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$235,000 grant to help Waco ISD cut suspension rates

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Waco Independent School District is hoping to cut repeat placements in disciplinary alternative school by 15 percent and cut suspensions by 10 percent with new help from a $235,000 grant awarded to Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work by the University of Texas’ Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

The three-year grant will provide mental health screenings for students entering Waco ISD’s Disciplinary Alternative Education Program, offer the students individualized transition plans for re-entering their home campus and provide updated training for staff and administrators districtwide, according to a Baylor press release on the grant.

Work by the school of social work through its Be Emotionally Aware and Responsive partnership with Waco ISD led to an understanding that many students sent to Waco’s alternative school, the G.L. Wiley Opportunity Center, face unaddressed mental health issues, according to the press release.

The new grant-funded partnership between the district and the university, called Transitioning to Mental Wellness: Improving Academic Achievement through Mental Health, will support work the district started in recent years to overhaul its approach to student discipline, said Trudy Bender, Waco ISD’s behavior intervention coordinator.

“The district is shifting wtoward a more positive, proactive approach to behavior education, and this really is a great example of that,” Bender said.

Waco ISD started that shift a few years ago, she said. The state reprimanded the district in 2014 for placing black students in its alternative education program at a higher rate than other groups and expelling 20 students for reasons not covered by law.

Overall out-of-school suspension rates are already down 40 percent for the last three years, Bender said.

For example, out-of-school suspensions at J.H. Hines Elementary School totaled 112 in 2016-2017 after spiking to 818 in 2014-2015, according to district data.

“What used to happen is there was a lot of disconnect between the alternative campus and the home campus,” Bender said. “It takes a lot of manpower and time to build those connections and effectively transition a student from the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program back to their home campus.”

The grant is about identifying needs and providing quality mental health services, rather than about reaching more students, BEAR project manager Carolyn Cole said.

“What’s so fascinating for us is to try and keep up with the latest in trauma-informed care and the affects of early childhood trauma and in adults later,” Cole said. “We’re rapidly learning about brain science and then (working to) convey that to all personnel in Waco ISD and see the light bulbs go on.”

Social workers from Baylor are helping teachers learn behavioral triggers and how to calm students when they see signs of fidgeting or anxiousness to prevent a greater issue, she said. They are also focused on getting families involved in students’ mental wellness as soon as possible, she said.

That helps parents understand school officials are there to help ensure students remain in class, Cole said.

Intentional instruction and new training will make the time students spend in the alternative program more valuable and give them better support as they move back to their home campus, Bender said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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