches, we develop, implement, review, and revise systems that further our vision of supporting the whole child. Those systems include:

Building Community Partnerships

  • Community partnerships to support students' mental health
  • After-school and summer programs run in conjunction with community partners

New Classroom Strategies

  • Inclusive co-teaching classrooms in both math and language arts to support special education students
  • Classroom implementation of Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) tenets: self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, self-awareness, and social awareness

Schoolwide Policies and Practices

  • A student mentor and advisory system
  • Raising Student Voice and Participation (RSVP), a National Student Council program that gives students opportunities to identify issues in the school and suggest solutions
  • School-wide expectations that students and adults are respectful, responsible, compassionate, and safe
  • Multi-tier systems of support monitored by teams with aligned interventions
  • Restorative justice practices

This approach of supporting the whole child has paid off for Jason Lee. We became an AVID National Demonstration school in 2016; received the 2016 Vision in Action ASCD Whole Child award; opened an innovative "school within a school," known as Thrive, in 2017 based on neuroscience research on how physical activity and movement can improve student performance; and were highlighted at the 2017 Aspen Institute for Social, Emotional and Academic Development Commission Conference held in Tacoma.

We've also seen real impacts on student metrics, most notably our overall attendance rate. Since 2013 we have seen attendance increase from 83% to 91%. We have also seen a decrease in the number of students who display early warning signs of dropping out (i.e., absences, behavioral issues, and failing classes) from 35% in 2016 to 18% currently.

If you ask students about Jason Lee you will hear how proud they are of our diversity, how they have a real voice in decision-making, and how we work to build relationships when conflict occurs. They'll also tell you how teachers, parents, administrators and community partners believe in them and in the diverse perspective every student brings.

Students know they can make change in their school and the world. Jason Lee Middle School has empowered students to be the difference and we have been rewarded with the positive transformation of our school.

Photo: Christine Brandt leads members of the Aspen National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development on a tour of Jason Lee Middle School. (Courtesy of the Aspen Institute and Tacoma Public Schools/Dean Koepfler)

Christine Brandt is the principal of Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Wash.

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