It takes a village



It takes a village

by Lorna McGillis

Please note: the original copy of this article has appeared in CPCO’s Principal Connections Fall 2016 issue.

Hurriedly, they passed through the main entrance and were ushered to an attentive staff member who took their vitals and then ushered them to a seat where they would wait to be called. Specialists, tests, investigative procedures, probes into family history, conferencing, sharing of data and diagnoses, all soon resulted in the development of a comprehensive plan created by a multi-disciplinary team of professionals. Was this triage and treatment at a hospital emergency department? No, it was the Case Conference of a high-needs student at one of our Catholic elementary schools.

In his strategies for constructive collaboration, Andy Hargreaves speaks of learning teams ensuring that they commit to doing somethings early together rather than just talking about things.

This statement played out before my eyes as I prepared the Case Conference for Marc, the high needs FDK student mentioned in the opening paragraph. As board, school and community team members filed through the office door, we needed additional chairs around our meeting table. With the student’s step-parent joining the group via a conference call, our meeting began. As the administrator and chair, I opened with prayer. We then turned to the teacher who shared an update of Marc’s strengths and needs in the classroom both academic and social. After the update, we formed an agenda referring one-by-one to the list of recommendations produced by Marc’s previous Case Conference held just one month before.

It takes a village. Safety first. 

These two simple, yet profound statements came to life as community agency liaisons took turns speaking of the tasks they had performed on behalf of our student. These included home visits to assess needs and develop supportive strategies in the area of parenting. The visits also triggered an application to Habitat Homes, which was prepared by agency staff on behalf of the family after staff witnessed unsafe living conditions.

A pediatric appointment, which had been requested and supported through a detailed letter of observed behaviours provided by the school administration, had resulted in four diagnoses for our student. Supporting documents were shared by the parent and treatment plans were discussed. A referral to psychiatry had been arranged and all required documents had been completed and submitted to access further community care supports on behalf of Marc and his family. As this comprehensive list of actions was shared, input was invited, heard and noted. From this rich discussion we evolved our task list for our next meeting, set a date to reconvene and marked our calendars.

Creating a collaborative culture in our buildings, our school boards and in our communities is vital for schools to be able to meet the complex needs of many of our students. All of this begins with assessing and addressing, not just a student’s learning needs, but also that of the whole child. And yes, this can mean that at times it does feel more like an emergency triage centre than a school office, but this is a sign of the times to be embraced. Hattie writes in 2009 of Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement in which he states, “Parents need to hold high aspirations and expectation for their children, and schools need to work in partnership with parents so that the home and the school can share in these expectations and support learning.” The trusting relationship between first the parent and second the school, as seen in this story of our FDK student Marc, is absolutely necessary as is the inclusion of our community partners, the third member to this platform of support.

There are however, challenges faced by schools and their community partners, as we seek to create collaborative cultures for students with complex needs.

Using the Case Conference for Marc as an example, all partners must be in agreement with the data collected and each must be able to see their role in how they can become involved in such a way to create forward momentum. Agreement about the data and the resulting forward momentum is not always the case. In addition, as this creative collaboration evolves, each of the three partners in our platform of support needs to see this as a fluid partnership, not a hierarchy. This can be difficult to manage as the investment of resources can often come with attached expectations that counter fluidity. Lastly, referring once again to the medical model of triage, there are wait lists.

The ministry has identified five Core Leadership Capacities (CLCs) that according to research are key to making progress in educational goals. Promoting Collaborative Learning Cultures is one of these and is defined as enabling schools, school communities and districts to work together to learn from each other with a central focus on improved teacher quality and student achievement and well-being.

I reflect upon the Triage/Case Conference for Marc. As administrators we need to foster this type of meeting, where the creation of a culture of collaboration is clearly displayed and lived out, because this is what our complex students need. These meetings and the participants embody the philosophy of collaboration and acknowledge the fact that the responsibility of teaching/learning and the well-being of the children in our care is embraced and supported by our ministry, school boards, communities and indeed central to all of this, our faith.

Lorna McGillis, Vice-principal
St. Anthony Catholic Elementary School, PVNC