Relationships key to Baylor, Waco ISD partnership

Baylor's Diana R. Garland School of Social Work (GSSW) and the Waco Independent School District (WISD) formed a multi-faceted partnership to help WISD students develop emotional resources that can lead to academic success through the BEAR Project.

BEAR stands for Be Emotionally Aware and Responsive, and its interns provide personalized attention to help students build skills that can help them stay in the classroom and learn.

“We're working with students, parents, teachers and administrators to be more emotionally responsive to one another to help focus on the social and emotional needs of WISD students," Carolyn Cole, BEAR Project manager and social work lecturer, said. "We place Master of Social Work (MSW) students in schools to work individually with students to help them develop behavior and emotional skills. Our goal is to help keep kids in the classroom where they can learn."

Baylor, Waco ISD PartnershipFour WISD elementary and middle schools participate in the BEAR Project, and each site has a BEAR Project intern embedded inside the school to work directly with students. The interns, all second-year MSW students, also work closely with teachers, administrators, counselors and other staff collaborating to keep all aware of needs and opportunities to build a better learning environment and help individual students.

"Academic and classroom performance follows helping our students get into a calm, alert state where they're ready to learn," said Wade Mackey, BA '09, a Baylor MSW student and BEAR Project intern at Wiley Opportunity Center. "We help students understand their behavior and grow toward being able to self-regulate their behavior, so that they can be ready to learn in the classroom."

In addition to Wiley Opportunity Center, Waco's Carver Middle School, Brooke Elementary and West Avenue Elementary Schools participate in the BEAR Project. All schools involved serve many students living in poverty, who face different struggles and needs. Wiley is the district's alternative campus for students who displayed behavioral issues at their home campus. Mackey's goal is to help them grow emotionally through the transition so that when they return to their home campuses, they are better able to handle the ups and downs children face and avoid having to come back.

BEAR Project interns partner with students in a number of ways. While some students are sent out of class quickly after a disciplinary issue, others are paired through recommendations by teachers or administrators who notice a student’s emotional change or dip in academic performance. Since every student’s need is different, interns stay in constant communication with the school staff who see them most to better understand the child’s need, and go about building a personal relationship with that student. Rather than viewing the student as a disciplinary project, interns take a restorative approach through one-on-one conversations, group activities, role-playing and games to help students gain a sense of control over their emotions and challenges.

In some cases, interns visit families in their homes. For many WISD parents, taking hours off from work strains their financial resources, making it difficult to come to campus during normal school hours. The BEAR Project brings school to willing parents at a time convenient to them.

"When a family welcomes me in, that's a big step on their part. They're saying, 'hey, I trust you in our home,'" Mackey said. "It's an opportunity to really get to know more about the students and their families. Some parents only hear from school when there's a problem. I want to make these visits a positive connection by telling parents what their student does well and talking about how we can help him or her do better. The home visits really help us better understand the child and discover ways to improve the help we provide."

As they make visits after hours and work with students on their campuses throughout the school day, interns help students develop emotional resources and allow busy educators to stretch their resources further.

"Much of what our interns do is giving individual attention that teachers and administrators would love to do, but they just can't," Dr. Jon Singletary, dean of GSSW, said. "There's so much expected of teachers with the emphasis on testing and with the size of schools, that there was a real need for this."

WISD came to the GSSW to propose a partnership, and the project developed through the collaborative work of Baylor GSSW and WISD administrators.

"We are not a district of wealth," WISD Superintendent Bonny Cain said. "Districts like ours have to think outside the box a little bit. Many of our students don't have an abundance of resources, be it social, emotional or financial. This was an opportunity to work with Baylor to build a campus-based, student-centered program to work with students and parents to give them the tools to grow emotional resources, stay in class and learn. The bottom line of the BEAR Project is this: it's about relationship. Baylor is a fantastic partner in helping us build lifelines that strengthen relationships with students and their parents and help them succeed."