BELOIT - "The complex child who comes to us with issues is trying to tell us something," said School District of Beloit Superintendent Tom Johnson. "Adults need to be willing to step back and determine what is causing the child's behavior."
Johnson said students in poverty may suffer from a lack of nutrition, clothing, supervision out of school, self-confidence and, sometimes, vocabulary. Some of them may also be in trauma.
(Johnson was placed on administrative leave last week. This interview occurred earlier.)
Johnson said improving discipline and academic performance in a high-poverty community such as Beloit will require the district to address early literacy intervention and quality mental health programming and the community to wage a war on poverty.
"For the amount of challenges we face in our community, we need to keep the candle burning and realize there is light at the end of the tunnel as long as everybody works together," Johnson said.
In addition to a new district-wide birth to age 3 literacy initiative being launched, the district is continuing to expand its volunteer program and tutoring services by enlisting retired teachers, business people and private citizens to help.
"We continue to partner with almost every social service agency in the region and are thankful for the support of agencies such Community Action Inc. and Family Services," Johnson added.
To keep kids in school, the district has expanded its expulsion and alternative to suspension programs. Johnson said there are times when expulsion is necessary. However, he said kids who are expelled or in out-of-school suspension often end up causing issues in the streets of Beloit.
Historically, Johnson said the expulsion program for kids who continue to receive services has been from 3-6 p.m. at the Beloit Learning Academy (BLA). This year, the district partnered with Community Action Inc. at the Merrill Community Center where students will be attending with a certified teacher for the majority of the day.
"This will keep kids occupied, still learning and off the streets," he said.
The Merrill Community Center can also house students who are suspended.
"They are removed from their home school but they would be sent to Merrill Community Center to get instruction so a suspension isn't a free day off," he said.
When asked about more students being assigned to the district's alternative school, BLA, in light of staff complaints about discipline issues boiling over in some classrooms, Johnson said BLA is sufficiently utilized with about 200 students. As BLA deals with intermediate and high school students, Johnson said he would be hesitant to have an alternative school for younger students.
He did note younger kids in severe levels of stress can be sent to the Richardson School. Currently, only a few students attend the Richardson School.
The school district also is increasing its number of trauma-informed classrooms and mental health resources for students to help children who may be struggling.
The district has partnered with Hope Family Counseling Services to provide mental health services to students with significant disability-related needs at Todd, Fruzen and McNeel intermediate schools. Johnson said 138 staff members have been trained in trauma-informed classrooms. Six staff members became trainer of trainers so that trauma training can be expanded into whole school environments.
An additional licensed mental health provider at the mental health counseling clinic run by Beloit Health System at Beloit Memorial High School also has been added.
Services for students with significant behavior disabilities have been expanded from three to four schools, and the district has also implemented a collaborative program with Rock County Crisis to divert youth from the juvenile justice system.