Vivid facts about an unusual predator capture a classroom of first graders in Northern Kentucky.

Together, students read about the Humboldt squid — most common in the Pacific currents off South America, Mexico and California. The giant squid darts through the sea with long tentacles and hunts with sharp teeth inside a powerful beak. For the class, the description is an attention grabber.

The imagery suits a lesson about finding attributes in a text to differentiate between similar animals. The activity also lets students practice their ability as writers to describe examples and share evidence to support a main point. All of the skills are basics in Kentucky’s academic standards for reading and writing.

Preparing more students to reach academic goals has been a years-long priority for teachers and administrators at Miles Elementary. Deep learning about social-emotional issues, the effects of adverse childhood experiences, and self-awareness skills have increased classroom success for teachers and students.

Family stresses and outside difficulties can overwhelm students. Before the shift by the school and district, adverse external forces were taking a growing toll on learning. Teachers were often at a loss to know how to respond when students unexpectedly lost control of their emotions and behaviors.

Miles instructional coach Tiffany Gruen said that after years of study, teachers and students found promising routes “to get back into a zone of learning.”

FOURTH GRADERS WORK on a review assignment after a science lesson at Miles Elementary in Elsmere.

The effort has involved a research across connected fields: The importance of social and emotional skills in engaging and succeeding in school; ways that trauma and stress from crisis situations — from abuse to financial peril — impede learning; and the development of personal strengths to cope with everyday challenges.

“We’ve been given permission to meet the needs of the child first, and we believe that if we do that well, achievement will improve,” Gruen said.

The school connected with local pediatricians and child-development experts, convened book studies and sought specialized training to inform its efforts. Changes in staffing, greater outreach to families and stronger relationships with students helped set a surer foundation for learning.

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With effective strategies to deal with outside stresses, classroom activities like the first-grade squid discussion — where students also discuss the attributes of camels, eagles and alligators — are more likely to hit the mark.

“A lot of the things that get in the way of students being successful have nothing to do with learning ability,” said Kathy Burkhardt, the Erlanger-Elsmere superintendent who has embraced the wider view of understanding students’ challenges.

“These issues aren’t unique to our area; they are everywhere,” she said. “This goes along with our district mission — to address the needs of students no matter the obstacles.”

Instead of just struggling to get by, we’re getting things where they need to be.

—Katie Pilgram, counselor

A first step at Miles was redefining the role of the school counselor, removing administrative support tasks that dominate the job at many schools. Along with the school’s social worker, Miles counselor Katie Pilgram visits each classroom weekly in a schedule that also allows her to focus on children who need extra attention or in classrooms that warrant additional time. Her role also means more contact with families. Pilgram said that the insights into struggles like paying bills or legal or medical difficulties helps the school stay attuned to students’ circumstances and needs.

“A lot of counselors are just putting out fires all the time, but here, the whole job description changed,” Pilgram said. She has been able to focus intently on the toughest challenges with students and, “instead of just struggling to get by, we’re getting things where they need to be.”

In 2017, Miles earned Recognized American School Counselors Association Model Program status, one of 11 schools in Kentucky named for emphasizing a comprehensive counseling approach. (Two other elementary schools in Erlanger-Elsmere also have earned RAMP status.)

While it refocused the counseling office, the entire school built awareness and an ability to respond to the influences of traumatic stress in students’ lives. The staff studied formally recognized “adverse childhood experiences” that can limit cognitive abilities and short-circuit normal social and emotional development. The school developed approaches to better assist students whose family lives involved abuse, addiction, homelessness and other crises that can influence attendance, achievement and classroom behavior.

Miles now provides spaces where students can take a break or calm down, as well as training that helps teachers understand why withdrawn or boisterous behavior arises and how to help students cope and get back on track.

“We all work to connect, and, from there, the next thing that goes through our mind is ‘What do the students need?’” said Joel Shepherd, the school resource officer who makes time to talk to students about concerns and also began organizing a chess club this spring to give students another outlet for connection and communication.

In 2018, the achievement gap in reading at Miles was notably smaller than the state average, mostly the result of 55 percent of economically disadvantaged students at Miles scoring proficient or better on the state test compared to 46 percent statewide.

Principal Josh Jackson said that educators and staff were quick to collaborate around meeting diverse student needs. “We turn what we know into action,” Jackson said. “If we know about it, what are we collectively going to do to meet the individual needs of our students? This is a district and school that is always creatively seeking and finding resources that our teachers and team can use to positively impact our students.”

The newest facet of building up students and teachers at Miles is The Character Effect, a pilot program the district launched last school year with Children Inc., a northern Kentucky nonprofit, and Beech Acres Parenting Center, a social-services provider for families in the Cincinnati area.

The program works with students and teachers to identify and build character strengths and mindfulness as a way to increase classroom participation and cooperation and address daily stresses.

The program complements coping skills and learning strategies discussed in weekly classroom sessions by the social worker and counselor. All of the efforts clear the path for students to focus on academic goals.

Nash Faris, a fourth grader who has attended Miles since kindergarten, was quick to list the math concepts he’d recently tackled — circumference and area of a circle, more complicated long division, and how to use a compass. Classmate Rayshawn Thomas added equivalent fractions to that list. “It’s fun to me to learn new strategies,” Rayshawn said. “I like finding new ways to solve problems.”

