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'A game changer': Denfeld begins new work to improve student outcomes

Michael Foldesi (left) and Owen Wilcox, Denfeld 9th graders, talk over their goals together during I-time Friday in math class. Foldesi want to be a police officer and Wilcox an engineer. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Denfeld 9th graders Alli Ahlers (left) and Tallie Boheim join Hayden Hollinday (top left) and Demetri Regan in a discussion of personal goals during I-time in Tim White's math class Friday morning. I-time helps students building closer relationships with each other as part of an effort to improve attendance and reduce failure rates. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Hayden Hollinday writes in several of his personal goals during I-time in math class at Denfeld High School Friday morning. They include "less electronics," "get more sleep" and "introduce myself as a friend, not enemy." Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Denfeld 9th grader Emilia Vallie writes out her personal goals to share with fellow students during part of the class's I-time Friday morning in math class. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Denfeld High School has a new antidote this year to address persistent issues with attendance and achievement, and some teachers already are seeing results.

It's called BARR — Building Assets, Reducing Risks — and it was created by a St. Louis Park, Minn., school counselor in 1998. It's grown into a national model, and is now in more than 80 schools in 13 states. The federal government has invested in it with multiple grants.

The point of the model is to not only increase test scores and improve graduation rates, but to reduce course failure rates, decrease suspensions and absenteeism and get more kids into advanced classes. It also works to identify substance abuse, bullying and mental health issues, and get kids the help they need — struggling and high-achieving students alike.

"This could be a game changer," said Tom Tusken, a longtime Denfeld teacher and former administrator who has been trained to coordinate the effort for the school. "It doesn't change what you do; it changes how you do it."

Denfeld is using the program for its freshman class, an age group known nationally for high rates of failure, and at Denfeld, with higher rates of failure than other grades. The transition to high school from eighth grade can be hard, as kids learn to deal with things such as peer pressure, less structure and more choice. The year often acts as a bellwether for what's to come.

"All the research says this is a tipping point," Tusken said. "If students are successful in ninth grade, they tend to graduate and graduate on time. If they don't succeed in ninth grade, they tend to struggle throughout high school."

'Powerful results'

The failure rate of freshmen is what Angela Jerabek, creator of the BARR model who now serves as executive director of the BARR Center, noticed when she was a ninth-grade counselor in the St. Louis Park school district.

It was her fifth year as a counselor. She was working hard to identify at-risk students, but kids continued to fail at a high rate, she said, and in particular, groups of kids "that no one thought should be failing."

Her principal encouraged her to look at the issue with a wider lens. She did, and came up with a more-structured support system for kids that involves a simple premise: more intentional relationship-building and regular staff meetings where each student is discussed as a person, and not just a data point.

The model has undergone randomized control trials in districts big and small, urban and rural, from Dallas to Two Harbors.

"We wanted to test it until it broke," Jerabek said. "This should work everywhere."

The goal is for every staff member to learn to look at "the whole student." Do they look sad, are they losing weight, are they wearing the same outfit every day of the week or hanging out with new friends, she said. All of that becomes data.

An extreme example — but one that illustrates how the model can work, Jerabek said — is from a school last year that discovered three freshman girls were involved in human trafficking. Teachers, each of whom noticed different things about the girls that wouldn't have been alarming on their own, collectively pieced together a picture that led to further investigation, and help for the girls.

"Our educators have so much information," Jerabek said, and when working together "you're having really powerful results."

Every school that's used the model with fidelity has seen noticeable changes in one aspect or another after one year, she said.

The strength of the evidence that shows the model works is what garnered support for it from Duluth's assistant superintendent Amy Starzecki. She was happy to learn it shows that beyond ninth grade, kids continue to feel connected to their school, she said.

"If kids don't feel they are a part of their school, it's more likely they will drop out or have attendance or discipline issues," she said.

The bigger picture

One day last week at Denfeld, a small group of teachers gathered in Kevin Michalicek's science room during a time that has been worked into their day once a week every week. The master schedule for the year was built with BARR in mind.

Collectively, the teachers taught freshman English, science and math. A special education teacher, Tusken, an assistant principal and a guidance counselor also were in the room. They spent 45 minutes talking about their cohort of students.

The 255-student freshman class is split into three groups based on what math course each is enrolled in, and those students largely have class with the same group of teachers. Within that cohort, each teacher keeps a special eye on an even smaller group.

Staff shared insights on the students, studying grades past and present, attendance, missing work, behavior and even how students act around certain friends. Possible signs of depression, responsiveness of parents, and other vulnerabilities were brought to light, so everyone in the room was on the same page for each kid in their care. Tusken documented what was shared.

They talked about how to intervene, and teachers who already had begun building bonds with certain students were tasked with reaching out. Students with more serious problems were elevated to a "risk review" meeting, where more-specialized staff such as the truancy prevention coordinator, integration specialists, administration and psychologists take a deeper look, and talk about accessing more advanced help from outside agencies, like therapy.

The teachers of core subjects are on a rotation for a special Friday relationship-building time during their class period, called I-time. The year starts out with activities that help students get to know each other, and progresses to deeper conversations. It's part of the effort to build up students' strengths, reduce bullying, help kids make better decisions and imbue them with more empathy.

In Tim White's ninth-grade geometry class Friday, students spent time writing about personal goals, and then sharing them in small groups after.

"Think about this in a serious way," White told his students as they got started. "When you leave here, what's next? Too many students can't see past the weekend."

Alli Ahlers said college was a big goal, and to get there, priorities were graduating with a 4.0 GPA and involvement in school activities like basketball and link crew.

I-time so far, she said, "makes you think about the reason you are here."

Jacob Borham said the weekly activity has him talking to students outside his typical friend group, so he's getting to know more people. That means speaking up in class to ask questions is a more comfortable situation, he said.

Denfeld worked with the model a few years ago and was seeing results, White said. But the tumult caused by the long-range facilities plan, with Denfeld students moving to Central High School for a year before moving back to Denfeld, left the work in limbo.

To White, the weekly in-class exercises are meaningful.

"These are the most important questions that don't get built into the curriculum," he said.

Changing course

Two Harbors High School was part of a BARR study. In its third year of using the model, the school has seen improved attendance and a reduction in the number of failing students.

"I feel like we address issues six weeks faster than we would in the old model," said BARR coordinator and counselor Dan Hebl. "It's always challenging to get people to buy in, and they have. It gets teachers out of their rooms and working with other teachers."

Denfeld's Michalicek was "skeptical" of the model at first, "but so far, it's been absolutely fantastic."

In years past, if a student was failing his class he had to reach out separately to each of that student's teachers. Now they meet once a week to talk about kids. Already, he and other physical science teachers are noticing better grades than years past. And it's more than the struggling students who benefit, he said. High-achieving students might be referred to speech or theater; teachers look for other ways to elevate them further.

"We are so much more informed about what is going on with individual students, from what motivates them to what prevents them from doing well," said Stephanie Mickle, an English teacher at Denfeld. "We can change, and are changing, the course of freshmen who would have otherwise been heading for failure."