Think Tank Altoona school district

Altoona school district special education teacher Raija Christoffeo works Friday in the Think Tank room, a space students go when they’re having behavioral issues.

Three years ago, many of Altoona special education teacher Melisa Martin’s days were spent dealing with one adverse student behavior incident after another.

During the 2015-16 school year, district data showed more than 200 incidents in which students’ behavior warranted instances of seclusion or restraint. At the time, that meant removing students from their classroom — and their learning — and sending them to the office.

“I remember there were days where I was thinking ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore,’” Martin recalled. “It was just constant.”

But thanks to a district initiative to develop alternative learning environments for students struggling with behavioral issues in class that launched in 2016, those instances have decreased significantly while student achievement has improved.

“The whole idea is that we want (students) in class and we want them engaged,” Martin said. “We need to meet them where they’re at in order to make them more successful in school. And it feels like we’re doing that now.”

Because of that effort, called the Think Tank program, the Altoona school district recently earned a first-place Magna Award for Equity through the American School Board Journal. The district was one of 18 across the nation — and the only in Wisconsin — to earn the distinction, which recognizes school programs that break down barriers for under-served students, according to a news release from the National School Boards Association.

Acting Altoona schools Superintendent Ron Walsh said he nominated the district for the award because he was immediately struck by the Think Tank program and how it appeared to directly correlate with increased student achievement since he joined the district in July.

“I’ve been around school districts for 40 years and you notice when things are good,” Walsh said, crediting the school board for its leadership, as well as the district’s “strong and energetic” administration and staff. “This is a very significant thing to achieve. I’m really proud of the schools and this is a great feather in our cap.”

Developing the Think Tank

Alan McCutcheon, the district’s director of special education and pupil services, said the Think Tank program was born from conversations about the high level of intense behavior response, which was “very taxing” on school counselors, teachers and principals.

At that time, when a student was having a behavioral difficulty, staff would have to stop whatever they were doing — whether they were a support teacher working with a small group of special education students or the general education teacher would have to stop their lesson entirely — and they’d bring the student to the office.

Not only was that difficult for staff and teachers, McCutcheon said, but it was also detrimental to students because they were removed from the material they were learning in class and brought down to the office, which wasn’t a good environment for them to get through whatever difficulty they were experiencing.

“We realized we weren’t being effective in being able to calm those students down,” McCutcheon said.

So, McCutcheon decided it was time to re-evaluate how the district was approaching the behaviors and started a district team — comprised of a variety of staff members — to create a better solution.

“We realized, you know, we have students who struggle with mental illness and other traumas; we have students with disabilities — we couldn’t change that,” McCutcheon said. “But we could change how we react to that. So we decided to focus on being proactive rather than reactive.”

After researching what other schools do, the team came up with the concept of a room that was constantly staffed and where students could have space to deal with their feelings when they’re on the verge of a behavioral incident and, eventually, return to the classroom with less disruption to learning for the student experiencing difficulties as well as the students around them.

At the time, the district was undergoing referendum remodeling in the district’s intermediate and middle schools, so the team was able to include the room in those plans.

Thus, the Think Tank was born.

A ‘striking’ difference

The program is now available to students with behavior intervention plans any time they need or any time a teacher sends them. There, students can choose to work on academic work at tables or desks scattered throughout the room. Students can also choose to calm down either alone or with a teacher in a smaller separate room that is attached to the larger classroom.

Students with behavior intervention plans include those in special education and those with mental health issues or trauma.

The success of the program has been overwhelming, McCutcheon said, noting the district has expanded the program to the elementary-level with the Academic Behavior Center, better known as “the ABC room.”

The 2016-17 academic year saw 143 incidents — down from 205 the previous school year — then just 22 incidents in the 2017-18 school year, district data shows.

At the same time, the district’s state report cards over the years shows student achievement increasing.

In the 2015-16 year, Altoona Intermediate School received an overall report card score of 66.1, or meets expectation, from the state Department of Instruction. Two years later, in the 2017-18 academic year, the school received a score of 83.1, or significantly exceeds expectations.

“There are certainly a lot of other (factors) going into it, but this strikes me,” Walsh said of the data. “We believe (the Think Tank) is the largest factor.”

The improvement is not only felt in student achievement data. Martin said the program has made a noticeable difference in her own classroom.

“It’s like I always say — I feel like I get to teach now,” Martin said. “Before, you were always trying to put out the fire as it was occurring rather than having a place to prevent the fire of a behavioral issue. This is working.”

Though the award is nice recognition for the initiative and the district, McCutcheon said what matters to him most are his students and staff.

“The biggest joy I get is knowing that we’re improving in that area and that students and staff feel safer and like more learning is happening,” McCutcheon said. “That makes it worth all the work.”

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