Saturday, June 22, 2024

Somerville School Committee Laura Pitone and Leiran Biton talk policy. (Photo: Julia Levine)

There’s help on the way for the problem kid in your child’s classroom – even if your kid might be that problem.

The Somerville School Committee plans to increase behavioral supports, social-emotional learning and mental health awareness in Somerville Public Schools. This is in direct response to student needs, particularly in the lower grades. “There’s been a lot of social-emotional behavior crises that are occurring,” said Nadia Kury, manager of school-based social workers, during a May 6 presentation.

She sees staff getting pulled away regularly to deal with these crises, and has been working to create a districtwide behavior team with a board-certified behavior analyst, licensed clinical social worker and behavioral technician.

“We find that there are five or six students in each building that are using all the resources, and taking all those resources away from the rest of the school,” director of student services Liz Doncaster said. Only about 3 percent to 5 percent of students need the highest tier of intervention. “This team is mobile, they can spend a few weeks in one classroom or two classrooms in a school that are popping off, versus all the folks in that school having to concentrate on that.”

Ward 7 committee member Leiran Biton said she excited to hear the plan. “The thing I hear most from families, it’s always about the one or two kids that blew up their classroom that day. The quicker we can intervene and disrupt disruptions, especially if they are becoming chronic, the better,” Biton said.

At the high school level, Somerville Public Schools hopes to continue having peer mediators, as well as more restorative justice circles to encourage healing and connections.

There will also be a new social-emotional learning curriculum to provide support to all students, even those who may not be in need of a behavior analyst. There are five key skills director of student services Doncaster wants to focus on: self awareness, self management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness. “We firmly believe that mental health and wellness are foundational pillars for student success,” superintendent Rubén Carmona said.

The curriculum used for pre-K to eighth grade will be online but have a large offline component: for K-5, there will be 20 lessons, and for the middle-school years, 26 lessons, each focusing on building a different area of social-emotional skills. Each K-8 school will have a social-emotional learning specialist.

Ther was concern about how the curriculum will be maintained. “I’ve watched a lot of waxing and waning around SEL programs,” Ward 5 committee member Laura Pitone said. “I want to move forward in such a way that we have a longer-term time horizon – we’re not just looking at our rollout, but what we’re going to do for the next four to five years to make sure that we sustain our capacity.” 

Doncaster acknowledged that Somerville Public Schools had problems in the past with poor continuous implementation of SEL curricula. “I know what it’s like for a teacher to feel like I did all this PD and then two years later, it’s gone,” she said, referring to professional development during 12 years as a teacher. She said she hopes having easy-to-use, online training makes it more accessible to new faculty.

Somerville has also started a kindergarten transition workshop, which is held online; the next one is 9 to 10 a.m. June 6. Interpretation will be provided in Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole. Previous workshops have been well attended. The Early Childhood Education office has also created booklets for families, and is working on creating stories about going to school with photos of the buildings and staff for parents to read to children.