Absarokee School District awarded more than $1.3m in grants

Thursday, July 2, 2020
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Absarokee School District has received a $1.3 million grant that will be used to address both trauma-experienced students and high achieving students.

These two groups are the most neglected due to the small size of the schools, according to English high school teacher, Heidi Gunderson who wrote the grant.

The Montana Comprehensive Literacy State Development Project (MCLSDP) awarded 31 sub-grants to eligible school districts for the purpose of increasing literacy skills through evidence-based practices with a focus on disadvantaged students.

The five-year grant will go into affect at the end of July, and by September, the district must use $150,000.    

“Until I started writing and researching, I didn’t realize how badly we needed the grant,” Gunderson said.

Approximately 70 percent of kids in the Absarokee School District have been exposed to trauma, making trauma-informed care vital to each classroom.

Trauma in children can come from losing a loved one such as a parent, watching their parents separate or divorce or living in a home in which there is drug and alcohol abuse.

Gunderson suggested there might be more students struggling with emotional trauma in the fall after the stay at home order forced kids to isolate within a potentially harmful household.

The first $150,000 will go towards the salaries of a child and family therapist as well as a behavioral specialist.

The therapist will be available to all students, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, without any cost to the families. Students will be permitted up to three visits before parental permission is required.

The behavioral specialist has been selected from within the Absarokee school family.

Anna Donohoe, a part-time special education teacher for the elementary school, has worked with other school districts on behavioral challenges and has a consultation business of her own.

Donohoe will have the opportunity to work with children from “birth to pre-school to evaluate any child that may need additional support prior to kindergarten,” according to the grant overview.

The district hopes to offer more intensive therapy and instruction for children long before they start kindergarten, according to Superintendent Meredith Feddes.

Additional DIAL-4 testing will be available, which is a developmental screening test for young children to identify who would benefit from additional assistance.    

“Once identified, these children can receive early intervention and work with teachers and counselors to minimize gaps in early education,” Feddes said.

Feddes is also on the hunt for a literacy coach to help implement the new practices and curriculum that align with Montana standards.

The literacy coach will be responsible for ensuring that staff is providing differentiated instruction for the high and low achieving students.

They will also have the opportunity to work with the district’s daycare and preschool providers to ensure the literacy curriculum adequately orients children with the state’s standards.

But to make this all possible, teachers must undergo specific trauma-sensitivity training - a key component of the grant.

Shawna Heiser, a behavioral and applied psychology professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, will provide trauma training for teachers to help them adjust the classroom for at risk students.

Over the course of the five-year grant, Heiser will meet with teachers for 10 training days. The first will take place before Sept. 30.

Gunderson said that the grant will benefit at least 50 percent of the students in the Absarokee School District.

“I wrote this grant because I believe in each one of our students. They deserve the best resources and the best access to services,” Gunderson said. “I hope it inspires each student to know that every teacher and staff member in the district believes in them.”

Absarokee has also received a PAX Exemplar District Grant.

The district already implements the PAX Good Behavior Game in the elementary school and they plan to expand the program into junior high and high school.

The PAX Good Behavior Game is a trauma-informed method of teaching and works to prevent re-traumatization of children though consistent positive reinforcement.

Feddes explained that a harmonica is used to get the attention of the class, rather than yelling, in order to emphasize positive behavior and communication.

“There has been a decrease in behavioral referrals through the program,” Feddes said.

The students entering junior high have grown up with the Good Behavior Game in the classroom and already know what to expect.