Over the last four calendar school years the number of students being suspended by Battle Ground High School has dropped more than 50 percent.
During the 2012-13 school year 387 students were suspended, compared to only 145 during the 2015-16 school year.
BGHS Principal Mike Hamilton points at a number of different elements that has led to a more positive culture in the high school. He said it is a product of all the district cogs operating in unison and making student engagement and relationships a priority.
Led by Superintendent Mark Hottowe (who retires this summer) and the school board, social emotional learning became a focus and the rest of the district staff was quick to get on board.
All of this started coming into play about three years ago when the district secured a $2.5 million portion of a federal grant that then President Barack Obama had put together in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where 20 children and six staff members were killed in December of 2012.
Although all districts had needs, the district’s director of social-emotional learning Sandy Mathewson said Battle Ground had a motivated team and a “readiness” to bring change with the funding, which helped them secure it.
Through the grant, the district was able to move forward with a number of programs focused on student engagement and culture, including about three years ago the implementation of the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program, which Mathewson describes as a “multi-tiered system of support for kids.” At the high school level this involves input from both the staff and student body. This had led to Battle Ground High School now having a number of programs in place that award student involvement and promote leadership.
One of the direct impacts and intents of PBIS is reduction in suspensions. It seems to be working well.
Specifically to the high school, Hamilton said there was an overhaul of how staff engage with students and give instructions. He said the staff has been “incredible” and are largely responsible for the drastic shift in recent years.
“I would point to an awesome staff we have here, who take student success and engagement very seriously,” Hamilton said, adding academic success relates directly to student engagement and the culture they’re in.
“The more we connect students to their learning and have them find a place where they belong and are safe, we’re going to find that the students are more successful academically, and as they find more success academically, some of that misbehavior, that misconduct, decreases,” he said.
The shift has also been a matter of awareness by district staff and the community. Hamilton said they’ve made a point to familiarize the staff with adverse childhood experiences studies and have worked with Connect Battle Ground and the programs they have. One example is “Teach One to Lead One,” which trains local mentors and connects them with students. The entire BGHS staff is trained in youth mental health first-aid, as well.
One of the primary ways the high school is fighting back against drug and alcohol abuse is with their PI Services, where they bring in specialists to help combat addiction and prevent relapse among students who’ve used in the past.
“We’re able to give targeted council and support in their recovering,” Hamilton said.
Funding from the grant has also allowed the school to bring in a psychologist three times a week.
Hamilton said the drop in suspensions is a trend that can be seen all across the U.S. in the last 10 years as educators have begun putting more of a focus on keeping the students in school, and not being so quick to isolate them. Now the focus is putting preventive methods in place by finding ways to keep students engaged and securing a positive environment.
Mathewson was quick to echo much of Hamilton's praise for the staff and leadership from the district.
“When you focus this way as a district, and a building, and a classroom, and you get these things into place, what the research bares out is that you’re going to get a reduction in suspensions and expulsions and you’re going to see an increase in attendance, graduation and test scores,” Mathewson said, adding the results are a product of all the pieces coming together, and although it’s a complicated systemic implementation process, they’ve made it work.
“It’s remarkable what you can do when people collaborate and you have the most amazing staff in the state of Washington,” Mathewson said. “This is the most caring community of people and they genuinely care about the children. I’ll just keep coming back to this: our teachers in that building are amazing”
She also pointed to Hamilton’s time as principal of Kalama High School where he went through the process of implementing similar programs.
“He really gets it,” she said.