When Damon Hanshaw became assistant superintendent of Nicholas County Schools, the district ranked 46th in the state on a comparison of every county's WESTEST scores.
This year it was 12th.
WESTEST is the West Virginia Educational Standards Test, which measures a student's performance level on standards, objectives and skills. Over the years, Nicholas County Schools has also reduced the instances of student misbehavior and dropouts.
“I give it all to the relationships we build with the kids,” said Hanshaw, who retired this year but still serves as a consultant.
The relationships between teachers and students were forged through LINKS — Learning, Individualized Needs, Knowledge and Skills, a student advisement model based on educational research and standards. A key part of the program is providing a caring adult to support every student as he or she plans for the future and learns how to get along in school and the real world.
This school year the WV Department of Education is requiring every school to implement LINKS for all students in sixth through 12th grades. The curriculum for the Teacher Led Student Advisory Programs is also available to 5th graders. Since 2008, it had been left up to each county whether to implement the schoolwide guidance and advisement program, said Dr. Barb Brady, WVDE ?School Counseling Coordinator.
“If it's good for students, we should be doing it,” Brady said.
Nicholas County's success with the program is one reason LINKS is no longer an elective.
“When we started the program back in 2006-2007, there were 4,671 incidents where kids were misbehaving or expelled. This year, there were 552,” Hanshaw said. “Every year it has dropped. In 2007-2008, we had 87 kids drop out. Last year we had 13.”
The numbers are improving in other parts of the state as well, said WVDE Spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro, citing new data just released from the National KIDS COUNT survey.
“We're making a lot of positive improvements in the educational system in West Virginia,” Cordeiro said.
According to the survey, 4,000 West Virginia teens ages 16-19 were not in school and not high school graduates in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. That's down from 6,000 in 2011.
Also, 8,000 teens ages 16-19 in West Virginia were not attending school and not working in 2012, down from 11,000 in 2011.
In 2013, 11.3 percent of the state's students grades 7-12 left a public school before graduation without transferring to another school, down from 13.6 percent in 2012.
“One dropout is one too many,” Cordeiro said. “We're happy to see the downward trend.”
LINKS is one way the WVDE is preparing students so they will not only graduate but go on to a career or technical school or four-year degree program.
In Nicholas County, high school students have the same teacher as his or her adviser from freshman year to graduation.
“When you think about it, we never had a place where the kids could meet with a teacher every day to discuss problems and what's going on in their lives and classes,” Hanshaw said. “My philosophy is it's relationships, not programs, that change children. We train the teachers how to have better relationships with the kids.
“The 30-minute daily advising period is not just a chat; teachers follow a curriculum. Lessons cover six areas: school success skills, academic planning, career exploration, post-secondary planning, interpersonal/life skills and work ethic.”
The LINKS class period is a time dedicated every day to self-discovery and career investigation.
“We focus a lot on the character development,” said Hanshaw, who helped write the LINKS program for the state.
For example, at the middle school level, Brady said a discussion might be held on the difference between friendly and mean teasing. Another might take up the difference between cheating and helping a classmate master a concept.
The advisers also review each student's academic progress, revisiting goals the student set earlier and discussing how academic performance in middle school will impact their high school career, she said.
In other lessons, students explore their learning styles, when to drop a toxic friendship, handling rumors and getting comfortable with public speaking.
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