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West Roxbury gives students new PATHWAYS to success

Posted by boston.com  October 15, 2013 12:07 PM

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By Haley Hamilton, Globe Correspondent

Two programs credited with helping 38 at-risk students at West Roxbury Academy and Urban Science Academy to stay in school last year are being expanded this school year.

The programs – the product of a partnership between the high schools and the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP) -- are intended to address excessive absenteeism and out-of-school suspensions. In the 2011-12 school year, Urban Science Academy’s out-of-school suspension rate was double the average for Boston public schools, state data shows. At West Roxbury Academy, the rate of multiple unexcused absences also was twice the district average. 

To combat these issues, administrators of both high schools worked with parents and the school of psychology to pilot intervention programs last fall. All 17 of the students who participated in West Roxbury Academy’s ‘Operation Graduation 2013,’ a program that allowed seniors at risk of flunking out to make up missing work and ‘buy back’ unexcused absences, have graduated.  
At Urban Science Academy, the 21 students who participated in a ‘Reflection and Re-entry Program,’ which provided an alternative to out-of-school suspension, made it through the year without a re-suspension. 

The programs provide students with mental-health screenings and individual attention and support.

“This has really been a godsend for us,” said Karen Cowan, assistant headmaster at Urban Science Academy.  “We realized a lot of students had baggage and didn’t know where to put it…The point is to give them tools to deal with it.”

This year, the partnership between the high schools and MSPP launched an expansion of last year’s program, dubbed: PATHWAYS, (Providing Academic, Therapeutic and Healthy Ways to Achieve Youth Success).

The goal of PATHWAYS is to get to the core of students’ problems, said Gemima St. Louis, director of the program and a faculty member at MSPP.

“As mental health providers, we know these behaviors (such as skipping school or acting out) are indicative of something else – often, emotional trauma,” she said.  

West Roxbury Academy is continuingOperation Graduation 2014, which targets senior students at risk of not meeting graduation requirementsdue to too many unexcused absences. In addition, the school is launching ‘First Steps,’ which flags 9th grade students who have been excessively absent or have failed a core class, such as math or English, said Marc Abelard, director of partnerships and community engagement at West Roxbury Academy. 

By addressing problems with attendance and academic performance early, First Steps provides a “two-pronged approach” of immediate intervention and prevention, Abelard said.

Each student who participates in First Steps or Operation Graduation spends one day at MSPP and receives a behavioral-health screening. The students work one-on-one with MSPP graduate studentsand staff to develop individualized behavior plans, giving students more “tools for their toolbox,” Abelard said. 

After screenings, a behavioral health plan is developed. Students participating in Operation Graduation 2014 and First Steps attend mentoring sessions with program staff three days a week throughout the school year. 

The Reflection and Re-entry Program at Urban Science Academy focuses on replacing traditional out-of-school suspension with a model of support that addresses the student’s needs and punishes the behavior, not the child, said St. Louis. It also is available to at-risk students who need academic or emotional support and who are not facing disciplinary action, Cowan said. 

About 120 students are targeted for the program this year. 

Cowan said the school administration realized it “really didn’t know enough” about many of its students to be able to intervene effectively. “We need to know what our kids really need,” she said. 

Urban Science Academy students participating in the program also receive mental-health screenings and individualized behavior plans.  Students then attend group counseling and workshops at MSPP for three days for one week and have a one-day follow-up session with staff at the academy. 

Students at Urban Science who have participated in the program say they are grateful for the extra help.

“There are kids who are scared to ask for help,” a senior student said.  “I like what they’re trying to do. You don’t have to be scared -- they’re just there to help.”

In addition to helping students at the two schools,the programs allow graduate students at MSPP to gain experience in clinical and research work, St. Louis said. 

“By the end of three days,” she said, “you watch these relationships develop, and they (all) love it.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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