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Manatee School District implements new project to improve school climate

Thirty-three percent of students surveyed say the actions of fellow students hurt their performance, so the school district hopes Project Spark leads to better learning environment.

Jennifer Santora, a former third grade teacher at B.D. Gullett Elementary School, helps Caley Ochoa with a math problem. Teachers will go through trainings to learn more ways of supporting students. File photo.
Jennifer Santora, a former third grade teacher at B.D. Gullett Elementary School, helps Caley Ochoa with a math problem. Teachers will go through trainings to learn more ways of supporting students. File photo.
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After two years of student surveys indicated they wanted better relationships at school, the School District of Manatee County is launching a program to improve its learning environment.

“Our staff is struggling with increased negative student behaviors,” said Larissa Bennett, a school climate coordinator for the district. “We are trying to identify what the cause is, and we’re using our student data to look at why the students feel a lack of connection and relationships. What we believe is part of the problem is the pandemic. The time students spent off campus and (e-learning) impacted their social abilities.”

The district was awarded a federal, five-year school climate transformation grant in 2019 that focuses on building a positive school climate through the district’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, along with other support programs. 

Starting in the 2022-2023 school year, the school district will begin implementing Project Spark, its initiative to promote a better school environment.

“We have through the school climate transformation grant been looking at best practices in the district,” Bennett said. “We took this opportunity to bolster systems and look at our data. A positive climate in a classroom then extends to the entire school and ultimately the entire district. Scores go up and children perform better when they feel part of a community."

She said the reverse is true of negative behaviors.

In the district's winter 2022 survey to students in sixth through 12th grade, 33% of the 7,466 students who answered the survey said the behavior of other students hurt their learning "a little bit" or more.

When asked how often students get into physical fights at school, 59% of students said "sometimes" or more often. 

The survey also questioned students' sense of belonging in their school. 

Out of the 7,466 responses, 79% of students said they feel "somewhat connected" to "not at all connected" to the adults at school while only 4% said they felt "extremely connected" and 18% felt "quite connected."

The ultimate goal of Project Spark is to build a more positive school experience and increase student engagement that will lead to better test scores and fewer disruptive behaviors in the classroom. 

“We’re not looking for a quick fix,” Bennett said. “We’re looking to make systemic changes. (Project Spark) will help our teachers so they can be preventative and proactive instead of reacting to negative behaviors. It’ll lead to more time in the classroom. If students are in their seats engaged, feeling like they belong and managing their emotions and behaviors, they’re going to learn more. It’ll allow teachers to teach more and feel more successful.”

MTSS includes instructional strategies, interventions, supports and resources that are used to help students achieve academically and in behavior. 

“Through the universal classroom management approach, by providing our teachers some skills to address student behaviors, it’s looking at making sure we’re putting preventative measures in place while also building relationships,” Bennett said. “We’re getting back to basics. Most teachers might take one course in classroom management in college, and it’s never discussed again.”

Some of the basics Bennett said could be as simple as ensuring teachers are greeting students by name at the door each morning, giving students positive responses during lessons and creating engagement opportunities to make sure all students are included in lessons. 

The district plans to have the CharacterStrong and Purposeful People program curriculum implemented in all classes across the district by 2024 so the district will have a universal approach to social-emotional development. 

CharasterStrong is for middle and high school classes while Purposeful People is for elementary classes. 

The curricula provide lessons on life skills, which are required by the Florida Department of Education, through character education. 

“We have broken up those traits into monthly traits so the district can focus on one trait a month,” Bennett said.

For example, a teacher can incorporate lessons on responsibility into the books students read or have students participate in various activities revolving around responsibility and how it looks in different settings from the classroom to the cafeteria to being at home with their parents. It will be more than just having a discussion about responsibility and rewarding students for showing what responsibility looks like when they're at school. 

“We’re teaching them the skills that help them interact with each other, help them navigate information, learn and relearn information,” Bennett said. “Those are the skills they need to be able to take with them to the workforce, college, career, military, whatever is after our educational setting.”

Another aspect of Project Spark is the training of district staff on a neurosequential model, which will teach staff how to implement instructional strategies that align with brain development, especially with students who have experienced trauma. 

The School Board of Manatee County approved the $104,500 purchase of Neurosequential Model of Education Program to provide an eight-month long training and support program for a cohort of up to 30 teachers and district specialists across 14 school sites. 

Bennett said the pandemic has led to significant trauma in some students. The lack of ability to socialize with others during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 as well as other issues such as food insecurity and job insecurity for family members could have been factors in the pandemic causing student trauma. 

The trauma students faced can now lead to disruptive and negative behaviors in the classroom. 

The education model will help teachers see student behavior in a new lens that provides an understanding of how stress and trauma can impact behaviors. 

Using the strategies they’ve learned, teachers can create a model classroom for other teachers and staff to observe, learn and later implement in their classrooms. 

Bennett said the first step in all aspects of Project Spark is ensuring school administrators go through training followed by teachers and staff.

“The first thing we have to do is make sure our staff is in a space where they feel supported so they take risks as learners themselves,” Bennett said. “It’s the adage of putting your oxygen mask on before others. We have to make sure staff are feeling they are fully supported in spaces where they can implement and take risks with what we’re going to teach them.”

Training will begin over the summer and continue through the 2022-2023 school year. 

The School District of Manatee County will continue to survey students throughout the next two years to see the impact Project Spark will have on school climate.


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