By Superintendent Kamela Patton, Ph.D.
Special to the Immokalee Bulletin
The new school year is off to an exciting start! Bright innovators and leaders of tomorrow are diligently learning now in order to carve out their unique path in life. The central tenet of knowing each student’s needs and situation is at the core of our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Priorities for the 2019-20 school year. The Collier County Public Schools (CCPS) Office of Curriculum and Instruction helps our 50+ schools care not only for the academic needs of our students, but also their mental health.
A growing body of research reveals the prevalence of chronic absence and its sweeping role in student achievement. Chronic absence — missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason — can translate into third graders unable to master reading, sixth graders failing subjects, and ninth graders dropping out of high school. The missed days quickly add up! Two absences a month translate to chronic absenteeism by the end of the school year. We’re not willing to wait until it gets to that point.
New this year, school administrators pair “Connection Coaches” — whether a teacher, coach, or office staff member — to meet weekly with students who are chronically absent. The ‘meeting’ can simply be as casual as a quick conversation in a hallway. All students need to know someone looks out for them and cares whether they come to school. “Connection Coaches” are enhancing an initiative we launched last year to “check-in” — at intervals of 30 and 60 days — on students who are new to the District or those who transfer from one school to another. We want all our 48,000 students to be on time, all day, every day.
“Handle with Care” is another SEL priority at all CCPS elementary, middle and high schools. This focus on student safety and mental well-being alerts staff to a student who has experienced a recent traumatic event: parents splitting up, death in the family, or a pet getting lost are just a few of the many emotionally distressing scenarios our students experience. “Handle with Care” encourages teachers to extend support, look for changes in personality or disengagement, and if needed, take advantage of the expertise of the school counselor or psychologist for assistance.
We recognize some of the loneliest times for children often occur outside the structure of a classroom. For that reason, CCPS placed “Buddy Benches” at all elementary schools in order to promote an inclusive school community. A student can go up to the bench when he/she feels lonely at recess. Student friendship ambassadors are trained to look around to see if a classmate is using the bench and invite him/her to play. We see Buddy Benches as easily recognizable gathering places — painted in bright blue – on all our elementary campuses so if kids transfer schools they know where to go if they need a friend.
“We Dine Together” Clubs at all middle and high schools foster social awareness, acts of kindness, and resilience. Student members go into the courtyard or cafeteria at lunchtime and look for people sitting alone. We hope these engaging actions lead students to better assimilate into the school culture, form friendships, and learn to accept one another.
Twice a month, we use a school-wide approach to build community and individual student resiliency. An influential school leader or student leader goes on the morning announcements — broadcast to TVs across the school — to lead conversation and an activity around a video with an SEL theme. This priority allows our students to discuss the real-world SEL application around age-appropriate topics.
A final priority is around gathering student voice as it relates to a student’s perception of school and self. How students grow in the areas of grit, resilience, self-efficacy, and sense of belonging is critical to enhancing life readiness skills regardless of the pathway the student chooses. These efforts lay the foundation for our CCPS Strategic Plan: graduating students who are College, Career, and Life Ready!