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Daretown School's Change Story

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  • 1. Daretown School’s Change Story "My sincere appreciation to Mrs. Jessica Sears, Daretown's Secondary Language Arts and Literacy Teacher, for the many hours she devoted to the production of this Documentary." --- Dr. D' “They are coming in!” announces a cheerful voice over the walkie-talkie channel, signaling the start of a new school day. Colorful murals, scrolls with poetry, and brilliant mosaics (all student-created) greet our students as they bustle in from their buses, chatting and laughing with their peers. Teachers and instructional aides line the front stairwell of Daretown School and stand outside of their classroom doors, waiting to welcome their students and to get them excited to learn. All the staff has been waiting for this precise moment, preparing (before and after school) for the students, making adjustments, collaborating with colleagues, and participating in the “behind the scenes” magic that keeps Daretown moving, shaking, and making a difference in the lives of each and every student that crosses the school’s threshold. It’s not just an ordinary school day; it is a day full of opportunities to become an even better version of ourselves—whether we are students, teachers, or administrators. After all, our motto is: “Average won’t do; let’s dare to be great!” Daretown School serves students who have been diagnosed as Seriously Emotionally Disturbed/Behavior Disordered; are residents of Salem, Cumberland and Gloucester Counties, New Jersey; and have been judged by their sending school districts to have exhausted all in- district, ‘less restrictive’, (LRE) educational alternatives. Daretown’s aim is to facilitate behavioral and academic excellence while ensuring that each of our students, many of whom have failed in traditional school settings, realize that there are no limits to their potential. The administrators and staff of Daretown are proactive and seek growth and progress, regardless of any obstacles placed before them. Daretown's change story actually began during the 2001-2002 school year following the hiring of a new principal, and the administration of a comprehensive needs assessment that solicited information from school staff, district level administrators and members of the Board of Education. What follows not only illustrates that significant changes have occurred, but rather a total transformation of a very special school. It will demonstrate that the strategies employed have encouraged and enabled the staff to claim ownership of the program by placing them at the forefront of the decision making process. True change requires collaboration, a flexibility and willingness to adapt to challenges, and unwavering loyalty to the belief that every child is deserving of a well-rounded education. Daretown Prior To The Change If you visited Daretown before the movement toward change, you would be hard-pressed to believe that you were at a school, let alone the Daretown we embrace today. The atmosphere was tense and fearful, the building itself was dreary and falling apart, and the quality of instruction could be described as dismal, at best. Traditional leadership dictated who would do what, when and how. The school itself, built in the early 1900's, was in dire need of repairs and upgrades, a sorrowful physical manifestation of the decaying morale and flailing foundation of an educational establishment. Daretown was little more than a holding cell struggling to contain a difficult
  • 2. population of students unable to succeed in a traditional school environment. During the 2000-2001 school year, Average Daily Attendance was deemed Questionable (+/-75%), Violence and Vandalism resulted in a whopping 48-documented New Jersey State Police visits and $10,000 in facility repair costs. Out-of-School Suspensions totaled 107 days during the 2000-2001 school year, despite an Average Daily Enrollment (ADE) of 28 students. Classes were self-contained and averaged 9-students. Instructional periods were limited to 20 minutes due to out-of-control behaviors. Measuring academic achievement was “not a priority.” Staff members were rightfully frustrated as they were rendered incapable of delivering meaningful instruction, but also had to fear for their personal safety and the safety of their students. A desperate question hung in the air: “What can we do?” Putting Daretown's Change In Context Change is the consequence of fearless action. It is the moment where we isolate our hesitation, overcome our doubts, and make the decision to embrace our shortcomings in order to include them among our strengths. Change comes with vision and purpose and serves as a concerted effort to make each moment more valuable than the last. Change is not without its difficulties; the soul-searching required can be painful and can, at times, seem insurmountable. This was no less meaningful for the Daretown staff who were grasping at straws over ten years ago, trying to figure out what they could do to make a difference that would save their floundering school and ultimately facilitate a transformation that would be recognizable, flexible in the face of challenges, and specifically designed with growth and progress. However, when the benefactors of change are our children, these growing pains are not only necessary, but are critical to our goal as educators. The conditions that have existed to allow Daretown School to facilitate significant changes have morphed over the years. There have been changes in perception, in policies, and in the way learning is emphasized. Vast improvements have been made to ensure that the school environment is inviting, safe, and secure. Additionally, a host of technological upgrades have improved the tools used for teaching and learning. However, it is safe to say that, the changes within the culture are due to the consistent and continuous internal reflection, collaboration, and devotion of a “family” of staff members. At Daretown, every school day, educators are employing strategies to, as Elementary/ Secondary Art Teacher and KTEA II Specialist Mrs. Tina Calabrese-Stone mentioned, find “new ways to reach the students.” The teachers are seeking ways to continually improve their craft, identifying “new and exciting ways to teach” while, as Secondary Science teacher Ms. Kristen Redkoles explains, the team and each individual staff member works to “not sweat the small stuff, be flexible, and [to] try to learn from mistakes.” This mentality is pervasive throughout the staff, which lends itself to the strengthening of the program. The adjustments and efforts put in by staff, even particularly over the past five years have been numerous. In a survey administered in March 2014, staff identified many positive changes they’ve noticed with the school’s culture. It was noted that there has been a “significant decrease in incidents of Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying;” and there has been an “increased incorporation of technology into instruction,” according to Mr. James Helder, the school’s assistant principal/school counselor/Anti-Bullying Specialist. Noticeable changes have also been felt in the “drive for academics,” as teachers maintain high expectations for each and every one of their students. Mrs. Shute, the school’s nurse and Elementary/ Secondary Health teacher, believes the positive change is due in part to “teachers coming up with great projects to engage students in learning.” Our staff is simply not satisfied with the “status quo,” remarks Mr. Anthony Curcio, the Secondary Social Studies teacher, and as a result, we are all “willing to step outside of the box in order to benefit our students.” Now, students come to class “prepared to work,” and are exposed to different authentic learning opportunities that encourage skill building,
