Featured Journal Article

A ‘wrap-around’ system of care

West Muskingum Care Teams lift up struggling students

Gary Motz, OSBA editorial manager

Growing up is hard enough.

But for children struggling with poverty, family strife, substance abuse, delinquency and more, the challenge is even greater. Any one of these issues can quickly derail a student. Multiply them and you can end up with a deeply troubled child for whom academic success seems beyond reach.

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In the West Muskingum Local community, groups of caring adults are pooling their time and talents to reach out to children who are at risk of losing their way. Made up of school staff and representatives from government and community agencies, these groups comprise the Muskingum County school district’s Care Teams. The program was launched at West Muskingum in 2003 as part of the Care Team Collaborative, a division of Muskingum Valley ESC.

The initiative’s goal is to establish a “wrap-around system of care” to help students overcome nonacademic barriers to learning, said Katie West, Muskingum Valley ESC attendance officer and Care Team consultant. Surmounting these barriers can improve academic achievement, school climate and attendance, and reduce discipline problems that lead to out-of-school suspension and encounters with the criminal justice system.

“Students can’t learn if other areas of their life are not healthy and safe,” West said. “Ideally, we want to help students avoid negative influences and make positive choices in their lives.”

At West Muskingum High School, Care Team members include teachers, counselors and administrators, along with representatives from Muskingum Valley ESC, Muskingum County Juvenile Court, Muskingum Behavioral Health Prevention Services and Six County counseling. One administrator is a former sheriff’s deputy. The district — which is rated “Excellent” on the state report card — also has Care Teams at its middle school and two elementaries.

 “Collectively, these agencies bring expertise, connections, the ability to accelerate the appointment process and the ability to see students at the school, rather than parents bringing them to the (agency’s) office,” West said. “Everybody working together helps reduce duplication of services.”

Intensely focusing on the individual

Students enter the program through a referral process, said Steve Kish, assistant principal of both West Muskingum High School and Middle School, and chair of the middle school’s Care Team. They can be referred by a parent, school staff member, friend or community member. Students also can refer themselves. Parents or guardians must give permission for a student to enter the program and authorize the release of education records to the participating agencies.

The referral form lists issues with which a student might be struggling, such as bullying, truancy, divorce, pregnancy, grief, lack of friends, domestic violence, thoughts of suicide, substance abuse, delinquent behaviors and others. After analyzing the student’s needs, the Care Team creates a “care map” that will help direct the team’s work with the student and what agencies will be involved.

Next comes an individual meeting with the student, where he or she completes a self-assessment that includes written reflections on strengths, difficulties, emotions and school life, as well as a goal and three steps to help achieve it. This information is shared at the next weekly Care Team meeting and the team sets up steps, strategies and interventions to help the student. The information also is shared with the student’s teachers.

“Each member of the Care Team is assigned a particular student to monitor and meet weekly with,” Kish said. “At the Care Team meetings, members will update the others on their students. Those members will then share any involvement they or their agencies have had with the students. We have teachers, a truant officer, a school counselor, a probation officer and someone from a mental health agency on the team.

“By doing this networking, we’re better able to provide services and see how that youngster is doing. For instance, maybe they were having difficulties with the courts that we in the school were not aware of, and maybe the courts are not aware of something that the youngster is doing here.”

A key component of the program is the 40 Developmental Assets, a widely recognized approach to youth development created by the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based, nonprofit research group. The checklist identifies 40 factors that make young people more likely to grow up to be healthy, caring and responsible individuals.

Care Teams use the developmental 

asset form, which students complete annually, to measure growth. They also track attendance, grades, suspensions, in-school discipline and proficiency and achievement test scores. The care map, which indicates specific goals and benchmarks of success targeted to the student’s needs, is regularly tracked and reported to the student, parents and Care Team.

In the trenches

Much of the Care Team’s work takes place away from the weekly meetings. Members make it a point to have a

s much contact with their students as possible to see how they are doing. This serves as a frequent reminder that someone is there for them. Members also enlist teachers and other staff to check in with the students, too.

We get the whole school involved,” said business teacher Dave Potopsky, who chairs the high school Care Team. “Every teacher knows who these kids are and what a great program this is. … They all provide input and are extra sets of eyes throughout the school day.”

Math teacher Chad Parker has served on the high school Care Team for three years. He said he is one of the team members who can provide a view “from the trenches.”

“As a teacher I see the kids daily, so I get a perspective on how they do in the classroom, how they behave,” Parker sai

d. “I also see and hear some things that I can bring to the meetings. When I see the kids in the hallway I talk to them and do whatever I can to help.”

Ryan Barks teaches high school health and physical education. That means that nearly every student passes through his classes.

“They brought me on because basically, I get to see everybody right out of the gate, especially with PE classes,” Barks said. “To say that we collaborate well, I think we define collaboration as a school district. Not only with ourselves, but also with the outside agencies.

