Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Turning Around a Minnesota School At-Risk: Dayton's Bluff Elementary


Jennifer McComas is associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota.

The article was authored in collaboration with Von Sheppard, principal at Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Walking through the school building today, it is hard to believe that in 2000 Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School was rated among the worst elementary schools in the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) district. Blatant disrespect toward adults and aggression toward peers was rampant, and chaos ruled the hallways and classrooms. Test scores at Dayton’s Bluff were the lowest in the district and teacher morale was so low that on any given day up to 80% of the teaching staff might call in sick. The school is located in an extremely impoverished neighborhood in the capitol city of Minnesota. Over 90% of the student population (365 students, grades K-6) qualifies for free or reduced price meals because their family income is near or below the federal poverty standard. Affordable housing in the city is scarce and the large contingent of low-income families is highly mobile, perpetually searching for cheaper housing. Such mobility means that nearly 50% of the students do not attend the same school for the full school year. This staggering level of poverty and mobility, coupled with the lack of teacher stability, necessary instructional control, and effective behavior management put essentially the entire student population at risk for developing emotional or behavioral disorders.

During the summer of 2001, the district redesigned the school by replacing the principal, other building administrators, and about 80% of the teachers. The school building was rejuvenated and an array of student- and family-centered support services were aligned and located in the school. Within just two years, students worked collaboratively in classrooms, and greeted each other with smiles and handshakes and the teachers and administrators with hugs. Dayton’s Bluff students, as a whole, showed the largest year-to-year gains in the district. Today, teachers not only come to work every day, but they arrive early and stay late, pouring their energy into creating a fun and rigorous learning environment where respect for all is evident everywhere.

In addition to the structural and personnel changes, a combination of fundamental components aimed at programming for student academic and social, emotional, and behavioral success was implemented to bring about the astounding transformation. These components include:

  • Use of the Responsive Classroom® model, an approach that brings together social and academic learning and “fosters safe, challenging, and joyful classrooms and schools”.
  • Collaboration between regular and special education staff.
  • Positive relationships between adults and students.
  • A common language and ethic throughout the school of equity, justice, and success for every student.

Adoption of the Responsive Classroom® principles throughout the entire school, including in the special education classes, is reportedly responsible for a large portion of the transformation. The Responsive Classroom® model provides a structure that helps children learn social skills along with academic content. The day begins with the Morning Meeting during which the children sit in a circle to hear a message about the day’s events or topics of study and they hold an informal conversation in which everyone participates. A set of rules for behavior is posted in every room and hallway along with the systematic and universal steps for regaining self-control and turning around problem behavior. The seven steps consist of a series of consequences for misbehavior that systematically escalate in severity from “take a break,” to “fix it” plans, to dismissal from school. The consistency with which the system is implemented by every adult in the school is remarkable. It has produced demonstrable changes in student behavior and conduct, with students taking responsibility for their behavior, and dismissal from school a rarity. The model also involves “buddy classrooms.” Experienced teachers are typically paired with less-experienced teachers. Teachers work together to assess and reflect on their performance and provide each other with constructive feedback regarding their interactions with students. For example, if a teacher experiences frequent conflict with a particular student, the teacher’s buddy teacher might observe the teacher and point out the types of behaviors the teacher exhibits that reliably precede the student’s outbursts. Then the two teachers work together to identify alternative strategies for interacting with the student and monitor progress in terms of reducing conflict and strengthening the relationship between the teacher and student.

This transformation has positively affected the entire student body at Dayton’s Bluff, including students identified as having an emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD). All staff members in the school receive intensive training in the principles and procedures associated with the Responsive Classroom® model. “Collaboration is key to our teachers finding creative ways to grow at their craft and help our students exceed the standards” says Von Sheppard, principal of Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School. The EBD teacher collaborates with regular education teachers who teach students on her caseload, and she co-teaches in regular education classrooms. The uniformly high expectations for academic performance and standards of behavior are held for all students, regardless of whether they are identified as having EBD. Students with EBD have responded with the same academic and behavioral improvements demonstrated by the general student population. The common policies and procedures used across regular and special education classrooms promote academic and behavioral success for all students.

The importance of social skills instruction is equal to that of academic success for all students. The academic success that regular and special education students at Dayton’s Bluff experience is largely a product of the individualized instruction all students receive. Individualized assessments are conducted with each student to determine the specific instructional needs of each across the content areas. Instruction in reading, writing, and math is conducted in “workshop” style that involves a “mini-lesson” of approximately 5-10 minutes followed by a period of time during which students receive guided practice and feedback on applications of the mini-lesson. Data are regularly collected and analyzed to determine students’ growth and to identify areas in need of individualized instructional strategies. Students with EBD respond particularly well to the brief instructional periods followed by opportunities to practice what they’ve learned and experience success in school.

The common language of respect that is spoken throughout the entire school, with the same high expectations for academic performance and pro-social behavior held for all students, demonstrates a cohesiveness that contributes to the success of all students in the school. All students experience the same consequences for misbehavior, including those students who have a history of significant behavioral problems in school, and all students are provided multiple opportunities to correct their own behavior within the systematized program. Rob O’Hara-Graff, an EBD teacher who joined the staff this year, explains, “Our students who have low esteem and/or make poor choices have a chance to see fairness in how everyone is treated alike, that they will not be condemned for making a mistake, and will be encouraged to succeed by everyone.” Mr. O’Hara-Graff has also commented that the first thing he noticed at Dayton’s Bluff was the common language throughout the building. He finds that the consistent joint efforts between regular and special education staff represent a strong united front in the development of appropriate behavior of all students.

The equity and fairness that is a hallmark of the Responsive Classroom® model contributes to the development of positive relationships between students and staff. The high level of consistency with which the staff members implement the program builds trusting relationships between students and adults in the building. It is much more common for students to be sent to the principal’s office to read something they’ve written or share an accomplishment in math than to face disciplinary action. When disciplinary action is necessary, the staff members approach the problem as a partner with the student to understand and solve the problem rather than as heavy-handed, controlling, punitive authority figures. This approach promotes mutual respect, responsibility, and pride, and reduces the incidence of learned helplessness.

Strong leadership from the principal and ample opportunities for professional development are also critical elements for the type of widespread success observed at Dayton’s Bluff. The principal holds high expectations for teacher performance and provides constant guidance and feedback for effective implementation of the essential components of the program. Teachers are provided with intensive training as well as ongoing “booster” sessions tailored to their individual needs. The model is working so well that most students, including students with the most severe EBD, are experiencing academic success and are able to turn their behavior around within one or two opportunities to regain control. Given the focus on teaching social skills along with academics, and the resultant improvements observed, there is every reason to believe that these students will stand alongside their regular education peers in leading productive, successful lives.

The transformation at Dayton’s Bluff provides a ray of hope for promoting academic and behavioral success for a large population of students at risk for developing, and identified with, EBD. The investment in “people-power” that prioritizes small class sizes and strong professional development programs over cutting-edge technology has resulted in successful primary and secondary prevention that supports the tertiary prevention resources provided by the district for students identified with EBD. The comprehensive, multi-dimensional program addresses needs across domains for all students, including those with EBD, increasing the likelihood that they will experience success in school, remain in school through graduation, and successfully transition into adulthood.