Northampton Schools’ TECH Center Restructuring To Help Struggling Students

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By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton County Public Schools plans to restructure its TECH Center, and it has nothing to do with computer labs or new technology.

TECH stands for Teach Every Child Holistically and refers to Northampton’s alternative education program for students with social-emotional and academic issues that are best resolved outside of a traditional classroom setting.

A TECH committee was formed in February, which includes school board members, school administrators, teachers, and a school psychologist.

The committee was tasked with writing a strategic plan establishing the TECH program’s purpose and goals, student eligibility guidelines, educational delivery format and curriculum, and an organizational chart of TECH Center staff and job descriptions.

Northampton Middle School Principal Ron Yorko explained the primary goals of the program: 

  • To fulfill students’ educational and social-emotional needs and transition them back into the regular educational environment after a designated period.
  • To provide each student with an individualized education plan or IEP including items such as a daily schedule, weekly and monthly goals, and a reward system for positive behaviors.
  • To strengthen community partnerships and form a teamwork approach to meet students’ needs.

Among the TECH Center’s objectives is getting students back on track to graduate on time by completing course credits they may lack due to missing class while suspended, for example.

TECH Center students will receive counseling and learn how to make good choices. TECH Center staff will implement trauma-informed strategies such as conscious discipline and restorative justice communication techniques.

“The most important step, for me, I believe, is the trauma-informed strategies process. Trauma, for our kids, can be anything from neglect, abuse, or simply witnessing violence,” explained middle school science teacher Laura Lembke.

Neurobiology (the study of the brain and nervous system) shows that “those kids … struggle to learn” and “cannot learn until they learn to feel that they are safe, they are known, and they are cared for,” she said.

Kids who have experienced trauma are prone to inappropriate social interactions and have difficulty with self-regulation. They struggle with negative thinking, are constantly on “high alert,” and have a hard time trusting adults.

“So you have to understand that in order to be able to reach these kids and get them through this program and get them the education that they need,” Lembke said.

Conscious discipline is a social-emotional learning strategy that emphasizes behavior modeling and problem solving rather than punishments for bad behavior.  

The term “restorative justice” originated in the criminal justice community but is also used in education. It emphasizes repairing broken relationships between offenders and victims.

Typically, a meeting is arranged between an offender and victim, which is mediated by another party, and the offender will apologize and make restitution for any harm caused to the victim.

Through these communication strategies “we are able to build a community within that (school) building and strengthen those relationships. It’s … proven time and time again, when we feel part of a supportive community, we respond … and we become accountable for our actions on a daily basis,” Lembke said.

TECH Center students will receive small-group instruction, which works better for students who get “easily distracted” in large groups, explained teacher Charles Kellam.

The TECH Center curriculum will be adopted from Northampton’s high and middle school curriculum so TECH Center students have a smooth transition when they return to the regular educational setting.

A team will provide monthly case management for each student to ensure academic and social-emotional goals are being met as outlined in the student’s IEP.

(Superintendent Eddie Lawrence later recommended using a term such as “student success plan” instead of IEP so students do not feel like they are being labeled as “special needs” and are discouraged from participating in the TECH program.)

“Every child is an individual. … sometimes we want to lump these kids together. You can’t do that,” Kellam said.

He emphasized the importance of counseling. “These kids need somebody to talk to because they’ve got things going on with them sometime that we don’t know about,” which teachers should know.

“Most of them, if you can just talk to them, sometime you can get through to them,” Kellam said.

He also emphasized the social aspect of the program. Students who come to the TECH Center typically “don’t work well together with other kids,” and the staff’s job is “preparing them for the outside world. We’re preparing them for life after the TECH Center, after high school.”

Students in need of social-emotional and behavioral supports will be eligible for the TECH program; a student will not qualify on truancy alone. The student’s social, emotional, and behavioral needs must align with the program.

An example of a student who might qualify is one who has received a long-term suspension.

A student may be placed in the TECH program by the school board during a discipline hearing. It should be demonstrated that an alternative education plan is needed for the student.

Following the presentation, Lawrence weighed in. The TECH Center was a “shining star” in Northampton County but that changed over the years, perhaps due to other priorities or budgeting issues, he said.

Reverting the TECH Center to a more comprehensive program will help students with multiple educational issues and could help improve overall attendance and graduation rates over time, Lawrence suggested.

Yorko noted the school board was not expected to make an immediate decision on the proposal, which would be implemented over the course of one or two years, and more changes are being planned, with a full revision of the TECH Center being completed in three to five years.

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