  • 3. empathy development, critical thinking, and creativity. The camaraderie and support system cultivated amongst staff members has enabled growth at the secondary team level, which now works as a “collaborative, goal-oriented unit with a focus on the academic, social, and behavioral development of each and every student. The team focuses on finding creative ways to help the students achieve success.” It has also been cited that staff collaboration to make important program decisions and adjustments is supported by administration, which allows staff to immediately address and remediate issues effectively. Staff members share ideas, effective teaching methods and strategies, and work together towards common goals. It is felt that everyone tries to keep an “open mind” and to not be afraid to “try new things in the classroom” to reach our students. Our change story has been in the making for thirteen years at this stage. There have been many events that have facilitated our growth and change, but also some that have challenged us deeply, all of which will be explored in our “Change Process.” However, it is with confidence that our staff has definitively responded to the question “What can we do?” The answer, of course, is, “We can achieve whatever we set our minds to do,” a mentality that we reinforce for our students each and every day. Daretown's Change Process Since the inception of the change vision, there has been a significant increase in students' Average Daily Attendance, significant decreases in incidents of violence, vandalism, and out-of-school suspensions, the increase of time allotted for classroom instruction, and the annual achievement gains of students. The structure of the program has changed measurably with self-contained classes being replaced by departmentalized classes. Teachers are able to focus on one subject with mastery. With the school-wide behavior and mentoring systems in place and implemented effectively, behavior incidents have decreased significantly, and those that do occur are handled properly. As behaviors are limited, the push for academics has become stronger and more targeted. The average size of classes was reduced from 9 students to five or fewer, enabling more effective classroom management and a streamlined teaching/learning process. Instructional periods increased from 20 minutes per period to 45 minutes at the secondary level, and 35 minutes at the elementary level. Lesson planning and Individualized Education Programs (IEP) assure linkage between goals, objectives, and/or benchmarks, and alignment with Common Core and NJ Core Content Standards. Instruction is continually differentiated and individualized to address students’ strengths, weaknesses and learning styles. Curriculum offerings have been expanded over the years to include: double (back to back) periods of reading/language arts at the elementary level to target reading and writing skills; one period weekly using a self-paced computerized diagnostic-prescriptive reading program; three periods a day of mentoring to monitor ongoing academic and behavioral performance; three periods per week of physical education for secondary; two periods per week for elementary; music therapy biweekly; one period per week of art; one period per week of Health; individual and group counseling twice a week; and an assortment of specials including “Computer Tech” and “Life Skills.” There is an ongoing effort to refine the program in such a way as to maximize student growth and exposure to meaningful learning. What used to once be little more than a holding cell bursting at the seams with angst, frustration, and little (if any) learning, has been transformed into a safe, welcoming and nurturing school in which students and staff can achieve their full potential.
  • 4. Doubts about Daretown students' abilities and potential, and the view that Daretown was a last resort placement, have been replaced with enthusiasm and the vigorous belief that if we work together, we can make a major change in the lives of our students. The school’s earlier culture valued when students would sit down, be quiet, and muddle through the day with little or no incident. Any day that the police weren’t called, or there wasn’t some kind of violence was a good day. Our culture now supports investment in our students to promote their abilities, pique their curiosity, and help them to realize their myriad talents and abilities. Students must own their actions and are held accountable for them. Faculty and staff are engaged and own the change vision. At Daretown, teachers and support personnel embody the change vision, moving it forward through instruction, collaboration, and innovative practices. The team-oriented approach ensures full engagement and regular reflection to facilitate best practices. Structurally, the weekly full staff meetings, the weekly Elementary/Secondary team meetings, and the biweekly collaborative/ cross curricular planning sessions affords us the opportunity to visit, address, and revisit topics as necessary. It is teacher investment in and engagement with the change vision that sustains progress. In a recent survey, 100% of the staff agreed or strongly agreed that teachers are fully engaged with the vision. That seems to suggest that teachers not only have fully accepted that change is a necessary part of progress, but have embraced it with open arms and willing minds. Students and staff want to come to school, enjoy being in school, and often stay beyond the normal school hours. We are all very dedicated to providing the best possible learning experiences and environment. Nearly 90% of us have been at Daretown for 3 or more years. As a testament to our commitment and love of our work, staff attendance is consistently high, as is our student attendance rate. It is important to note that due to the nature of the school, staying beyond normal school hours is not possible for our students. Privately owned school bus companies, under contract with the students’ sending districts, drop off and pick up students at fixed times. Although staff is contractually obligated to be at Daretown from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., it is very common for many of us to arrive early and/or stay late. That doesn't mean that those who can't stay late because of long commutes from Delaware or Pennsylvania, or second job commitments that require them to leave by 3:00 p.m., stop thinking about and doing things to benefit all of the students. For example, since she first began working at Daretown in Fall 2010, Mrs. Jessica Sears has devoted her time to gathering materials for, designing, and publishing Daretown School’s very own yearbook comprised of fun memories from students’ experiences throughout the year. Ms. Kristen Redkoles also designs the Daretown Yearly Review video, capturing many of the awesome moments throughout the school year of all our students’ hard work and fun-filled adventures. Mrs. Moore also has students engaged in a series of math-related feats to culminate in a staff and student pie eating competition on Pi Day (March 14). She makes all of the students Pi Day shirts, designs Pi themed decorations, and the day’s events offer lots of laughter and, of course pie! Elementary staff, including Mrs. Prenger, Mrs. Meillier, Mrs. Melon, and Mrs. Parente also helped their students to design an Elementary Cookbook. These, of course, are just a sampling of the many things that we do at Daretown which makes our work so enjoyable, and our students’ experiences so worthwhile. We all are constantly looking for ways to move the program forward, expand resources at our disposal to keep our students safe and secure, and innovate to keep things fun, interesting, and beneficial for our students. This certainly means a lot of extra work for staff, but we all happily take on the workload with the knowledge that it will pay off tenfold! Such evidence of this comes with Mrs. Shute’s application for an AED machine through The Matthew Krug Foundation. As a result of Mrs.
