As a 9th grade counselor at St. Louis Park Senior High School in suburban Minneapolis, Angie Jerabek was jarred by the 45 percent failure rate posted by the school’s freshmen in 1998. She responded to the challenge by developing a structured, tag-team approach called Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR) that cut her school’s 9th grade failure rates in half. It also more than doubled the number of students choosing to take rigorous Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes over the past 14 years. St. Louis Park—a diverse school of about 1,300 students with about one-third of them low income—additionally credits significant decreases in truancy and discipline problems to BARR.
In 2010, ED awarded a $5 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to fund BARR’s expansion to 10th-12th grades at St. Louis Park, and to 9th grades at three high schools in Maine and California. The grantee is the Search Institute, the long-time training and technical assistance collaborator with BARR. Another partner is College Possible, a nonprofit that employs AmeriCorps members to help low-income students get into college and succeed there through intensive coaching.
I visited St. Louis Park earlier this month to learn firsthand about this innovative program and had the opportunity to talk with Jerabek and others. The premise is simple. Currently, teams of 9th-grade teachers, counselors, social workers and others are assigned “blocks” of freshmen. They regularly collaborate to discuss individual students’ progress, identify challenges and prescribe interventions as needed. All team members are responsible for the overall progress of all students in their blocks.
“High school teachers tend to work in silos,” said Jerabek, now the i3 BARR Innovation Project Director for the Search Institute.
“We have a different mindset here. We’re teaching people, not math,” said St. Louis Park Principal Robert Metz, a former elementary school principal. He sees correlations between the strong teacher-student relationships typically developed in primary grades and the connections that BARR builds in high schools.
The team concept itself isn’t new to all high school teachers, and “some arrive at St. Louis Park jaded by other districts’ efforts,” said Justin Barbeau, a veteran teacher who is now St. Louis Park Public Schools’ i3 coordinator.
“The difference here is the structure,” said Barbeau. “Not all teachers are good at making or leveraging relationships. BARR provides training and clear steps that make this work.” The i3 funding expands that training to St. Louis Park’s teachers who work with 10th – through 12th-grade students. It also includes scaling up the program for 9th grade teachers and students in Bucksport and Sanford, Maine and Hemet, Calif. schools. Ten new positions have been created at St. Louis Park as a result of i3 funding, and it’s supporting four new jobs at the Maine and California schools.
The individualized attention afforded students through the BARR approach also makes strong impressions on parents—critical partners in the program’s success. “A mom—new to St. Louis Park – raved about a call she’d gotten from a teacher,” said Brad Brubaker, a teacher helping to lead the 10th grade transition. “The teacher just wanted the mom to know that her daughter was doing really well in all of her classes. This mother had never gotten a call like that from a teacher before.”
Julie Ewart, Office of Communications and Outreach, Great Lakes Region