Baylor University's school of social work

Baylor University’s school of social work in downtown Waco.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file

Every student at the G.L. Wiley Opportunity Center is there because of some type of conduct-code violation, and about 5 percent need help that no teacher or administrator can give, Principal Larryl Curtis said.

When Curtis saw Baylor University graduate students help a troubled young girl go from disrupting others, cursing and refusing to attend class, to wanting to continue her education at her home campus in a matter of a month, he knew Baylor’s Be Emotionally Aware and Responsive, or BEAR, project with Waco Independent School District had promise, he said.

Implemented last fall, the BEAR project sends social work students and supervisors to four schools to help Waco ISD students with severe behavioral challenges stay on track or get back on track. In its first year, Baylor students have observed measurable improvements that will help organizers improve and expand the program, project organizers said.

In the 2016-2017 school year, BEAR provided intensive individualized services to 145 students as part of the effort to reduce in- and out-of-school suspensions and alternative school placements, according to a presentation BEAR officials gave the Waco school board late last month. At Wiley, the district’s alternative school, 86 percent of students who received the services have not returned to the campus, project coordinator Carrie Arroyo said.

Waco ISD agreed in summer 2016 to pay Baylor $348,967 over a period of three years for the program.

“We know the relationships between teachers and students, and families and students, really matter if you want to see behavioral changes,” Baylor social work dean Jon Singletary said. “We really do have a holistic approach to our work. We seek to address our care for these students, our engagement with these families and our support for our teachers and the staff, both personally and systemically.”

The impact on the number of times students return to the the alternative program has been significant, Curtis said. Curtis is in his second year as Wiley’s principal.

The project also has a professional development component for educators. Part of its early success it thanks to Baylor students teaching educators about behavioral triggers, showing them strategies for calming students down and helping develop stronger individualized transition plans for students to return to their home campuses, Curtis said.

“The fact is, we don’t see as many kids coming back and forth as we saw the first year I was principal. Most students come one time,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s been eliminated, but I can clearly see a reduction in the number of students we’re seeing come back and forth last year.”

BEAR students have also worked at Brook Avenue Elementary School, West Avenue Elementary School and have more recently expanded to G.W. Carver Middle School, with the goal of keeping students from going to Wiley in the first place, Arroyo said. The project has also expanded to offer family engagement activities, mentor programs and collaboration opportunities, she said.

“Our goal is to prevent behavior disruptions, but we’re most often referred to students who have already been displaced from the classroom,” Arroyo said. “Therefore, our work starts with rapid assessment, immediate intervention and a focus on reducing further outbursts.”

Thanks to outreach to students at home, more families are seeing Waco ISD as a resource for help, Arroyo said.

Last year, BEAR interns worked more than 2,800 hours, and licensed master social workers provided 2,250 hours of supervision, she said. The program has also provided professional development for 200 teachers.

“We’ve found professional development vital to our work because children’s survival behaviors are often misinterpreted as willful disobedience,” Arroyo said. “When a child is experiencing stress, they’re going to respond in a way they’ve learned to survive, which may not always be rational to an adult.”

From here, BEAR project organizers plan to build more teams to continue their work, develop strength and difficulty questionnaires and conduct more focus groups to collect qualitative data. They are also considering methods for tracking students who have participated in the program as they progress and graduate.

The social work school also recently won a $235,000 grant to provide mental health screenings for students at Wiley, which will support their efforts.

“I’ve been just so delighted by the leadership of this department and all of the young men and women who have been working so hard in our schools to try and make a difference,” Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said at the board meeting.

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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