  • 5. Shute’s efforts, Daretown School now possesses an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) to be able to immediately respond to any student or staff member suffering from cardiac arrest. It is the kind of foresight and devotion exhibited by each and every staff member that makes Daretown School a great place to learn and to work. The elementary science program was awarded a grant to boost the population of the Monarch Butterfly species. Students designed and built butterfly garden boxes and placed them around the County. The boxes act as fueling stations for the butterflies and are filled with both host and nectar plants. The two year grant was awarded by PSE&G over a two year period and totaled nearly $3,000. A similar grant from PSE&G was awarded to the secondary science program for the purchase of microscopes to enhance our biology program. Systems/Processes have been put in place to ensure sustained growth and renewal. The team-oriented approach is certainly central to the promise of Daretown’s future. This unique aspect of the program continually initiates discussion and allows our staff the opportunity to ask, “How can we make this better?” Self-reflective processes for individuals, as well as collaborative group processes that enable us to look at the little and big picture of Daretown’s progress have taken our school from where it was thirteen years ago to a point where everyone's expectations are elevated. Through open communication and collaboration, our team is constantly assessing, reassessing, and making adjustments to increase our effectiveness as we move to make the next school year even better than our last. The change is not merely affecting one classroom or grade, but is systemic in nature and building-wide in scope. In order to address the chaotic scene that had become apparent over a decade ago, the focus of change had to be, as Dr. D’Amato suggested, “global, rather than specific. Focusing on one issue at a time was just not practical; changing the culture of the Daretown School was the only viable option.” The broad scope and depth of problems facing this specialized school were apparent and had to be addressed fully in order to effectively facilitate change. The changes in the school are evident in decisions about instruction, organization, governance, and accountability. Decisions regarding instruction, organization, governance, and accountability have shifted from a 'top- down' model of institutional bureaucracy to a 'bottom-up' approach. The foundation of Daretown’s success across so many dimensions relies heavily upon the its team approach; a process that includes the sharing of decision-making, responsibility, and accountability in its journey towards achieving a common vision and mutual goals. Educators have creative freedom to address the needs of students as a collective, within smaller groups, and as individuals. This is expressed through lesson planning and instruction that is tailor-made to address known needs and issues that may arise throughout the class period. As such, we also have the ability to view ideas in both a smaller and larger scope when it comes to our students and Daretown as a whole. Our teachers are able to hone best practices, share and collaborate with colleagues, and work on many different levels with each other to determine the best ways to achieve success. An openness of communication allows staff members to engage not only as professionals but as a support system, where ideas can be freely shared. Concepts, strategies, and methods for effective teaching and classroom management are offered freely, so staff members are encouraged to “take a fellow educator’s good idea and tweak it so that it fits [his or her] classroom.” This collaboration allows for a united front among staff that is apparent not only to ourselves, but to our students, and anyone who might have the opportunity to observe the way Daretown works. Because we all have such a vested interest in Daretown’s success, we hold ourselves accountable as a team for both the successes and failures of our efforts.
  • 6. There is a perception in the school among all stakeholders (teachers, administrators, students, parents) that positive change has taken place. As Indicated in “Our Differences Make Us Special,” due to the nature of our specialized program, students do not attend our school for typical specified amounts of time, such as grades K-5, 6-8, or 9-12. It is not, therefore, easy to track and measure the perceptions of parents and students with respect to changes that occurred before, during, or after their placement with us. Letters of recommendation from administrators and staff indicate that there is a perception among all stakeholders that positive change has taken place. Out of staff surveyed, close to 93% indicated they either had no opinion, agreed, or strongly agreed that the general perception among staff is that positive changes have taken place. Staff were also asked to choose words that they thought described Daretown to create a visual representation of what Daretown “is.” Chief among them were “unique,” “family,” “differentiated,” “innovative,” “consistency,” “individualized,” “focused,” “accommodating,” “compassionate,” “enthusiastic,” and “flexible.” Using the words chosen by staff, the "Wordle" image at right shares the positive perception that we all share regarding the progress we’ve made and continue to make at Daretown. There is a perception in the larger community that positive change has taken place, as reflected in media coverage, online presence, a higher number of staff and student applicants, registrations, etc. If you had heard the name “Daretown School” over a decade ago, chances are you would have had a pretty low opinion about what was happening at the school. Within the past ten years; but more specifically, the past four to five years, there has been a vast shift in public opinion regarding what Daretown is capable of doing for a very special population. With students out in the community doing positive things, Daretown has essentially erased any doubt as to the full potential of this program, and of our students. In 2012 alone, one of the fine accomplishments of our students, thanks to the tutelage of Daretown’s staff included an 8th grade student who was recognized as the Grand Prize Winner in a Tri-State Essay Contest (PA, DE, NJ), sponsored by The United Way and the Wilmington Blue Rocks. In Spring 2013, 6 Secondary Language Arts students were selected to have their poems published in Creative Communication’s Student Poetry Anthology. Five years ago, if someone would have told you that Daretown secondary and elementary students were participating in the Salem County Science Fair, acing "Sum Dog" competitions at local and state levels, demon- strating their cardboard boat building and team-building skills for the annual Daretown Regatta, winning recognition essay and poetry contests, and being published; or having their work displayed in an art anthology or showcased in a district-wide art show, you probably would have said, “No way. That can’t be Daretown.” As evidenced in many of the letters of recommendation from individuals and organizations in the community at large, as well as in local and county-wide newspaper articles, it is apparent that there is a distinct perception that important changes have been made that have altered the perception of Daretown in the community at large.
