City Grant for Tacoma Whole Child Initiative to Help Kids Face Social, Emotional Challenges

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A $404,000 grant from the City of Tacoma will give a major boost to the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative(TWCI), a program that transforms schools by creating safe, positive, engaging, equitable and effective learning environments to help all kids succeed. An additional $135,500 grant was provided to a community partner that is helping implement the program in the district’s elementary schools.

“The City of Tacoma grant funds will be essential to ensure that the social-emotional needs of all Tacoma students are understood and met from kindergarten through 12th grade by investing in a new screening process to identify students who need extra attention,” said Josh Garcia, deputy superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools.

The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative is a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the University of Washington Tacoma to implement a comprehensive district-wide system of social, emotional and behavioral supports based on techniques proven to work through university research and best practices. The city’s grant adds a component to help identify and support kids who may be experiencing social or emotional crisis — before their symptoms lead to trouble.

“We are thrilled to have the city enter this partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the University of Washington Tacoma by providing this grant. This is a fabulous way for Tacoma as a whole to help us move the needle on helping kids succeed in school and in life,” Garcia said.

So far, 27 schools in the district have adopted the first phase of TWCI, which provides training to get an entire school — from teachers and students to principals and bus drivers — on the same page about what positive and respectful behavior looks like, how to celebrate it, and how adults can reward it by “catching kids” doing good things. All 57 Tacoma schools will receive the training to implement the program within the next few years. The ultimate benefit is that teachers have more time to teach, rather the spending precious class time handling disruptions for behavior issues. The end result is improved student academic success.

“Students feel safe. They feel welcome. They are ready to learn. The ultimate benefit is that teachers have more time to teach. This reduces their stress and everyone does better,” said Greg Benner, UW Tacoma professor of education and executive director of the Center for Strong Schools.

The city grant adds a new mental-health screening and support component that will be integrated into 13 schools this year. These schools are among the first cohort to fully adopt the TWCI program. Another 14 schools will integrate the screening and support program next year with plans to expand it to all the schools.

“This innovative approach — to support students’ social-emotional learning — is groundbreaking,” said Jennifer Kubista, director of student life for Tacoma Public Schools. “Many schools have adopted these programs on a more limited scale, so there’s plenty of evidence to show it works. But with our scope, we will be a national leader.”

The grant, which was recommended through an application process managed by the city’s Human Services Division and approved by the City Council on December 2, provides teachers with tools to do a subtle form of mental health screening three times a year. The screening process is backed by a database that brings together school attendance and disciplinary history. When the pieces are pulled together they can help identify individual students who may be experiencing crisis in their lives so they can get the help they need before their situation gets worse. 

“A kid might be experiencing crisis and nobody knows about it. Often we see the aftermath in failing grades or emotional outbursts, and people ask, ‘Why didn’t the school know?’ We want to know if the kid is really struggling so we can get them the help they need ASAP,” Benner said.

For those identified as needing a helping hand, the grant supports in-school mental health interventions, including the expansion of availability of the “Social Skills Group Intervention” program already operating successfully in some elementary schools through a local agency called Comprehensive Life Resources, which received a separate $135,500 grant from the city to expand its working collaboration with TWCI. A program called “RENEW” (Rehabilitation for Empowerment, Natural Supports, Education and Work) will be implemented to support middle and high school students. These programs help students with coping mechanisms and making good decisions. RENEW helps students think about how school affects their future as part of a school-based wrap-around support services program.

“Teachers need to understand and build relationships with the kids they work with. Not identifying social-emotional needs could lead to challenges, including melting down and falling apart, or even violence,” Benner said. “There are very reliable screening tools. The one we select will be efficient and reliable. We don’t want to miss kids, or identify those who are not in need.”

There is a start-up period when Benner and his colleagues in the Tacoma schools will determine the appropriate screening tool, implement a training program, and develop the data infrastructure that will support the program. Once it’s ready to go, there will be a pilot test process. Teachers and administrators involved with the pilot will be asked how it’s working so improvements can be made. Part of the funding is then used to train the teachers and staff who will train everyone in the schools to use the new techniques.

“Teachers, principals and district staff are seeing the positive benefits of the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative,” Benner said. “The timing is great for this additional component of the program because they are hungry for more.”

One of the benefits of the initiative is that it helps address disciplinary problems. Early results show a dramatic drop in visits to the principal for behavior and expulsions. An important side benefit: the program appears to address the disproportionate effect of disciplinary proceedings involving students of color, which is a problem in urban school districts nationwide.

“Screening students is essential to understanding students’ social-emotional well-being,” Benner said. “Many students do not feel understood and we applaud the City of Tacoma for helping us ensure that we understand the social-emotional needs of every student and meet those needs.”

In addition to developing the program in collaboration with the school district, Benner is the lead trainer teaching district staff the techniques and practices that make the program work. 

Learn more about the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative.

Written by: 
UW Tacoma Staff / December 4, 2014
Media contact: 

 Mike Wark, External Relations, 253-692-5771 or