Traverse City News and Events

Blair Elementary Tackling Tough Issues, Finding Progress

May 5, 2017

Kirsten Morgan knew she faced challenges when she took over as the principal at Traverse City Area Public Schools’ Blair Elementary three years ago. “Historically [students there] had not reached the same level of performance as their peers,” she tells The Ticker, not to mention the challenging backgrounds many of the children are growing up in.

The question was how to best to close that achievement gap. Eventually she helped implement the Intensive Student Support Network, which offers assistance in numerous non-academic and non-traditional areas – and the program is now yielding results.

Given the high percentage of low-income families, free breakfasts and lunches are offered across the board at Blair. The school district committed extra resources, including additional staffing to the school. And services that others take for granted in their homes were added at Blair. The school has a washer and dryer available for families who might not have ready access to clean clothes; there’s a shower room for students who have intermittent access to hot water at home.

School leaders connect students directly with community mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Kids Hope USA, and Blessings in a Backpack.

Misti Warner, the school social worker, says the multi-pronged effort is not the norm, particularly within TCAPS.

“It’s a different approach than most, more of a clinical approach,” she says. “We have kids who have experienced trauma. My main goal is to improve the well-being of students I work with, help them learn, grow and be successful.”

That’s not always easy. “It’s been a challenge,” she acknowledges. “One of the main things is to create that sense of safety. A lot of kids need that. We want to make them feel welcome.”

Part of that approach is the teams of greeters on-hand to meet students when they arrive each day. More than just offering a “hello,” they help staff assess students’ readiness to learn.

Morgan says also encourage teachers to make sure students understand that what happened yesterday is in the past. “We want them to know every day is a fresh day. We’re glad to see you, to re-establish a rapport.”

She says many experience stress in their lives away from school, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate when they’re in class. “A lot of our kids have really hard days,” says Morgan. “We try to understand the impact of poverty and toxic stress.” She says toxic stress is a clinical and sociological term for chronic exposure to stress factors, such as poverty, living with addiction, incarceration of parents, or domestic violence. Many students from Blair come from backgrounds where such challenges are the norm.

“The circumstances may be bigger than us. We saw two boys on the news who had been living in a meth house,” Morgan says.

“One of the hardest things to do is measure results,” she admits, though she is able to now point to specific areas of improvement.

“Are we giving kids the most basic skill they’ll need? They have to be literate,” she says. On that count, she’s encouraged. “We have seen some real success,” Morgan says. Reading at the 50th percentile on a standardized test went from 31 percent in the 2013 school year to 38 percent in 2014 to 56 percent in ‘15-‘16.

Warner says another improvement has been a decrease in students exhibiting inappropriate behavior. Daily office referrals and classroom aggression “both have seen a decrease,” she says.

But TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma adds that, though he’s proud of the progress, the issue isn’t going away.

“I’ve seen a commitment by our staff to try to make a difference in students’ lives that come from underprivileged backgrounds, and we’re beginning to make a difference,” Soma says. “But the reality is, we do have poverty in our region, and that presents a certain challenge that’s going to take more than the school district to solve.”

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