About the Bradley Schools
After twenty five years as a teacher and administrator for students with disabilities, I became the Director of Education at the Bradley Schools. The Bradley School is a private, school-funded education program for students whose psychiatric and behavioral needs cannot be met in a public school setting. We have two distinct programs: five standalone day school programs, and about 12 partnership classrooms, with Bradley-trained teachers and specialists embedded in public school classes. Across all Bradley Schools programs, we educate annually more than 450 students from over 70 districts in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Building bridges and easing stigma
Partnership classrooms arose out of a mutual desire from school districts and the Bradley Schools to reintegrate students experiencing success in our standalone day schools back into their communities. They were developed in partnership with our public school districts to provide a bridge from more restrictive placements on the special education continuum while maintaining programming continuity for students. Thus, the partnership program is really designed to place our staff in public schools, and partner with them to help build capacity to meet the needs of children that present with significant social-emotional needs—which can mean preventing those students from ever requiring a more restrictive day school program.
In each partnership classroom, we have a special education teacher and at least one classroom behavior specialist, both Bradley Schools employees. We typically have no more than 10-12 students per classroom, with a Bradley team leader for every two or three classrooms. The team leader is a clinical psychologist or social worker who supports teachers with multi-faceted learning and provides direct therapeutic intervention for social-emotional learning work.
All of our students have some type of social-emotional or behavioral health component to their needs. A diagnosis is part of this: we have students on the autism spectrum, students with anxiety, depression, or other psychiatric needs. About a third of our students come to us with classifications of other health impairments like anxiety or ADHD.
Students typically start out in our standalone schools to access a significant amount of clinical intervention, academic ramp-up, and social-emotional learning. We use data to assess their readiness to transition back to a less restrictive setting, with the goal of getting them to a point where they will be optimally successful in that new environment. The partnership classrooms serve as a bridge for these students. The decision about when to transition students between settings is based on data and always involves the IEP team process—making sure everyone including the family is on board.
Our partnership program truly serves as a middle ground between public school and a specialized day school. We make sure we’re setting up each student for significant success. The program is about providing specific and specialized supports, and getting children back to their less restrictive local school communities—the same communities where they’ll live and thrive as adults.
This program has been in place for about 25 years. Our definition of success is that these classrooms eventually get closed because our collaboration results in district capacity building and students no longer need such a restrictive environment. When we close one of these classrooms, we see it as a victory. These partnership classrooms aren’t designed to run indefinitely, and we’re helping the public schools build their own capacity to provide such supports. Ultimately, it’s important for children to grow up in their community and be close to home and surrounded by their peers who will support them as adults.
There’s a pervasive stigma out there for students who struggle so significantly in traditional public school settings and require an out-of-district placement. Something about that stigma makes school staff believe they don’t have the necessary tools to support the student. The partnership program helps to break down those misperceptions because staff see that student all day — in the cafeteria, in classes—and learn how to support them. Being embedded within the public school setting allows for the reintegration of students into classes within the school day until eventually, they are successful in a less restrictive setting. They’re not being excluded from the environment, but included and welcomed, and that changes the culture. It has an impact.
Ultimately, it’s important for children to grow up in their community and be close to home, and surrounded by their peers who will support them as adults.
Staff that make the difference
Meeting the needs of students in the least restrictive setting possible is really all about the expertise you have on staff, and your ability to retain them. One of the reasons I think the partnership works with a private nonpublic school like Bradley is the great deal of professional development from a broad range of clinical and educational experts on staff. Our classroom teams are carefully created so when a student is referred to us great consideration goes into the proper placement to best meet that student’s needs. There’s a formula to this, in a way, but it really is all about the right fit and the right people that can impact the students.
Partnership schools are staffed with highly skilled staff. We hire on staff our own special educators, clinical psychologists, clinical social workers, and child psychiatrists. Our special education teachers are skilled in a multitude of specialized instruction and differentiation strategies in order to implement a rigorous common core aligned curriculum alongside our classroom behavior specialists who are highly trained in de-escalation techniques and positive behavioral interventions and supports.
Professional development and cross-school collaboration
One of the great benefits of our partnership classrooms is cross-school professional learning. Staff from the traditional public schools have the opportunity to observe our practices and systems, and often ask our support in implementing them across their school environment. Some of the questions that arise more frequently are: What behavior system do you use in your classroom? What does your functional behavior assessment (FBA) system look like? How do you use the FBA process to impact change? These questions and the conversations they prompt happen naturally across the various teams, in addition to leveraging our clinical staff to support more complex individual student situations.
We’re grateful to be able to provide professional development for the entire school community. For many of the schools we work with, it’s about enhancing the school culture while simultaneously working within the culture to provide support for the entire school.
The most successful partnership programs we’ve seen evolve from seamless collaboration. It’s a lot of work, communication, problem-solving, and collective troubleshooting. There are complex logistics associated with these programs, but it’s worth the time and investment for everyone to be aligned on vision and expectations from the start. I work very closely with the special education director at each of our partnership districts— it’s important to have conversations about evolving needs each year. And if a classroom is going to close, we talk to the staff who will have the students in their classrooms and make sure they have the opportunity to observe them and train with us. We want students and staff to be successful.
What We Learned/Big Takeaway
Working so closely with traditional public school staff, we hear their challenges and needs. We have learned to build processes to better involve them and grow their skill sets. Our teams help them develop resources and tools, and collaborate on more complex student situations. Establishing these relationships is dually beneficial, ultimately making all of us stronger at supporting an increasingly diverse group of students.
What We Are Still Figuring Out
COVID-19 has really shifted how schools operate and has enhanced the needs of many of our students. We have to continue to adapt to the needs of our communities and the students that come our way. We’re continuing to learn, listen, and be responsive to the districts we serve.
What I Would Tell Other Leaders
If someone said, “I want to start a partnership program,” I’d say, “Great, why? Who are the students you want to serve? What are their ages? What’s their profile and need?” It is important to consider the needs of the traditional public school staff and how to support them in creating a bridge on the continuum of special education that leads to success in the least restrictive setting. It may be that specific professional development and coaching around more specialized instruction for staff is the best answer. Again, our measure of success is that our programs eventually won’t be needed, and that more students can achieve optimal outcomes in their community schools.