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As told by Phil Salemi, Superintendent of Westchester School District 92.5, and Greg Leban, Principal at Westchester Middle School

“When you work in schools long enough, you see ebbs and flows in the generations of students. For whatever reason, some classes have more problems than others. It’s just the way it happens.

Recently at Westchester Middle School, we had seen an increase in referrals–these are recommendations by administrators that a certain student be suspended or expelled. There had been a drastic increase in problems identified by our team and by our social workers. It never seemed to let up. After talking through it, the two of us realized that what our students needed was a focus on Social and Emotional Learning, or what the education community usually just calls ‘SEL.’

This generation of students had more SEL needs than those in the past. And their struggles were based around three common problems: attendance, academics and behavior. One of the challenges is that once these problems start, they tend to snowball. Especially behavior problems. A student will be disrespectful to her teacher, then she’s defiant when that problem is addressed, which causes even more problems. We knew we needed to try something different.

We had heard about West40’s ALOP program from other administrators in our area. They said that West40 is able to bring in student advocates who can connect with kids in a way that teachers and administrators often cannot. Usually, we just don’t have enough hours in our day to focus on that. But the advocates can focus on building deep relationships with them.

We talked to Dr. Klaisner and Dr. Popp at West40 and they really listened to us. They understood what we were going through. It was a great fit right from the start. And soon they were able to identify an amazing woman named Ayana to come and create an ALOP program at our school and be our student advocate.

What she and West40 have created is so much more expansive than what we had planned. Like all of West40’s ALOP advocates, Ayana intervenes with students who need extra support. She talks them through how to handle conflicts. When it feels like there’s drama going on, she helps them refocus on academics. She’s figured out the right balance of compassion and tough love, and she’s making an impact with just about everyone she’s worked with. She has a gift for working with parents, too, and addressing their child’s behavior issue without it turning into an argument, like it often has in the past.

One thing that we love is that Ayana is looked at as another member of the staff by both our teachers and our kids. She even won the staff chili cookoff! People are enamored with her and she’s connected with people’s hearts. This is a reflection on the people that West40 hires—I’ve heard from other administrators, too, that their advocates have become deeply ingrained in the school’s culture.

The ALOP program is currently serving 18 students officially and jumps in to help other kids who aren’t part of the program. It’s been so successful that we’ve already had two students ‘exit’ the program and handle things on their own. And ALOP has become so popular, the students don’t even see it as an intervention. We have kids asking to be in the program. Maybe most importantly, we’ve seen a drop in referrals. The program works.

We can’t say enough about how Ayana and West40 have helped transform the lives of these students. We’re looking at starting another ALOP program at our intermediate building that serves 3rd through 5th graders, and possibly at our elementary school as well. West40 will be a part of our school community for a long time to come.”

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