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Highlands School District assessments go beyond academics

| Tuesday, March 22, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Getting children to succeed in school starts by getting them into the right place — socially, behaviorally and academically.

That is the thinking of Highlands School District officials. The district has built an ongoing assessment system for each student that reaches beyond academic ability.

“What we are looking at is the whole child,” said Debra Lehew, Highlands' director of special education. “You want to make sure that kids are progressing and that there are not things there preventing them from success.”

Highlands received $50,000 in grants to improve writing and math skills in its three elementary schools and the middle school. Also received were grants for the district-wide behavioral program totaling $25,000.Grandview Upper Elementary received $10,000 each for math and writing. Fawn and Fairmount Primary Centers got $10,000 combined for math and writing, and the middle school landed $10,000 to improve writing.

“It is both state and national recognition for those programs,” Superintendent Michael Bjalobok said. “It's trying to support our students as they move through our curriculum and, quite frankly, Highlands has become a model for the state for the success we've had with these programs.”

Jennifer Lillenstein, statewide coordinator for the new Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) program, agreed. MTSS combines the previously separate behavioral and academic programs and provided the grants.

Lillenstein said Highlands had two of the five primary schools in the state's western region to receive grants and the only middle school writing grant. She said the breadth of Lehew's grant proposal was the key to the district getting the grants.

“She wanted several of her buildings to capitalize on the math and writing opportunities, and we selected them for that reason,” she said. “Scaling the effort and maintaining the effort are critical accomplishments, and Highlands is really up to that challenge.”

In explaining the program, Bjalobok pointed to students who might be considered borderline special education students.

“(MTSS is) the type of program where you try to help the students before they would reach special ed,” Bjalobok said.

Some students with disabilities can and do go into special education, he said. MTSS helps students who are struggling — but don't really have a disability — before they are placed in special ed.

Lehew said the programs are not focused on special education but help all students regarding their social, behavioral or academic needs.

The district uses standardized tests for academics and behavior as “screeners” to indicate problem areas for a student.

Lehew said the district focused on behavior in 2007, initiating the RAMS program, which stands for Respectful, Accountable, Motivated and Safe. It uses the district's Ram mascot to encourage students to act responsibly and with regard for others.

Lehew said the district has received $200,000 in state grants in five years for its positive behavioral support system.

“If a child can't behave, he's not going to learn and vice versa: if he can't learn, he probably won't be able to behave,” she said.

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Tribune-Review.

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