  • 7. The overall quality of teaching has improved as measured by observations, peer evaluations, self-assessments, student feedback, parent comments, etc. Daretown’s programs and services are highly individualized and are designed to meet the needs identified in each student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). They include, but are not limited to: individualized instruction, schedule adjustments for course-completion and shared-time students at the secondary level, related services, individual and small group counseling, character development and social skills training, behavior management, reinstatement and expansion of pre/post achievement testing, participation in the State of New Jersey’s assessment program, transition and follow-along services, cross-grade/cross-age grouping, small staff-student ratios, and a significant use of modified instructional techniques and accommodations to improve the overall quality of teaching. Observations, both formal and informal, both in and out of the classroom, conducted by principal and assistant principal lend credence to the assertion that the quality of teaching has improved. Innovative teaching and best practices, such as problem-based learning, field experiences, interdisciplinary instruction, activities to promote growth of the “whole” student, i.e., advisories, the arts, sports, conflict resolution, and character building have been effectively implemented and sustained. We are constantly working to improve instruction for our students. This is evidenced through our pursuits of means to continually supplement and expand our resources to effectively engage learners. This mentality is exemplified through efforts such as Mrs. Linda Shute’s August 2013 application for and reception of The New Jersey Physicians Advisory Group’s 2014 New Jersey School Health Curriculum Grant. Mrs. Shute, our School Nurse and Elementary/ Secondary Health Teacher, sought this grant to benefit the secondary students. The curriculum touts evidence-based practices coupled with character and relationship building strategies for adolescents to be informed to make positive sexual health-related life decisions. The curriculum uses hands-on methods such as puzzles, props, and role-playing to engage learners. After receiving the grant, Mrs. Shute attended an all-day conference/workshop to become trained to effectively teach the curriculum, and consequently implemented the curriculum in January 2014. She has recently applied for an additional grant to address the needs of Daretown elementary students, and should hear back within the next several months. In 2013, Mrs. Bridgit Vit, Daretown’s Physical Education teacher, applied for and received $1,800.00 in free equipment as a part of the Special Olympics “Get Into Our Game” school-based program. The purpose was to help build skills for elementary and secondary students at Daretown School and district-wide in sports such as basketball, soccer, and track & field. Mrs. Vit was also previously engaged in promoting community outreach out activities through an initiative called “Kids That Care,” taking Daretown students to a local daycare to engage in age-appropriate activities to demonstrate acts of kindness and caring for small children. They spent time reading to the kids, working on craft projects, and engaging in parachute play. Mrs. Vit also partnered Daretown secondary and elementary students with a local Habitat for Humanity project which had them doing yard work and giving back to the community and citizens in need. In June 2013, Mrs. Sears decided to embark on a journey to combine two of her greatest loves, teaching and animals, into her Secondary Language Arts classroom to work on a yearlong community-based project called Project R.E.A.C.H. (Research, Educate, Act, Create, Help!). R.E.A.C.H. combines Language Arts skill development with humane education principles, in addition to many cross-curricular aspects, through authentic learning. This project has enabled a partnership between the students of our school and a local humane society. It also has promoted the ideas of responsible pet ownership, the importance of animal adoption and supporting organizations that support
  • 8. animals, and the necessity of activism to stop animal cruelty. Through Project R.E.A.C.H., Daretown students have been completed research about various animal/ animal welfare related topics, have developed projects and “advertisements” to create awareness, have lead donation drives and fundraising efforts, have designed banners for SCHS to use, and will be designing a mural that will grace the side of the SCHS’s building. Mrs. Melon’s Elementary Science students spent time preparing and cooking dog treats for us to take with us to give to the adoptable dogs at the Humane Society. Through these activities, and others, the students are working together to help others, as well as to take responsibility for the ways that they can help change the world by being active, compassionate citizens. At Daretown, the pursuit of academic excellence can be observed in every classroom. Elementary and Secondary Science teachers work with students in grades 5-12 to develop experiments where they develop a testable hypothesis, formulate a step by step procedure to carry out the experiment, and decide how to collect quantitative and/or qualitative data during experimentation. During the project, they must keep a detailed daily log where each student must document exactly what they did that day for the experiment. They also must type up all aspects of their project, purpose, question, hypothesis, procedure, data analysis, results, conclusion, and bibliography, then create a research book containing all of these items. Lastly, students create a display board creatively showing off their hard work and detailing all aspects of the science fair projects. The boards also include pictures taken during experimentation, bibliography source examples, and any another creative piece that makes their board attractive and appealing. Then, students take their boards, daily logs, and research books and compete in the local science fair. The students set up their project components at the fair the night before where they are preliminarily judged. Then, the following day the students go to the fair where they sit with their boards and wait to be interviewed by a judge. All science fair judges are DuPont scientists that work in the science field. Over two hours, judges tour the projects and ask the students a variety of questions concerning their project and the scientific method. This is always the most nerve-racking and stressful part of science fair as they wait anxiously for their interview. When Ms. Redkoles first started teaching at Daretown, she took one group science fair project where we tested sunflower growth in unusual soil types. Not knowing what to expect, the group tried our best making a display board, a small daily log and research book and headed to the science fair. This group project ended up earning second place among numerous other 7th and 8th grade group projects. Excited and shocked, we celebrated the big win all year at Daretown. The following two years, Ms. Redkoles allowed students to chose if they would like to participate in the science, consequently taking six to eight projects each year. A few projects placed each year, with a senior earning first place in the biochemistry category. However, this year every student in secondary science participates in the fair. All science students (but one) met the deadline and entered the local science fair competition this year. Despite the tough competition at the fair, each student stood proud and talked confidently during his or her interview. It is always exciting to see how much the projects and students have grown scientifically. Mrs. Lindsay Melon, elementary science teacher encouraged some of our 6th grade students to enter the competition during the 2012-2013 school year. This year Daretown had its first elementary student, Paul Hand, ribbon at the event!
