September 23, 2018  

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REACH MS Continues Work on Founding Mission, New Initiatives

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A program based at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) since 2005 continues with its original charge of assisting the state’s elementary, middle and high schools, as well as juvenile detention centers and group homes, succeed in their implementation of behavior modification goals, while also advancing initiatives created in recent years.  

Realizing Excellence for ALL Children in Mississippi (REACH MS) is a federally-funded State Personnel Development Grant awarded to the Mississippi Department of Education and operated through a cooperative agreement with Southern Miss. Since its inception the grant has primarily focused on K-12 positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) which it extended to juvenile detention centers and group homes in the last few years. Early childhood PBIS, PBIS for students with significant disabilities, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are the grant’s three newest initiatives that began approximately two years ago.

Early Childhood PBIS

With the growing national trend towards publically-funded pre-k and Mississippi’s investment in pre-k, it seemed fitting to add pre-k to the K-12 PBIS implementation. Before Mississippi began its statewide initiative to implement PBIS in early childhood, approximately one-third of the states in the nation were implementing early childhood PBIS through the Pyramid Model (developed through two previously federally-funded technical assistance centers). This model aligns well to the K-12 PBIS implementation already happening in the state with more of an emphasis placed on social-emotional development.

The statewide rollout of this initiative includes training, observations, and coaching as forms of technical assistance to implement early childhood PBIS all at no-cost to programs and schools. REACH MS provides early childhood regional training, requested training, and presents sessions at conferences. Coaching and other supports are provided to the programs in the early childhood cohort. Currently, there is one school district and one state-funded early learning collaborative in the cohort that total seven sites and 10 classrooms. Two of the seven sites have attained Model Site status at the Tier 1 level of the Pyramid Model. Next school year, the total will be 10 sites and 13 classrooms, and an application for participation in a second early childhood cohort will be disseminated. Other schools and programs not in the cohort may request a site visit for observational feedback.

PBIS for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

In order to assist school districts with their efforts as a whole for students with significant disabilities, but specifically to increase inclusive opportunities for these students, REACH MS added on a PBIS initiative specific to including students with significant disabilities into school wide PBIS implementation. This implementation aligns with the Mississippi Department of Education’s goal to increase assessment scores for students with disabilities, as compared to their peers without disabilities.

As this initiative began, REACH MS staff contacted other states and leaders in the field of both students with significant disabilities and PBIS to see what tools and resources were available to assist with implementation. What REACH MS found was not only that no states were taking this specific PBIS focus on statewide for students with significant disabilities, but that virtually nothing existed other than preliminary research. Since then, REACH MS has collaborated with leading experts and hosted a conference specific to teaching and supporting students with significant disabilities in early summer 2017.

The statewide rollout of this initiative includes training, observations, and coaching as forms of technical assistance to implement PBIS for students with significant disabilities, all at no cost to schools. REACH MS provides significant disability training, requested training, and presents sessions at conferences. Coaching and other supports are provided to the schools in the significant cognitive disability cohort. Currently, three school districts are in the cohort that total 10 schools and 13 classrooms.

In the next school year, additional schools and classrooms within these three districts will join the cohort, and an application for participation in a second significant cognitive disability cohort will be disseminated. Other schools not in the cohort can request a site visit for observational feedback. Recently, a university in the northwest invited REACH MS to pilot a tool and also practice strategies for including students with significant disabilities into schoolwide PBIS and the general education setting.

Universal Design for Learning

REACH MS began classroom implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the fall of 2017 as a K-3 Literacy Initiative. The development of the UDL initiative was in response to a consistent discrepancy found in overall state literacy scores. and in the literacy growth rate between students identified with a disability and their non-identified peers. Additionally, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, held provisions for UDL which prompted Mississippi, along with other neighboring states, to adopt a means for training educators on the principles of UDL. 

At its foundation, Universal Design for Learning upholds a framework that was developed from years of cognitive neuroscience as it relates to learning. UDL is composed of three main principles which provide Multiple Means of Engagement, Multiple Means of Representation, and Multiple Means of Action and Expression. These principles are used to create an accessible learning environment and curriculum for all learners whether struggling, gifted, or ELL students. UDL seeks to remove barriers, increase accessibility, and extinguish the myth of the “average” student.

In its first year, the UDL initiative was introduced to Cohort I, which was comprised of six schools from every corner of the state. These schools differed demographically, geographically, and in their academic performance rating, but all of the selected schools had been part of successful initiatives in the past. Final results from Year 1 were extremely encouraging with a majority of the schools exceeding the first year goal of 70 percent implementation. Substantial growth was recognized in all schools that participated, and model sites are expected to be designated by December 2018 in three of the six schools. These three schools - Poplar Springs Elementary, Dixie Attendance Center, and North Bay Elementary - demonstrated implementation percentages at or above 90 percent.

Next year, Cohort 1 will continue building their capacity to design UDL curriculum and culture in their classrooms, while helping students become Expert Learners. Selection of six new schools for Cohort 2 is currently in progress, with three schools already committed to the initiative.

REACH MS is directed by Southern Miss Associate Professor of Special Education Dr. Hollie Filce. Assisting Dr. Filce are Patty Gautier, Family Data, and Dissemination Coordinator; Kasey Keith, Administrative Assistant; Rich Baker, Web Services; Selina Merrell, PBIS Coordinator; Sydney Wise, PBIS Specialist; Dr. Brittany Herrington, Early Learning Specialist and Significant Cognitive Disabilities Specialist; and Christa Dunnam, UDL Specialist. 

For more information about REACH MS at USM, visit https://www.usm.edu/reachms.