Taylor York, another fourth grader who has been at Miles since she started school, named science experiments as a highlight for her year.

All three students mentioned attributes they learned through discussions of individual strengths — traits they’ve noticed individually, in classmates and even literary characters or historical figures they study in class.

Taylor, who identifies her character strengths as love of learning, leadership and zest, said that students at Miles are now recognize many ways to be more focused at school. “Doing work, you can get stressed out about that, and hard questions can make you get distracted, but we’ve learned how breathing can help you to calm down,” she said.

“If I get off track or am not paying attention, we have strategies to use to help get back,” added Nash. “We work on self-talk — how to talk in our own heads about good stuff or about the situation and fix it in our minds.”

The Character Effect also works one-on-one with teachers during the school week to build the same kind of resilience that the school seeks for students, said Corey Hatfield, a specialist with Beech Acres who visits Miles twice weekly.

Hatfield meets with teachers during planning time to talk about their successes, challenges and next steps. “It helps them to have someone ask, ‘Where are you today?’ ” he said. “Teachers can’t pour from an empty cup.”

He said that the focus on strengths for students and teachers is building productive ways forward. “By recognizing strengths that are already there, we find something to build on and express more fully,” Hatfield said. “These can be developed to increase learning, well-being and relationships with others.”

Gruen said the focus at Miles is encouraging to educators and the wider community.

“I can honestly say that more learning is taking place. For me, it’s been a light switch in teaching,” she said. “Families and teachers need support. We all see stress responses, and, before, we just reacted and didn’t know why it was happening. Now, we have ways to respond and to be proactive.”

STUDENTS IN FIRST GRADE note distinctive attributes of specific animals during a reading lesson at Miles Elementary in Elsmere.


Student learning and achievement occur when students are ready and able to concentrate and motivated to perform. Understanding how local leaders and educators see these factors can lead to important discussions about student performance and success. Some questions that might spark a local conversation:

\\ To what social-emotional attributes or issues facing students does your school or district pay special attention? How does your school train or prepare to meet special needs or conditions that may lurk beneath the surface for some students? Have any trends been identified that merit a stronger response than currently exists?

\\ Does your school look at “adverse childhood experience” data and consider how students with high scores are faring in school compared to their peers? How are students identified with trauma issues performing? Who takes the lead in identifying and addressing these issues? Finding positive trends from specific approaches may provide comfortable ground for discussing ways to build greater momentum.

\\ How well is your school or district connected with other local agencies that deal with mental health, child advocacy, pediatrics or the behavior of children and youth? Are all of the agencies on the same page about issues? Are those plans communicated well to families and organizations like child care providers who work with young children?

\\ The economic payoff of building childrens’ social-emotional skills is a popular topic for human development expert James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago. “Much more than smarts are needed for success in life,” he said. “Cognitive skills matter, but so do things like motivation, sociability, the ability to work with others, attention, self-regulation, self-esteem, ability to defer gratification — these things matter a great deal.”

Heckman is a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics. He is also a strong proponent of expanding access to quality early-childhood programs that build social skills. In 2012, he presented that message in Kentucky to the Business Leaders for a Strong Start group, an event co-sponsored by the Prichard Committee. Recently, Heckman explained his research and viewpoint on social skills on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast.

Social-emotional skills include negotiating conflict, embracing ethical standards, exercising empathy, managing stress, and building personal strengths. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a nonprofit based in Chicago, offers an explanation and diagram of social-emotional skills.

Another popular voice on the topic is Angela Duckworth, psychology professor and author. Her research found that achievement can be predicted by grit — sustained interest and effort put toward long-term goals — and self-control. She now uses psychological science to address student success.

\\ The term “trauma informed” practices or schools indicate an effort to understand how crises shape perceptions and behavior and then create safe environments to establish healthy connections and productive management of emotions and impulses. The approach is based on Adverse Childhood Experience ratings, which were first studied in 1998. That initial study was based on a 10-item questionnaire. Newer studies have been expanded to consider other experiences that leave long-term impacts.

The Crisis Prevention Institute based in Milwaukee offers information about trauma-informed school approaches. The National Association of School Psychologists also provides recommendations.

\\ Information on The Character Effect program is available from Beech Acres Parenting Center.

Each month, the BRIGHT SPOTS blog showcases impressive learning in Kentucky schools.

CREATING STRONG LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS at Kentucky’s Governor’s Scholars Program.


ENROLLMENT: 270 in K-5
RACE: 26% minority
INCOME: 68% eligible for free/reduced price meals

\\ On 2018 state reading test results, just over 60 percent of Miles students scored proficient or better, well above the average for elementary schools in the district and above the state average of 54.6 percent. Since 2014, the proficiency rate rose almost 6 percentage points at Miles while the district’s average elementary rate dropped slightly.

\\ On 2018 state math tests, just over 48 percent of miles students scored proficient or better, almost mirroring the state average. Average math scores at Miles were well above the district elementary average.

\\ Looking at test scores, writing achievement levels have been a weak spot for Miles, with 31.7 percent of students scoring proficient or better on 2018 state tests compared to the state average of 40.5 percent and average elementary performance in the Erlanger-Elsmere district of 42 percent.


Lonnie covered education for the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. He worked as a reporter and editor at Education Week in Washington, D.C. He has served as a school board member and was a parent member of a school SBDM council.

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