  • 9. Daretown’s effort to involve students in meaningful, real world based learning experiences is apparent throughout each and every classroom. There are efforts spearheaded by Mrs. Carol Niblock (Elementary Instructional Assistant) and Mr. Bill Pennock (Elementary/Secondary Instructional Assistant) to collect soda tabs to benefit the Ronald McDonald House and to collect plastic caps to benefit special needs causes, respectively. In Mrs. Moore’s classes around the holidays, students weave hats for sick infants that Mrs. Moore delivers to a hospital near her home. Students aren’t just learning skills to pass tests—they are learning the importance of morals, compassion, and character. Elementary and Secondary staff has collaborated to design and coordinate school-wide activities including 100th Day of School Celebrations and Dr. Seuss’ Read Across America Day. During these activities, secondary students assume leadership roles in assisting elementary students with age-appropriate tasks, projects, crafts, and other activities. Elementary students delight in the opportunity to hang out with and work alongside of their older peers. Staff from each discipline area cooperates with each other to design subject-based activities that are engaging for the varied ages and ability levels. We also work closely together to coordinate fun activities such as Daretown School’s “Thanksgiving Feast” and our “End of the Year Picnic.” At the Elementary Level, Elementary staff and students collaborated to develop a play. After learning all about farm life, we continued our research on animals and came up with the perfect play to present during our Thanksgiving Feast. The play was a parody of the original story, “The Ugly Duckling.” In Daretown’s version, the ugly turkey transforms into a beautiful peacock. Not only were students costumed, they also had to learn their lines, and bravely performed for the whole school and its guests. Instructional technology, such as blended and online learning opportunities, is used to teach in a 21st Century way. Communication technology, such as email, social networks, and web pages, is used to provide a means for parents to participate actively in the educational process. Special Education is a field that involves many obstacles and teachers are faced with the challenge of finding new and creative ways to teach material. Daretown is no different, with our population including students with Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities as well as Learning Disabilities. Teachers in our classrooms are responsible for accommodating and modifying the environment, the presentation of the materials and the level of support available. In order to help both teachers and students achieve success in class, we utilize many forms of technology to supplement the learning experiences with our students. The first piece of technology is the center of both the elementary and secondary classrooms: the Promethean board. This interactive white- board is used by teachers to create eye-catching presentations that not only raise the students’ interest, but keep the students’ attention for longer period of times. It also allows the teachers to design lessons geared toward all learning styles. We are able to bring our lessons to life with sounds, videos, and student interaction. We are also able to print these presentations so that the students have a copy of what was taught as a study tool. For our population, it is very beneficial for us to have a stimulating focal point like an interactive white board to help the students attend to lessons, keep the focus, and engage with material in different ways. We use the Promethean board with a variety of interactive tools.
  • 10. First we have clickers that allow students to answer anonymously to questions that are written up on the board. This is a powerful tool for the teacher to gauge the mastery of a skill learned from the lesson taught without putting students on the spot. The population at Daretown tends to have very low self-esteem from years of falling behind academically. This tool allows them try their best without fear of embarrassment. It also shows the teacher when something needs to be re-taught or when it’s time to move along. The students also enjoy using the clickers because they look like little cell phones. They have fun punching in their answers instead of the same old pencil and paper method of assessment. The Promethean board can also be used with a slate. This interactive wireless slate allows the teacher to move around the classroom while still manipulating the board. This is useful when the students are having behavior issues and need close supervision. The teacher is able to position him or herself strategically in the room without having to turn his or her back to the students while still teaching with the slate. A teacher can sit in the back of the room if need be, to manage behaviors and not miss a beat while teaching a lesson on the Promethean board. This is also useful when a teacher needs to closely monitor the students’ work progress. The teacher who is working on the board while circling the room easily keeps students on task. The final two pieces of technology that we use in our classrooms at Daretown are our I-Pads and our Chromebooks. These web-based laptops allow the students to complete activities using the Internet. Students are able to work on written assignments using Google Docs as well as web- based activities to reinforce learning from the classroom. Each student has his or her own e-mail account to allow for interaction with staff and each other. In Math, the students use many web based programs. This year the students are using the Reflex program where they play math games to increase their fluency. Many stude who struggle in math, do so because they become frustrated and give up. By increasing the students’ fluency, they are able to complete problem faster and with more confidence, resulting in higher success in all math levels. Teachers are also able to view graphs of the students’ progress. Students also use the Chromebooks to work on their Khan accounts. This is a free website that is used as reinforcement of the skills learned in class. The teacher is able to “recommend” skills to each student based on individual need. This usually coincides with the student’s lesson but can also be used to work on a skill that the student shows weakness or needs more practice. Students link to recommendations through their “learning dashboard”. Problems are presented to the student on the screen and they are able to use a scratch pad right on the screen to show their work. Students are given many practice problems but must show that they can correctly answer 5 questions in a row to move on to another skill. When students get stumped with a skill they have two choices. They can chose to click the “hint” button, which will walk them through the problem step by step. This often provides the refresher a student needs and they do not need to ask a teacher for help, building both confidence and independence. The student might still need help with a skill so they might choose to watch a video. This is a re-teaching of the lesson and students benefit from seeing the same skill taught in a different way by a different teacher. Earning badges that allows them to buy items for their avatars motivates the students. The program also sends reports to the teacher to alert them of a struggling student or show progress. The secondary and elementary students all participate in "Sum Dog" contests. Sum Dog is an online math game website where the students enter contests and compete head to head with other schools live. The program adapts to the students individual levels and provides them with challenging games that reinforce math skills. Playing games, the competition aspect and earning points motivate the students. The students do not know if they are competing with a high school level student or an elementary level student, they only see their own questions that build confidence.
  • 11. Students usually compete in Sum Dog between 2 and 3 times throughout the year. Daretown School students received recognition for being the Overall Winner in Sum Dog’s New Jersey Statewide Spring Contest as illustrated at the right. In Mrs. Sears’ Secondary Language Arts classroom, Facebook and Blogger have been integrated into classroom usage for educational purposes to utilize social media as a way to promote social change and to spread awareness about humane education issues. Students also utilize Microsoft Word and PowerPoint to create stories, complete collaborative and independent writing assignments, and design presentations. They also utilize internet-based sites such as Sheppard Software and "Quizlet" to practice spelling, term recognition, and other skills. Yearly, students participate online with Creative Communication’s Poetic Power Contest, where they write and then upload a poem they wrote for evaluation and possible publication in a student anthology. It is these, and many other ways, that technology is integrated to help students engage in learning in a 21st Century way. Many of these same programs and techniques are utilized in modified and adapted ways at the Elementary level to enable our littlest students the opportunity to begin exploring learning through technology. Both secondary and elementary students have access to a fully equipped computer lab and every classroom is equipped with 3 personal computers to supplement learning. Additionally, parents with internet access can see their child’s grades in Real Time daily, in addition to the mid-marking and marking period report cards that are sent our staff stays in regular contact with parents and guardians through phone calls and e-mails to keep the progress made at school continuing at home and vice versa. The school culture promotes inquiry, use of research, professional development for all staff (veteran and new), continuous growth and has established professional learning communities/learning organizations. Our school culture certainly promotes the importance of all educators embracing the notion that we should be “lifelong learners.” We receive training on the technology we have in our classrooms and are encouraged to pursue professional development in our interests. There are yearly professional development activities sponsored by the district, county and/ or state in which all members of our team participate. Many of our staff members have Masters Degrees and numerous certifications, and continually pursue professional development to enhance their command of their craft. Their efforts are encouraged and supported through the district's tuition reimbursement program, and by covering fess and travel expenses to encourage participation in seminars and workshops. Students are measured against rigorous standards such as Common Core; curriculum and instruction are aligned to the standards. Since the change movement began at Daretown, all of our lessons and activities are measured against the rigorous standards set forth by New Jersey State mandate and the Common Core. All of our curriculum purchases and instruction has been aligned and instruction has been adapted and modified to meet appropriate standards. There has been a major multi-year increase in achievement among all students as measured by in-school assessments (portfolios, grades, exhibitions, etc.) and documented standardized evaluations (district, state, or national assessments). This evidence includes closing achievement gaps. It is important for our readers to remember, Daretown, unlike traditional public schools, has an ever-changing student population with diverse cognitive abilities and severe basic skill deficiencies. In fact, even with efforts to work with County Office of Education curriculum specialists to define an assessment process that works with our student population, it is still much of an ongoing effort. With a stabilized school climate, the improved quality of educational programs and services has enabled the focus to target academic achievement.
