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South Glens Falls CSD kicked off school year with inspiring speaker and renewed focus on relationships

October 18, 2018

Work for the year will focus on the themes of safety, mental health and future-ready learning

The South Glens Falls CSD kicked off its 2018-19 school year with messages of power and positivity that district leaders will be continuing throughout the school year.

At the opening day staff presentation, Superintendent Kristine Orr discussed the three themes that the district will be focusing on this year:

  • Student safety
  • Mental health
  • Future-ready learning

“Throughout the year, these themes will guide much of the work we undertake,” Orr said. “We want to focus our efforts in these areas, which we believe are critical components of moving our district forward.”

Student safety

The district thinks about safety in three different ways: Are the students physically safe? Are they social-emotionally safe? How are we teaching students to protect themselves online?

Physical safety
All students should feel safe in our schools, and the district intends to continue to work toward implementing best practices for physical safety of our buildings, as well as overall social-emotional safety.

Beginning in July, the administrative cabinet met to discuss the physical aspects of the buildings that can be improved. Beyond the capital project work that is ensuring all buildings have a secure vestibule, appropriate intercom systems and systems to properly screen visitors. The district also practices the required safety drills and works to teach students and staff how to handle emergency situations in the buildings.

Social-emotional safety
To address social-emotional safety, the district is continually working to provide resources and support systems for students.

For example, the high school and middle school have a text message hotline available for students to text if they are concerned about a safety issue. These messages go directly and immediately to building principals. The high school system yielded 102 conversations last year and as of the beginning of October, 17 students had reached out through the system this year.

Staff is trained every year in the policies of the Dignity for All Students Act, and students or staff are aware of our district’s reporting mechanisms.

Beyond reporting concerns, the district is implementing support systems to help students with mental health challenges thrive. (See below for more information on the work the district is undertaking this year on mental health.)

Building a culture of respect and tolerance in every building among students and staff is a focus of the district’s work this year as well. To kick off the school year, Tom Murray, the director of innovation for Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, spoke to all staff.

What were the takeaways from his powerful message that had staff laughing and crying? “Kids are truly awesome! 30 seconds changes culture! Every day in every one of your schools and in everyone of your classrooms, great things happen! What can you do tomorrow that has kids running back the next day?”

Online safety
As part of its efforts to improve digital literacy among students, the district has been examining its curriculum to see where it can help students learn to be intelligent consumers of digital media, which includes media from the internet, smartphones, video games and other nontraditional sources. Areas where the district is introducing concepts of digital literacy include: online searching and crediting of others’ work, protecting private information online, and using online forums in a respectful manner, as a “good digital citizen.”

In the elementary grades, these skills are being infused into classrooms through projects and in the library media centers. In the middle and high schools, these topics are introduced and reinforced with the district’s 1:1 Chromebook policy. Students in the secondary grades are learning these important digital skills as they research and interact online.

Finally, the district uses the online software Gaggle to monitor students and to reveal potentially harmful content in email, documents, shared files, images and photos. The software makes it possible for administrators to contact parents immediately if students are writing or sharing information on school-based platforms that is concerning.

Mental health

In addition to safety, the district has developed a Mental Health Task Force to review current supports and to identify what it can do to improve mental health support for students and families. The group met for the first time on Tuesday, Oct. 9, and will continue meeting throughout the year to make recommendations on mental health services and curriculum in the district.

Right now, the district has a variety of mental health professionals working in the district at all levels. The task force, which will be composed of educators from across the district, will focus its work on how to ensure it is meeting the mental health and support needs of all students and families in the district.

In addition to reviewing supports that are already in place, the task force will be examining the ways that mental health is included as part of instruction because New York is the first state in the country to require schools to include mental health instruction as part of their health education curriculum. This new requirement, which went into effect July 1, 2018, requires classroom teachers to provide mental health instruction for elementary students and certified health educators to provide mental health instruction at the secondary level. The New York State Education Department now requires schools to include instruction that:

  • Discusses a variety of aspects of health, including mental health and specifically how it is connected to physical health; and
  • Is designed to enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, well-being and human dignity.

Beginning this year, the new legislation makes mental health lessons mandatory, with an eye toward:

  • Helping students understand how to obtain and maintain good mental health;
  • Decreasing any stigma related to mental health;
  • Enhancing students’ help-seeking skills so they know when, where and how to obtain help; and
  • Helping students understand mental disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.) and treatments.

The state has indicated that mental health instruction will vary from school to school because it is encouraging districts to develop lessons and activities based on their individual school district and community needs. There is not a specific, mandated curriculum. Rather, the state has provided an instructional guide for mental health education that districts can use as a starting point for developing and/or adopting their own age-appropriate curricula.

Future-ready learning

The district is not only focusing on the content students are learning, but the ways they are learning.

“We believe students should be engaged in their learning,” said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction Tim Dawkins. “We are working to create cooperative environments throughout all of our schools that inspire students to take the lead and collaborate with each other as they further their knowledge and skills.”

What has the district done so far in this area, and how will things be changing in the future?
Future-ready learning spaces: So far, multiple classrooms throughout the district have been changed to “model classrooms,” with flexible seating, teamwork spaces and multiple points of presentation.

A 1:1 Chromebook initiative: All students in grades six through 12 now have a district-issued Chromebook. The shift to embed more technology into our curriculum gives students the opportunity to work independently and actually use technology as part of their learning. Not only is the use of technology exciting, it is encouraging group work, providing immediate feedback for teachers and giving students the ability to self-assess some topic areas when they are not in class so they know if they understand the curriculum.

Putting students at the center of their learning: Gone are the days of desks in rows and a teachers only lecturing at the front of the room. We are now in an era of learning where teachers act as guides and set students on a path toward taking charge of their own learning. The teacher is not a bystander, but rather a facilitator and resources as students explore topics in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Throughout the year, the district will be talking about these themes and will continue to update the community on the initiatives that are taking place in each area.

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