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Monday, Sep 29, 2014

'Continuous Improvement' in Action at Berkshire

At the entrance of Berkshire’s residential campus, a sign announces that Berkshire Union Free School District is a School of Continuous Improvement. This mantra has driven powerful results over the past six years. At the same time, it is spurring ongoing innovation.

“We really mean continuous improvement,” says new Principal Mike Mitchell. “We’ve set the bar high for our students, but it’s important to understand that this isn’t just for our kids — it’s for our teachers, our staff, and our programs as well. We expect everyone here and everything we do to improve continuously.”

imageMitchell says the school has made a number of changes to teach students more effectively. “One way we are improving is by differentiating instructional programming, depending on which program, or ‘strand’, a student is in,” says Mitchell.

Students enter Berkshire from three distinct paths – family court “hard to serve,” the court’s “mainstream,” or school districts’ (CSE) referrals – and each defines distinct needs for teaching and therapeutic residential support. “Our CSE students are generally here until they graduate from high school,” explained Mitchell, “so they may spend three or more years here.”

Court-mandated youths usually spend far less time at Berkshire’s residential campus and are discharged back to their homes and communities in a few months, depending on how they progress through their individualized program. School staff create differentiated programming for the students, depending on their specific issues and needs. Contact between court-mandated and special education youths is not permitted. Each strand has its distinct behavioral patterns and needs.

imageMitchell says a particularly effective improvement this year is the pre-school-day process. “Our Instructional Resource Facilitators go to the student cottages and help prepare students for the day ahead. They pre-teach the youths about activities on the schedule, including testing or special events. This ensures a smoother transition from the cottage to the school and helps avoid surprises, which can trigger problematic behavior in some youth, who feel blind-sided,” explained Mitchell.

After school, the cottage staff go to the school and talk to the students to see what kind of day they had, accompany them home to the cottages, and help them with homework or talk about issues that may be bothering the youths.

imageThe school added its “World of Work” curriculum to partner with the Workforce Development Program in order to provide every student with New York State’s Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) credential. Berkshire is quickly becoming a premier public school with a true Career Development curriculum. Berkshire was among the first schools in New York State to implement such a curriculum last year.

Some of this year’s improvements address needs that are common to all students. Berkshire has changed its academic schedule to 13 periods each day, each lasting 30 minutes. Each student has English, Math, Science, and Social Studies twice each day. “During first 30 minute period, the teacher can conduct pre-assessment to identify baseline knowledge on content, and then provide appropriate instruction,” explained Mitchell. “During the second 30-minute period, teachers conduct post assessment to determine retention with an opportunity to re-teach content as needed.”

“Continuous improvement” applies to staffing so that students receive the optimal support and resources. This year, faculty members at the school welcomed the addition of five new classroom teachers and 15 new Instructional Resource Facilitators. “By identifying the right educational professionals with the right backgrounds, interests, and knowledge, we are better able to support our students and increase academic engagement,” Mitchell said. All of Berkshire’s teachers are dual certified — in special education and an academic subject. The school now has 16 teachers and 26 Instructional Resource Facilitators, who assist the teachers as well as the students in a variety of ways.

“Other improvements this year include modifying the school building itself to include a new lunchroom, new gym floor, new doors, and we have provided strand-specific program areas to help keep students on track,” said Mitchell.

With continuous improvement creating the best possible outcomes for children, Berkshire is building academic and personal success in the face of students’ histories of trauma. For the past six years, every one of Berkshire’s seniors graduated from high school, and for the second year in a row, every senior is also continuing his education in two or four year colleges or trade schools. At Berkshire, this achievement is simply a reason to try even harder.

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