  • 12. As it stands write now KTEA II testing has been reinstated during the 2013-2014 at the elementary level after a hiatus due reduction in force. Naturally, there have always been many ways that Daretown staff has assessed student progress and growth even with the use of testing such as KTEA II, with an emphasis on pre/post testing, portfolios, and other forms of assessment. Class attendance, class behavior, participation, class and homework assignments, projects, quizzes, and tests are weighted and are used by all instructional personnel to minimize the possibility of teacher bias and/or subjectivity while calculating grades. In Secondary Language Arts, Mrs. Sears assesses students through rubric-based writing samples, portfolio development, performance-based projects, and interactive notebook progress, in addition to all of the other aforementioned forms of assessment. Unit tests, vocabulary quizzes, Wake Up and Checkout activities, and writing assignments are all used to gauge student learning and progress. Mrs. Sears is also working to adapt curriculum testing materials at all levels to design age and ability appropriate pre/post testing to demonstrate progress, to satisfactorily demonstrate what students have learned, given their varied skill levels and abilities. Mrs. Sears designed a writing rubric that can be adapted to be used across grade levels. All assessments are aligned with students’ individual grade level goals and objectives, as well as the Common Core and Student Growth Objectives. In Ms. Redkoles’ Secondary Science class an assessment was created using the curriculum for Middle School Science, Biology, and Chemistry. She randomly selected a few multiple choice questions and short response questions from each chapter curriculum developed test and created a large assessment ranging from 40-60 questions. The assessment was given in the beginning of the year (Pre-Assessment) and then will be given again at the end of the year (Post-Assessment). The scores of the students will be compared on the pre and post assessment and calculated the growth percentage of each individual student than average it as a whole for each class. Ms. Redkoles is aiming for a 60% growth average. An additional assessment used is hands-on based, where students will be graded (using a rubric) on their microscope skills. Ms. Redkoles is shooting for 85% of the students to score proficient or higher during the assessment given at the end of the year. Mrs. Moore’s Secondary Math and Science classes are given a diagnostic test based on the students’ prior knowledge. The test is 100 questions and the students try to answer as many as n they can. The questions correlate with chapters from the book so that the teacher can determine where the student needs to begin in the textbook. Sometimes the student needs to review something that they have already learned and then Mrs. Moore knows to re-teach those skills. Other students may be able to jump right into the text without missing a beat from where they left off. The tool is useful to show the student or parent evidence for why the student is being taught material. After the students have shown mastery of skills through an independent assignment, they are asked to log onto their accounts at www.kahnacademy.org. Here they practice teacher recommended skills on the computer. If they need a reminder they can click on “hint” where they will see a step-by-step walkthrough of solving the problem. If they still need help they can watch a video where the lesson is re-taught. The student is only able to move on through the skills when they complete 5 problems correctly without any hints. The website then sends the teacher feedback. Seventh and 8th grade students, as well as different levels of elementary students are using the Reflex Math online program to increase fluency. The program also monitors student progress and graphs the data for parents and students to easily view how much they have improved. Students are also assessed using chapter tests that are based on all of the skills from each chapter. Finally at the end of the year, Mrs. Moore is able to re-administer the original diagnostic test to measure the students’ improvement. Elementary staff also use a variety of portfolio-based assessments, along with pre/post testing. Those aforementioned examples are meant to show the variety of assessment tools necessary to effectively determine our students’ needs and progress. These are by no means representative of every single form of assessment being measured, but are meant to show the variety of tools at our disposal.
  • 13. As previously mentioned, the goal for all students entering the Daretown program is to prepare them for their successful return to a 'less restrictive' educational environment. Small class size, highly individualized instruction, and innovative teaching strategies are utilized to improve classroom performance and academic achievement; a school-wide behavior management system, coupled with three periods a day of mentoring, hold ourselves and two sessions a week of group and/or individual counseling are used to significantly reduce or eliminate inappropriate behaviors and improve social skills; and a strict attendance policy assures an average daily attendance of ninety percent or greater. When these goals are achieved and sustained over time, Daretown's multi- disciplinary team, together with representatives of the student's district and the student's parents/guardians meet to discuss transition plans for his/her return. To date, our success rate for those students recommended for re-integration is above ninety-five percent. The school has won recognition for improved performance. The school measures its success based on the achievements of our students, and the satisfaction of constituent school districts that trust us with their educational wellbeing. With the exception of the 2009 National Panasonic School Change Award nomination, we have not actively sought recognition for what we do. Success is having a dozen or more students win ribbons in the DuPont sponsored Salem County Science Fair while competing against 500 students or more from public middle and high schools from throughout the County; or seeing the joy on their faces when they were notified that Daretown had won a state-wide math competition; or that their art work was selected for publication in a national magazine. It is also measured by the number of students and parents who come back to visit with their personal success stories. Lastly, it is measured by the growing number of referrals we receive each year and/or the number of students we can't accept due to space limitations. Snapshots of critical moments in our change process 2001-2002 During the 2001-2002 school year, a new principal, Dr. James D’Amato was employed. Dr. D’Amato remembers meeting the district superintendent during his interview for the position, where the official candidly shared that public schools within the tri-county area were either withdrawing their students from Daretown in droves, or considered placing students at the school only after all other options had been exhausted. Undeterred by the horror stories and the label of the student population as being “seriously disruptive and/or violent,” Dr. D’Amato dove into his work at Daretown, addressing what he called “predictable resistance and skepticism” through the implementation of frequent after-school meetings, open dialogue, and a culture which fostered collaboration and support, a movement which touted what D’Amato refers to as “dramatic and (almost) immediate change that quickly elevated trust, hope, and confidence.”
