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VCU School of Education, Richmond Public Schools team up to boost student success at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School

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The VCU School of Education and Richmond Public Schools have launched an innovative partnership to work together to improve student performance in academics at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

“Our goal, over the long term, is to increase student success on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests in the four major content areas — English, mathematics, science and social studies,” said Diane Simon, Ph.D., senior associate dean for student affairs and a professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education at the VCU School of Education.

The collaboration, known as the MLK Jr. Collaborative Intervention Project, grew out of a survey in the spring by the Virginia Department of Education called “College/University Partnerships with Challenged Schools,” which sought to determine the capacity of Virginia’s colleges and universities to help boost student performance at some of the state’s most challenged schools.

Over the summer, Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Dana Bedden, Ed.D., reached out to VCU School of Education Dean Andrew Daire, Ph.D., to ask if VCU might be able to lend its expertise to help MLK Middle School. 

It is an innovative project with the potential to benefit the schools, children and families in our community.

“This partnership is an opportunity for VCU faculty, staff and students to partner with RPS to find creative effective solutions that address identified needs,” said Mary Ellen Huennekens, Ph.D., director of the MLK Jr. Collaborative Intervention Project and an assistant professor in the School of Education. “It is an innovative project with the potential to benefit the schools, children and families in our community. At the same time, this is an opportunity to advance research that addresses community needs. Schools' challenges are communities’ challenges and I am particularly excited about the opportunity VCU has to have a meaningful impact in our local community.” 

The overarching goals for this project are to strengthen the instructional program based on addressing students’ academic, social and emotional needs; strengthen teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills; and provide technical assistance, which will lead teachers and administrators through a process of using specific student data to guide instruction for continuous improvement. VCU will also partner with MLK Middle School to bolster family and community engagement efforts. 

As part of the partnership, VCU School of Education faculty members and MLK Middle School teachers will form “professional learning communities” focusing on each of the four content areas. The VCU education professors will collaborate with teachers to enhance their knowledge in content areas that will be assessed on the SOLs, and enhance their knowledge of the best strategies for teaching that particular content to students.

“This partnership demonstrates a commitment to engaging students and families in both the school and community in an effort to strengthen relationships and meet their needs in order to improve student outcomes,” said Andrea Kane, Ph.D., associate superintendent of academic services at RPS. “We find value in determining root causes for our academic challenges, addressing the things that we can control, and enlisting our partners to assist in addressing those factors that impact learning, but may not be within the control of the school system.”   

Additionally, the VCU faculty members will share the latest research on how to infuse trauma-informed care in the classroom, a concept already adopted by RPS. According to The National Child Trauma Stress Network, one out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can impact learning or behavior. Students may be dealing with trauma brought on by poverty, loss of a loved one, abuse or troubles at home or in the community.   

“Trauma-informed care employs a variety of approaches in working with children exposed to traumatic events or conditions and has considerable benefits for children and their families, including reductions in children’s behavior problems and post-traumatic stress,” Simon said. “This training will help [the teachers] better understand how to recognize when a student may be experiencing crisis or trauma in his or her life, and how to de-escalate the behavior and get them ready to learn. If teachers are aware of helpful strategies, they are better able to support children. And when children can form safe, trusting relationships with adults, they can come to school ready to learn.”  

Work on the project started in July, and a number of organizational and planning meetings have been held since then. A formal kickoff for the collaboration is planned for December.

“We have met with the leadership team at MLK and agreed upon the goals and purposes of the professional learning communities and we have a shared vision for the project. It’s been a true partnership,” Simon said. “Dean Daire and our faculty are excited about the potential for this partnership. It is a wonderful opportunity for the School of Education to support MLK Jr. Middle School and have a positive impact on the lives of children in our community.” 

The VCU faculty members are also preparing to convene focus groups of MLK teachers, students, parents and administrators to assess the school’s needs. VCU doctoral students interested in trauma-informed care and supporting challenged schools will also be working on the project.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 225 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Seventy-nine of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. The VCU Health brand represents the health sciences schools of VCU, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.