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Medford schools change student services delivery

There’s a quote that occupies the frame behind Michele Cleveland’s desk. Displayed prominently for visitors and fellow Zoomers alike, it reads: “In a world full of Grinches, be a Cindy Lou Who.”

It’s good advice in general, but especially for Cleveland and her colleagues in the Medford School District these days. Medford’s assistant director of special education is one of a handful of administrators tasked over the past year with unraveling the tangled web formerly known as special education in order to isolate those services for which all students are eligible.

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the new student wellness program.

The student wellness coordinator is Amy Herbst, and her department is in charge of district services accessible to all students, “regardless of whether they need the specialized instruction that’s provided by special education,” as Assistant Superintendent Debbie Simons explained to the Medford School Board during a December business meeting.

This unraveling would be a monumental task in a normal year, but since COVID-19 made 2020 anything but, a process that was supposed to start last spring didn’t really begin to take shape until July. Seven months later, the shift that is expected to streamline, among other things, the process by which students are aligned with the services they need — the technical term for this is “response to intervention” — continues.

“It’s a process not an event,” Simons told the board, “because the things that both of these departments work under are intricately complicated and have a lot of impact on thousands of students across the district and in fact all students who may need some support and services.”

Since Jackson County schools have engaged with students almost exclusively through remote learning since last March — limited in-person instruction is allowed, but cohort sizes and class time are closely monitored — the lack of social interaction has emerged as one of the primary concerns for families. After receiving that message loud and clear through a district-wide online survey in October, MSD responded by turning its focus to social-emotional supports.

During her presentation to the board about the district’s progress during the ongoing transformation of student wellness, Herbst highlighted Medford’s work in that area, specifically zeroing in on the social-emotional supports available to students in comprehensive distance learning and limited in-person instruction.

In what may be considered the first major test of the new student wellness department, the district has come up with a list of social-emotional supports to help students, if not exactly thrive, at least cope with the isolated realities of limited in-person instruction and comprehensive distance learning.

The supports include:

  • “Care and connection” time baked into each student’s daily schedule.
  • Circle activities, daily check-ins and school-wide activities designed to “bring the positive vibes and build the relationship,” said Herbst.
  • Guidance lessons in social-emotional learning provided by school counselors, social-emotional advocates (formerly known as student success specialists) and health teachers.
  • A renewed focus on relationship-building “now more than ever,” stressed Herbst.
  • Responsive services by all support personnel and community partners, which include Family Solutions, Maslow Project and La Clinica.

When asked to elaborate on guidance lessons in social-emotional learning, Herbst pointed to South Medford High School. Surveys indicated that students there were feeling “a little anxious and depressed.”

“So the counselors, just like any teachers would, built a lesson on anxiety and depression and how to stay mentally healthy during this time,” Herbst said.

The same supports are available in Medford’s elementary schools, she added. Students have access, via the district’s preferred remote learning platform Canvas, to lessons designed by local educators that explain COVID-19 and how to stay safe, “just to kind of make things a little more predictable and a little less scary,” said Herbst.

Medford’s social-emotional advocates, like other educators, are practically reinventing the job to form fit into a remote learning world, at least until Medford schools are expected to reopen to hybrid or full in-person instruction sometime in mid-February. There are seven SEAs district-wide, with each splitting their time between two of MSD’s 13 elementary schools.

“They provide lessons for the entire student body, and then they also respond to kids that need a little bit more,” Herbst said.

While the counseling and guidance services Medford offers its students haven’t changed much, a recent overhaul to its framework to conform to the Oregon Department of Education’s Division 22 standards for public schools — it’s the district’s first such restructuring in about 10 years — is expected to increase efficiency. Look under the hood and the average college graduate would need another couple degrees and a 20-page PowerPoint presentation to understand all the machinery at work, but Herbst managed to hit the highlights before the board in about 30 minutes. Basically, the district has partnered with Hatching Results, a consulting firm founded by Trish Hatch that, according to its website, “empowers school counselors, administrators and other educators to use data to improve efficiency and effectiveness, leading to improved outcomes for students.”

District administrators, counselors and SEAs went through their first day of training in the new system in December. Dissecting the American School Counseling Association’s national model and explaining its diamond-shaped visual aid, Herbst attempted to break down for the board during the Zoom session what’s on the horizon and why it matters.

“We’re delivering guidance and counseling,” she said, “we’re defining what our standards are in that delivery, we’re managing programs and services and — my favorite new thing that we’re going to be doing a lot of — is assessing our programs as we go along.”

Why is all this necessary? Wasn’t the district doing this before? Well, yes and no. Asked for an explanation about two weeks after presenting to the board, Herbst almost makes it sound like an equity issue.

“What we’re talking about is a system of support,” she said. “We’ve always had it, but as an organization we haven’t necessarily sat down and identified what do all first-graders get in our school district — at one school it’ll be one thing, at another school it’ll be another thing. Which is OK, because some of that is based on the culture of the school. But now we’re going to be doing this work district-wide so that you know over on one side of town this first-grader gets this level of service and then the student over here at Jackson (Elementary) gets the same level of service.”

What that means, in practice, for local families is that their student won’t get left behind simply because they happen to attend the school with, for instance, the lowest percentage of teachers with more than three years of experience.

As for those families that are struggling and don’t know what to do, Cleveland points out that those families know their children best and they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out. The district will welcome them with open arms, she said, even if their struggles have less to do with arithmetic than their home life.

“And whatever that priority is is where we’re going to lean in and support them and wrap around them and do everything that we can to also bring in an educational component,” she said. “But if food is their biggest priority, then that’s what my special education teachers are going to be doing, finding the resources to get them food. If they’re having trouble with transportation to get to limited in-person instruction because bus routes are different, we’re going to wrap around them and figure out what we can do to give them access to that.”

Herbst agreed, then elaborated.

“What I would say to families is don’t wait,” she said. “Don’t wait until you’re in crisis and just reach out. Reach out to your child’s teacher, contact the school counselor, reach out to the principal. Everybody is ready to help but sometimes we just don’t know.

“We’re all just doing the best we can, and if we’ve learned anything in 2020 it’s that we need to lean in and lean on each other, and we’re always here to help. So don’t wait, and don’t feel like you’re bothering anybody if it’s a pride issue. I think we’re all just doing the best we can.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

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