  • 14. Dr. D’, or Doc, as he is affectionately referred to by staff and students alike, went straight to the major players, rallying support among staff, district superintendent, and the Board of Education to initiate broad- based changes based on the results of comprehensive needs assessment. As a result of that review, staff and administrators were able to identify program strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. Consequently, student referral procedures were changed to include staff participation in the review and selection process prior to student placement. Self-contained classes were eliminated and a departmentalized program was established. Class size was reduced from 9 students to a maximum of 5. Instructional periods increased from 20-minutes to 40-minutes (secondary classes are now 45 minutes). Continuing with the transformation of the program, a "Zero Tolerance" Code of Student Conducted was written and approved by the Board of Education. Additionally, school-wide behavior management and mentoring systems were developed and implemented to identify problem behaviors, and a means to effectively address them. Out-of-school suspensions were eliminated as a disciplinary option, except in extreme cases, such as drug and weapons violations. An emphasis on “co-ownership” of the school change process, was combined with what Dr. D’Amato referred to as shared “decision-making, responsibility, and accountability,” enabling staff and administrators to pursue a common vision. Team building workshops were conducted, and shared decision-making strategies involving all school personnel was initiated. Teamwork is at the heart of the positive changes at Daretown. We work together much like a family unit. The full Daretown staff meets (at least) once a week to discuss and address issues that arise, as well as matters involving individual students. Staff members were/ are encouraged to think creatively in order to properly modify or adjust practices to increase effectiveness and promote learning. As such, leadership roles during these meetings rotate monthly with the team facilitators setting the agenda, monitoring attendance, opening the floor to discussion, maintaining decorum, and bringing suggested changes to a vote. The team recorders, who also rotate monthly, prepare and distribute meeting minutes to the principal and staff, the day following the meeting. When there are issues or concerns pertinent only to elementary or secondary team members, those issues are handled in weekly Elementary or Secondary Team meetings. Dr. D’Amato reviews the minutes to ensure that the change(s) is/are not in violation of any local, state, and/or federal policies, laws, rules or regulations. Although Dr. D’Amato’s approach to running our program hinges upon shared responsibility, he maintains legal responsibility and authority over all aspects of the program. In adherence to district policy and complimentary state and federal laws, as well as negotiated agreements, Dr. D’Amato ensures that curriculum and instruction are matched to the Common Core Standards; that special education and related services are provided; that safety and security are maintained and supplemented; and that the facility is properly maintained, among other duties stated or implied by the Board of Education.
  • 15. 2002-2003 As the program’s changes took way, in 2002-2003, shared decision making was expanded, giving staff increased responsibility and allowing them authority to recommend and implement program changes. Staff meetings were and continue to be conducted (at least) weekly. A school-wide curricula evaluation was initiated, and a review of textbook series in Core Content subjects (K-12) began in earnest. Staff and students were viewing the school-wide behavior management program more positively as we experienced significant decreases in violence and vandalism. 2003-2007 As a result of teacher turnover as well as teacher observations/evaluations, several teachers were either replaced or transferred. Ongoing team building activities enabled Daretown faculty and staff to assume increasing decision-making responsibility and authority. Group/Individual counseling was built into every student's schedule twice a week, and a formalized mentoring program was initiated to monitor student academic and behavioral performance three times per day. As negative behaviors decreased, curriculum and instruction and student achievement became top priorities. New curricula was selected and approved, and a 3-year purchasing plan was to be implemented during the 2008 school year. Facility upgrades, e.g., new furniture, carpeting, interior/exterior painting, the addition of drop ceilings, etc., slowly transformed the ninety year old school into an attractive, welcoming and functional educational facility. A paved regulation size basket court was installed that is not only used by students, but also by teens who live near the school most evenings and on weekends, weather permitting. 2007-2010 During this time period, a number of major internal/external events took place that had a dramatic impact on our efforts to become the pre-eminent program in South Jersey for students in grades K-12 with severe learning and behavioral disabilities. Chief among these events included the designation of a new Board of Education (BOE), created by the Board of Chosen Freeholders to oversee both the Salem County Vocational- Technical School District and the Salem County Special Services School District. Concurrently, a new superintendent was employed as chief school administrator of both districts. Daretown received funds that enabled us to:  complete the purchase of materials necessary to implement the new K-12 curricula;  construct and equip the school's first ever library;  complete interior building renovations;  install central air conditioning; purchase and install Promethean Smart Boards for every classroom;  install a wireless network to provide internet access in every classroom;  replace damaged or outdated computers, ensuring a minimum of three classroom pc's for every five students, and a full functional computer lab; and  purchase and install playground equipment for our increasing student in grades K-6.