“… We hit every single aspect of the student; it’s not just academic, it’s not just discipline, it’s just not attendance issues — it’s everything. So, I’ll talk to students in the hallways. … No matter if it’s grief for a family member who passed away, a divorce in the family, drug issues, whatever it is, we hear about it.

“That never would have never happened before, and I think it’s because more teachers are jumping on board and really caring about the kids, not just their academic future, but their future as a whole.”

“The teachers do a wonderful job,” said Amy Guss, of Muskingum Behavioral Health Prevention Services. “They are always trying to figure out which kids they need to talk to, in addition to their regular duties. In study halls a lot of them interact with the students, so we all come together as a team and try to help out kids as much as we can.”

Putting the ‘care’ in Care Team

School staff members serving on the Ca

re Teams volunteer their time, while the outside agency mem

bers must take time away from their other duties to serve. The weekly meetings start an hour before the school 

day begins and team members also meet after school. Everyone goes the extra mile for the kids.

“I’ve been to meetings at three o’clock in the afternoon,” said team member Barb Rose, Muskingum Valley ESC attendance intervention officer. “The school day is over and the teachers and counselors are supposed to be done. But they’re sitting around the table trying to figure out what we can do to help these students.”

Her small room on the second floor of the high school also serves as a sort of haven for kids who want to talk or just find some quiet time. The cozy space has computers, a refrigerator and microwave, and a table and chairs.“I help the kids get credit recovery and see some success so they don’t feel like they’re drowning,” Davis said. “They work with me until they get caught up and then go back to the regular classroom. It helps a

lot of them graduate, and on time.”Credit recovery teacher and team member Karen Davis works closely with Care Team students who have fallen behind in school. She also works with other students who are credit-deficient.

“Some of them are anti-social and can’t be in the lunchroom because they’ll cause trouble,” Davis said. “A lot of the time it’s caused by family problems, so it’s not their fault. So I just eat in my room and invite them up. … A lot of them don’t have their own food, so I always have Ramen noodles that they can nuke up. … It’s a nice middle ground between home and the classroom.”

Another team member, art teacher Kelsey Schrock, said that a Care Team student who is new to the district this year told her that she never before felt the level of caring from teachers that she feels as West Muskingum.

“She told me, ‘I feel safe here, because I know that people really do care about me,’” Schrock said. “I thought that was a pretty profound statement for a girl her age to make. It makes me feel good about what we’re doing.”

The rewards of making a difference

Besides seeing academic achievement increase and discipline problems decrease, team members and other staff have enjoyed watching once-troubled youngsters blossom and succeed. Some have even returned after graduation to thank those who helped them.

“One who had been off probation for some time stopped in last week,” said Muskingum County Juvenile Court Probation Officer Rose Oliver. “She said, ‘I just wanted to give you a great big hug and tell you thank you, I graduated.’ She was the first one of her siblings who had graduated. That was a result of the effort of the whole Care Team.”

West recalled another girl who turned her life around.

“One young lady at West Muskingum High School was having a very difficult time and basically was failing in all areas,” West said. “With the support and connections from Care Team she was able to graduate early and is now in college to become a vet-tech.

“Another story, which kind of illustrates how things come full circle, is a young man who was also very low in many areas, social, academic, attendance. He was able to graduate and has been very successful in the military. He recently came back to the school and met with a younger student who wants to be in the military but has many challenges. He was able to share his story and encourage the younger student, and now the younger one is on track and plans to be a Marine.”

High school Principal Ray Peyton, shared another example of Care Team success.

“We had a young man who was struggling,” Peyton said. “He was on probation through juvenile court, he was academically ineligible for athletics and his grades were pretty poor. In one year’s time he went from that to become an honor roll student, was All-Ohio in football and ran in two state track meets. This kid was a troubled young man who, with a little bit of help, got himself turned around. … That’s the kind of thing that can happen.”

School-funding cuts have reduced the number of school systems participating in Care Team initiatives, West said. At one time there were more than a dozen districts in southeastern and north central Ohio participating. Current districts with schools in the program include Coshocton City, Fostoria City, Kenton City, Morgan Local (Morgan), Tiffin City and Zanesville City.

But, despite the current economic climate, the ESC remains committed to helping any district interested in participating.

“As always, Muskingum Valley ESC recognizes and supports the work involving the 40 Developmental Assets,” West said. “Our approach is to meet the needs of those who are interested in continuing or initiating the program, and continue to support the districts in every way we can.”

“Care Team is something that all high schools should have,” said Amy Huey, family and consumer sciences teacher.And, while there are a select few that we pinpoint, all students are Care Team kids. It really gives you a connection with your students to know what they’re feeling every day and how to help them succeed, both academically and socially.”

Editor’s note: To learn more about starting a Care Team in your district, contact Muskingum Valley ESC’s Katie West at (740) 452-4518 or kwest@mvesc.k12.oh.us.