Nine students sit in a circle in a classroom in St. Paul’s Murray Junior High and an instructor asks them to articulate how they are feeling. One is irritated, one happy, one bored and one annoyed; the rest do not respond.
These students are in what is called a “federal setting three” classroom, a special education designation. These are kids identified with emotional or behavioral problems, learning disabilities, autism or other special ed identifiers. They have their own wing of the school. The “setting three” designation means these students are in segregated classes at least 60 percent of the time.
To some observers, asking students to articulate their feelings might seem touchy-feely, one more chunk of time kids aren’t learning math or English. To those pushing this initiative, it is an effort to help students be more aware of their thoughts and feelings—and that they themselves are in control of their state of mind. Ultimately, the goal is to help them reduce anxiety and outbursts and focus more on their education.
Anne Byer-Rajput, the lead staff for St. Paul Public Schools Empowerment Program, helps lead this class. She asks students to review past lessons, and to describe what it’s like when students are in “weak mode” versus “power mode”. One boy jumps on the question.
Weak mode, he says, is blaming others—“finding reasons to snap, thinking negative and being negative.” Being in power mode means “ignoring others who are trying to distract you.”
Students get empowerment training for 30 minutes a week. Teachers reinforce the lessons and the “power mode/weak mode” vocabulary in the classroom. In this particular room, one poster reads: “I am lovable. I am important. I am valuable,” and includes the photos of Murray Junior High students. Other posters read: “Only you can change your attitude” and “Don’t blame others. You are in control.”
Role-plays get students more engaged in the material. Byer-Rajput and social worker Kim Stout ask for volunteers to dramatize a typical student-teacher interaction, one which in real life could easily devolve into shouting and detention. The scenario is simply this: a teacher tells the student he has lost his free time because he didn’t get his work done.
The volunteers play out the scene with the student first in weak mode and then in power mode.
The role-play lets students laugh at themselves. The volunteer playing the “weak mode” student starts getting snippy, repeating everything the teacher says. He eventually pounds on the wall (general laughter) and gets sent to “intervention” by the student playing the teacher.
“Negative thinking leads to negative thoughts leads to negative behavior,” Byer-Rajput sums up. “And it wasn’t going to change the event. It was going to make it worse.”
In the power mode replay, the student quietly accepted the loss of his free time (perhaps not realistic). But afterwards, students and staff talked about how students might question—respectfully—the loss of free time or other decisions that they thought unfair.
A brief history
Twin Cities RISE! developed this empowerment training for adults. The goal was to improve the employment skills for under- and unemployed people, particularly people of color, so they could get and keep living-wage jobs. It gave them the interpersonal skills they needed to complement the technical job training they received.
The Jeremah Program, a successful transitional housing program, uses the empowerment training for all of its participants, said Executive Director Gloria Perez Jordan. Jeremiah supports women with young children as they work to get a college education and a living wage job.
”The first group we admitted to Jeremiah, nearly everyone washed out,” she said during a recent presentation in Minneapolis. “We thought, ‘We need a better way to prepare women to enter the program.’”
The solution turned out to be the empowerment training from Twin Cities RISE!
Cy Yusten, executive director of Twin Cities RISE! Empowerment Institute, said the program is evolving. “Our average participant is 30, 31 years old,” he said in a public presentation earlier this year. “[We] said, ‘Why would we wait and allow a decade of failure? Let’s take it to high school. Let’s change their attitudes about self. That is what the achievement gap issue is about.’”
Twin Cities RISE! is working with both Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, he said.
The St. Paul schools began testing the program last spring in seven classrooms at three sites including Murray. Next year, the district plans to offer empowerment training to all junior and senior high special education students with higher level needs (federal setting three and four).
Byer-Rajput said they tailored the empowerment classes to kids—more interactive and less reading and writing than the adult training. “Some of our kids are reading at the first-grade level,” she said. “Filling out worksheets and filling in blanks doesn’t work.”
While schools are under constant pressure to show results for programs, Byer-Rajput said there is no immediate expectation for the program to show concrete impact, such as lower suspension rates or higher test scores. The cognitive behavioral therapy model on which the empowerment training is based is well studied, she said. “It is the model for change for depression, anxiety, anger management,” she said. “There is no question that this model helps people change their behavior and their mood.”
The district may collect outcome data once it knows the program is implemented well, she said.
Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.
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