  • 16. The inclusion of new technology allowed us to incorporate a self-paced computerized reading program into each student's weekly schedule to provide additional drill and practice in phonetic analysis, phonemic awareness and vocabulary development. A multi-year agreement between the Daretown School and Appel Farm Art and Music Center, Elmer, NJ providing Artists in Residence for up to half a school year. In year one, students in all grades designed and painted floor-to-ceiling murals in the entryway of the school; in year two, they covered the walls outside the school's main office with mosaics, designed by them with tiles created from scratch; in year three, a poet in residence introduced students to the various types and structure of poems, and helped them transcribe individual and group poems that were memorialized in two floor-to-ceiling scrolls at the entrance of the school, and in bound copies of a Poetry Anthology; and in year four, a drama instructor was assigned who helped students write, stage and perform an original play entitled "Who is Q?" The play depicted a chronology of bullying experiences "Q" had from kindergarten through graduation, as one who was bullied, one who bullied, and one who observed bullying taking place. Our next venture with Appel Farm will hopefully help create a Daretown Choir. As a result of retirements in 2010, secondary special education teachers were replaced with highly qualified, fully certified content area specialists in math, science, social studies, language arts and literacy, ensuring for the first time, a comprehensive continuum of instruction in core content subjects at the secondary level. The elementary reading/language arts curriculum was modified to provide daily back-to- back periods of instruction for every child. In addition, ongoing professional development activities were provided to expand and improve classroom use of technology. Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) were established at both the elementary and secondary levels. Meetings are conducted before school to plan and implement cross-curricular projects, plan on and off campus activities, discuss and strategize ways to deal with challenging student behaviors. 2011-2013 These two years proved to be especially challenging in Daretown’s journey toward change; yet it also demonstrates the absolute competence, resilience and dedication of a family of educators who "Dare to be Great." In December 2011, a third of Daretown's staff were terminated due to a district-wide budget shortfall. Despite what could have had a devastating impact on every aspect of the program, remaining staff proved definitively that, "You may be down, but you're certainly not out." In response to a program that was gutted, the Team responded with poise and determination characteristic of this remarkable group of educators. The Team changed or modified instructional groupings, revised schedules, and divided up responsibilities of former colleagues. That is not to say that the loss of former staff members was not grossly felt. As a result of the decrease in supervision, behavior incidents increased to their highest level in ten years. Despite the increase, it averaged about one per month, still significantly below the state average. The ban on out of school suspensions was temporarily lifted to deal with chronically disruptive or violent students when in-school options proved unsuccessful. Additionally, Pre/Post KTEA II testing used to measure annual grade level gains in reading, language arts and mathematics was discontinued due to the loss of the school's reading specialist as a result of the Reduction In Force (RIF).
  • 17. To compensate, teachers across the board initiated entry/exit course assessments, follow-up lesson and chapter exams, and periodic reviews of student progress to assure Annual Yearly Progress (AYP). Average Daily Attendance remained high at ninety-six percent (96%). 2012-2013 For Daretown’s staff, the 2012-2013 school year proved no less challenging. Though, some of the sub- certified instructional assistants were able to be replaced, six staff (including the principal) were lost for extended periods of time due to pregnancy and/or illness. During this period, the school’s counselor was appointed assistant principal after completing the necessary administrative certification requirements. Sub- certified instructional assistants assumed the teaching responsibilities of faculty on leave. Throughout their absence, teachers (and the principal) communicated via phone, text and emails to ensure maximum effectiveness of both classroom instruction as well as overall program operation. Only two incidents of violence or vandalism occurred during the school year, and Average Daily Attendance was above ninety-six percent (96.2%). 2013-Present Thanks to the commitment and steadfast dedication of all the staff and administration, 2013-2014 is shaping up to be an awesome year! Student enrollment is up, and staff is back to pre-2011 levels. To ensure the fluidity of assessment, KTEA II testing resumed at the elementary level with the addition of a .4 FTE art/elementary teacher. Additionally, Daretown’s audio-visual security system is currently being upgraded, and Chromebooks have been purchased for use by all secondary students. Next year's budget, recently approved by the Board of Education, includes funding for the purchase of Chromebooks for elementary students, paving of the school's driveway and parking areas, and a water purification system. It is also hoped that our enrollment projections will generate funding for two additional sub-certified instructional assistants during the 2014-2015 school year, which will continue to assist in our efforts to minimize behavioral issues and increase academic excellence. And The Changes Continue. . . The team process, whereby the entire staff is afforded a voice within the dynamic inner-workings of the school has been put in place to ensure sustained growth and renewal. After all, it boils down to us all owning the program and its success. Through our shared decision-making, it is our responsibility to work together to stimulate improvement. Our school is very unique because we work from “the bottom up, instead of the top down.” There is an ongoing dialogue between faculty and administration to continually strive towards excellence, rather than educators simply being told what they need to do, how they need to do it, and when they need to do it. This level of professional respect allows for us all to focus on what really matters: our students. Teachers and instructional assistants, through their consistent interactions with students, are most able to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in program execution, implementation of services, and student progress. Our ability to affect real change and make adjustments accordingly, with approval of administration, allows efficiency to increase, problem behaviors to decrease, and continuity in learning to be maintained. Dr. D’Amato’s non-traditional management style demonstrates not only a total embrace of what is actually needed for our students, but also reveals the absolute confidence and trust that the administrator has for Daretown’s entire faculty and staff.
  • 18. This mutual respect allows for all of us to dedicate absolute investment to the success of the program and focus on continually improving and advancing in order to share with our students many new and exciting learning experiences. The absolute devotion of our staff to one another and to our students lends to the understanding that we are a family, a strong support system with a vested interest in success. Our collaboration with and trust in one another is critical to the sustainability of the change. We are able to vet through resources, pull together to support one another, offer varying perspectives and do it in such a way that all of us are able to use our expertise to inspire each other to continually do more and more. We have the freedom to explore and dabble in creative learning, whether it is having students develop science fair projects, design banners/ crafts/ fundraisers to benefit a local humane society, explore themselves through poetry, or demonstrate genius in math through interactive competitions. We engage in cross-curricular instruction, explore identity through self-reflective projects, solve school-wide “mysteries” using skills garnered in our classrooms, and emphasize the importance of giving back to the community. We are by no means perfect. It’s the truth when we say that we learn something new every day, ourselves. However, we are in control and have the ability to fix what needs mending. Most teachers will never have the opportunity to experience such empowerment. Our pride in our school and, most importantly, in our students is immense. We are fierce advocates for each and every student and will do everything we can to help them succeed. It is this steadfast determination to make our students reach their full potential that drives us. Even when we are grappling with problems, our students are our hearts; they ground us and refocus us. It is the dedication to our team and our students that will support continuous growth and change in the years ahead. The question we are pondering now is: “What can we do next?
  • 19. At Daretown, we work together to achieve great things! We try our very best!