The Jefferson County Public Schools's CARE for Kids program is, at its foundation, all about professional development. It doesn't rely on fancy gadgets, big grants, or major staffing changes, but it does come with a significant requirement: to shift the attitudes and approaches of educators throughout the school district. And as the program moves toward that goal, teachers take on increasing responsibility, going from classroom practitioners of CARE for Kids to districtwide proponents of the program.
The preK-12 district, which includes schools in Louisville, Kentucky, launched its effort in social and emotional learning (SEL) in 2008. CARE for Kids starts with daily morning meetings in which teachers and students get to know each other better, practice interpersonal skills, and set a tone of mutual support. Teachers, along with all the other adults in the school, then use carefully chosen strategies to reinforce those positive relationships and behaviors throughout the day.
Essential practices include empowering students to set clear behavior expectations for their own classes, using inclusive and supportive teacher language, organizing activities for students to do with assigned buddies from different grade levels, holding schoolwide community-building events, practicing positive discipline, and providing opportunities for collaborative work.
Superintendent Sheldon Berman sees SEL skills as essential for students to develop into adult citizens able to help build a healthy democracy. To demonstrate the importance of those skills, CARE for Kids functions on a democratic model, giving leadership roles to participants from all levels of the organization.
Teachers, for example, have responsibility beyond the classroom to help share and support CARE for Kids practices around their schools and further, to the whole district. Bill Perkins, principal of the Frederick Law Olmsted Academy North middle school for boys, explains, "I'm behind the scenes saying, 'We need to do it,' but usually there's a teacher out front."
To prepare educators to nurture the relationships and habits essential to CARE for Kids, the district provides many layers of training and support:
Formal Training Sessions
Trainers in these workshops include in-house specialists and outside consultants, as well as experts from within the trainees' own ranks. Much of the instruction comes from resource teachers, mainly former teachers in the district, plus regular classroom teachers who have mastered elements of CARE for Kids.
For elementary schools, the district provides two days of summer training for all staff, plus an extra day each for leadership team members and principals. During the year, there are four more days of follow-up training for the leadership teams, plus five after-school sessions for everyone.
Middle schools start with one day of summer training for teachers, plus five days for lead teachers and administrators. Then there are four follow-up sessions for teachers -- more for lead teachers and administrators -- throughout the year. In the program's second year, staff members get five days of summer instruction and 12shorter sessions over the school year, plus some extra sessions for teacher leaders.
To reinforce and deepen the initial training, resource teachers are assigned to certain schools for the long term. They can get to know the schools and staff during summer workshops and follow-up sessions and then make periodic school visits to assess how well teachers are executing the program, and to give extra coaching.
Inclusion of All Adults at Each School
Leaders in Jefferson County see CARE for Kids as a whole-school effort, so custodians, cafeteria workers, librarians, and other support staff are trained alongside classroom teachers.
All the district support staff, such as division directors and content specialists, also receive ongoing training so they can model and support CARE for Kids practices as they do their work.
A CARE for Kids leadership team at each school monitors the program's implementation, looks for ways to make it better and easier to practice, and relays information and resources from the district to their colleagues at the school. Team members, who include the principal and several teachers, can provide one-on-one coaching or model practices as needed. They also may call on their school's CARE for Kids liaison at the district for extra help when necessary.
Darren Atkinson, the CARE for Kids teacher leader at Carrithers Middle School, says like any new program, this one has met with some resistance. But that fades, he says, as teachers begin to see, "This is a common sense approach. We all know relationships with students make a huge difference."
Still, it takes time to complete a shift as substantial as this one. Trainers at the first CARE for Kids session Atkinson attended warned him that it would probably take six years to fully implement the program. "They told us not to rush it or get discouraged," he says. "It is a crawl-walk-run process."
Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.
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