UCLA psychology professor Howard Adelman examined how the Los Angeles Unified School District addressed drug abuse, teen pregnancy, safety, bullying, dropouts, lack of parental involvement and other issues that impact students' academic performance and pose a barrier to learning. He catalogued more than 300 separate programs in 1993.
"There was nothing cohesive. There was no system in place," said Adelman, who looked at all the district's reform plans and blueprints. "It was all fragmented, and fragmentation was a symptom of a bigger problem. These activities were marginalized. They were an afterthought."
The lack of a systemic approach is still a problem, not only in Los Angeles but across the country, said Adelman, who co-directs the Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA.
Some districts, however, are making impressive changes using an innovative framework developed by Adelman and center co-director Linda Taylor that makes addressing barriers to learning and teaching a primary, essential component of school-improvement policy and puts integrated teams in place to deal specifically with these challenges.
One such district — Gainesville City Schools in Georgia — implemented Adelman and Taylor's program, called the Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports, and achieved results such as these from 2007 to 2011:
  • The graduation rate increased from 73.3 to 87.2 percent.
  • At each school, more students than ever before scored in the "exceeding expectations" category in state testing.
  • Students scores improved on SAT, ACT and AP tests.
  • Teen pregnancies declined by 40 percent.
  • The proportion of students absent for more than 10 days during the school year decreased from 21 percent to 5 percent; students coming to class tardy declined by 11 percent.
  • The use of "disciplinary tribunals" to address student misbehavior decreased by 27 percent.
  • Parental satisfaction increased from 78 percent to 93 percent.
"It's a great start. I'm very encouraged," said Adelman, who gives much of the credit to the leadership of Merrianne Dyer, Gainesville's school superintendent, for implementing a comprehensive, integrated system in her schools.
"We attribute the improvements to using the Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports framework to identify the barriers to learning that some students have, focusing on prevention and intervention, and strategically placing our resources toward addressing those barriers," Dyer said.
Building a successful operational infrastructure
Dyer noted that a major key to success was the restructuring of leadership roles to address these challenges — one of the most important elements in Adelman and Taylor's framework. In each school, Adelman said, a team is put in place with a leader who is responsible for specifically addressing barriers to learning, rather than simply adding school safety or some other issue to the job portfolio of an administrator who already has several unrelated job responsibilities.
"Just as someone is responsible for improving instruction — reading, math and science — someone needs to be responsible and accountable for leading the way in overcoming the barriers faced by the 'problem kids.' In some schools, this is the majority of kids," Adelman said.
Many schools have various staff members — a psychologist, a counselor, a social worker, a dropout-prevention specialist, a substance-abuse specialist, a Title I coordinator — working independently and often in overlapping roles, rather than as an effective team, Adelman noted.
"You would never advocate one teacher for vocabulary, another teacher for grammar, and another teacher for reading comprehension," he said. "You have to put it together, and that applies in addressing the barriers to student learning too."
Creating teams with a comprehensive, integrated focus on these issues enables schools to implement better prevention and early-intervention efforts and to remotivate disaffected students.
"We're trying to address what schools don't do very well: reducing barriers to learning and teaching, and reengaging kids into learning," Adelman said. "It's essential to reengage kids who have become disconnected."
Dyer lauded Adelman and Taylor's framework for its focus on addressing all of the issues that create learning barriers for students, whether in or out of school.
"When schools experience chronic underachievement, the reasons are most often the social, emotional, and/or physiological problems of the child and his or her family situation," Dyer said. "The work of Dr. Adelman and Dr. Taylor faces this challenge straight on by bringing the theory of mental health issues to a practice that improves the learning conditions for all students."
Alabama adopts unified program statewide
This fall, the state of Alabama adopted an integrated system similar to the one Dyer implemented in Gainesville. Alabama's program redeploys existing resources, rather than adding new ones, and eliminates waste, redundancies and counterproductive competition among staff for scarce resources, said Adelman, who along with Taylor has been working with school officials in the state.
"Like Gainesville under Superintendent Dyer, Alabama is building a unified system, rather than responding on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis, so that combating the obstacles to learning and teaching becomes a primary, essential component for the schools," Adelman said. "Alabama's schools are off to a good start. I am very optimistic. If Alabama's schools are half as effective as we think they will be, Alabama will influence many other states."
Starting with 10 school districts, Alabama's Unified and Comprehensive System of Learning Supports places emphasis on addressing all the factors that interfere with students' success at school. Additional Alabama school districts will be phased in over the coming years.
"We are so optimistic about the power of this new design that builds on previous efforts to address the barriers to learning and teaching and reengage disconnected students," said Linda Felton-Smith, director of the Office of Learning Support in Alabama's department of education. "It unifies and moves student supports away from reacting to problems and toward system development, with a strong emphasis on prevention and early intervention."
"This new direction will help advance Alabama's PLAN 2020, which outlines four priorities, including the learners, the support systems, the school systems and the professionals," said Tommy Bice, Alabama's state superintendent of education. "Each of these four components of the plan has to function together like an 'eco-system' so that we can meet our objectives of improving student growth and achievement, closing the achievement gap, increasing the graduation rate and increasing the number of students that are college- and career-ready. Student support is a vital part of that total system."
Adelman agrees. "Schools have good work groups and teams focused on improving instruction, professional development and so on but little leadership and few teams working on the issues that get in the way of students' success," he said. "We recommend building an operational infrastructure. That is exactly what Merrianne Dyer and Tommy Bice are doing."
Moving forward with the program
Through a collaboration with the educational publisher Scholastic Inc., Adelman and Taylor are providing technical assistance, based on the program that grew out of their research, to school districts in states beyond Georgia and Alabama, including Wisconsin, Louisiana and Minnesota.
Their work with all these schools emphasizes the importance of four critical factors: the development of a policy for school improvement that includes addressing barriers to learning and teaching; implementing a unified and comprehensive system with a full continuum of interventions; creating an operational infrastructure that fosters system development; and developing mechanisms for replicating and sustaining the new system.
Given the current economy, Adelman said, the idea of implementing a new framework may seem prohibitive, but he stressed that school districts can make change happen with the resources already at their disposable.
"The system is broken, especially in poor schools," Adelman said. "In some schools, many students are not doing well and quite a few will drop out. Still, even at a time of scarce resources, substantial progress can be made by redeploying existing resources rather than adding new resources that schools cannot afford."
Adelman said he has always been interested in children who have learning, behavior and emotional problems — "the whole range of things that get in the way of kids doing well in their lives." He earned his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees from UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s and has spent almost his entire career at UCLA.
The Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA sends material to more than 60,000 superintendents, principals, teachers and community agencies nationally that work with schools. For more about the center, which has received partial funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, visit its website, http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/.
To learn more about Alabama's new system, see http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/aladesign.pdf. For more on the work in Gainesville, see http://www1.gcssk12.net/images/shared/other/rebuildingforlearning.pdf.
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