The STEP Program at Schools for Children
A fourth-grader is caught selling drugs in school. A first-grader brings a jack-knife in her lunch box. A high-school sophomore talks of suicide. A middle-school student bullies others, creating a tense situation within the school community. When children and young adults are in crisis, they often behave in ways that affect the entire school community. School systems are required to take action to serve that student as well as to preserve the safety of others.
The Education Challenge
In 2001 special education liaisons from the Cambridge Public Schools encouraged Schools for Children to address the needs of students who were excluded from school for a relatively short period of time. Many schools use suspension and expulsion as approaches to keeping students safe, but these approaches often don't address the suspended student's needs. State law also requires schools to give special consideration to the needs of children on individualized educational plans (IEPs).
The Schools for Children Solution
The Schools for Children management team and board of trustees had many questions. Would it be feasible to offer a 45-day educational program? What would such a program look like? Could we locate proper space? How could it be staffed and structured? Would it serve students effectively? Could it be cost-effective?
We surveyed area special education leaders and explored the need for short-term services. Special educators affirmed their desire to remove these students from school when necessary, yet wanted to support them and provide appropriate educational services while they were away. The results were clear and spoke in favor of Schools for Children developing a unique program to provide short-term emergency support for students.
We begin by developing a pilot program for high-school students. We designed a staffing pattern and found and developed appropriate space that could work well for kids and staff. Our experts at Dearborn Academy devised a unique approach that would integrate academic supports with therapy and assessment to meet student needs—and work well in the 45 days we had for each student.
In September 2002, the Short-Term Educational Placement (STEP) Program was launched. Local school systems immediately reserved more than 75 percent of the available spots we could offer, and STEP quickly became a highly desirable program.
The Program in Action
Today STEP meets the needs of students that have been displaced from their schools for health, behavioral and other reasons. It's a useful and supportive way to remove students from an emotional crisis or conflict, and give everybody a chance to step back and assess the situation.
Every student in our care continues to attend classes, during this critical 45-day period. We work closely with each student's home school to make sure their academic work at STEP connects with their school's curriculum and goals. We also evaluate and assess every student’s particular issues and challenges; sometimes, we uncover psychological stresses or learning challenges that may have gone unnoticed. We solve the problems we can, and we provide counseling, learning supports and therapy. Every student receives intensive support designed to put them back on track academically and overcome behavioral and emotional challenges.
STEP aims to give each student the tools and techniques they need to return to their public schools and be successful. Often, that includes rediscovering a sense of connection to others. A unique aspect of the STEP program is a community service component, which helps students express their feelings of compassion for others and improve their ability to work cooperatively. All students engage in community service work as part of their participation in STEP.
At the end of the 45-day period, STEP's students leave with an extensive educational assessment and diagnostic evaluation which provides families and the school district important tools for meeting future needs and making a successful transition from STEP back to their original school or to a more appropriate placement.
Three years after the 2002 launch of the program, Schools for Children expanded STEP to include students in elementary grades. STEP now offers two separate and distinct programs—an elementary/middle program and a high-school program.
STEP now serves approximately 18-20 school systems in the greater Boston/metro-west/north-shore area. We’ve gone from 15 high-school students who were at risk of dropping out to having served a total of more than 250 students of all ages in the eight years since. STEP is a success that serves its students extremely well and we expect this program to continue grow and to be copied by others.