Upper St. Clair High School’s therapeutic emotional support program was recently named a first-place award winner in the 25th annual Magna Awards, sponsored by National School Boards Association’s flagship magazine, American School Board Journal.
This is the third year the Magna Awards have focused on recognizing school districts and their leaders for their efforts to bring educational equity to their students.
Known simply as the 409 Program, named after its room location, the Upper St. Clair program’s goal is to provide students who have significant mental health needs with the opportunity to participate fully in their high school.
“Meeting individual children’s needs from both a developmental and programmatic perspective is something about which the staff and students associated with the program should be very proud,” Timothy Wagner, high school principal, said. “The 409 Program is another way that Upper St. Clair High School continues to fulfill its mission on behalf of our residents.”
Students receive comprehensive learning supports, intensive therapeutic/emotional supports, behavior management, social skills training, individualized coursework and community-based service-learning opportunities.
Amy Pfender, assistant to the superintendent, said “409 is more than a program. It is a place that means something different to each student and family given the uniqueness of the program. The most rewarding part is seeing the individual successes of students and hearing about their accomplishments after high school.”
The 409 Program was created 15 years ago in response to parental concern regarding children’s ability to attend high school if they exhibited emotional and behavioral issues that impacted their learning.
“At that time, an appropriate program did not exist at USC. Therefore, students with significant mental health issues attended specialized schools outside the district,” Pfender said. “Going outside the district left many of those students feeling ostracized and, in some cases, it negatively impacted their lives within the community.”
The 409 Program serves approximately 25 students with a team that includes a highly trained emotional support teacher, learning support teacher, paraprofessional, social worker and behavior specialist as well as outside therapists and psychiatrists.
“Within the 409 classroom, staff members create a therapeutic environment, where students can share their struggles and seek help from adults as well as their peers,” Pfender said. “The classroom has become a sanctuary for students. Within this supportive community, students can begin to develop resiliency and experience more success in high school.”
Participating students qualify for special education services and exhibit a variety of mental health diagnoses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
“The relationships that are formed between the adults and students are clearly the most rewarding aspect of the program,” Dan Beck, assistant principal, said. “We believe that students who have these positive relationships with adults, and each other, are more likely to have a positive and engaging high school experience.”
The 409 Program seeks to remove the barriers to achievement in five key ways:
- Uncovering the gifts of each student despite his/her challenges and providing opportunities to grow;
- Collaborating with parents and outside providers;
- Addressing the therapeutic needs of students;
- Providing the necessary academic supports and accommodations;
- Enhancing social skills development through community-based service learning.
“409 is a community,” Beck said. “One of the most important aspects of a community is feeling a sense of belonging, connectedness, or membership — and that’s what takes place in this classroom.
“We believe that students that are connected to the 409 community are less likely to engage in problematic behaviors. Further, we also believe that these students will do better academically, grow socially, and adapt emotionally.”
Students receive individual and group therapeutic sessions to address their diagnoses and presenting problems. When students experience behavioral challenges within their general education classes, the emotional support teacher and licensed social worker collaborate with teachers to create solutions.
Academic and learning needs also are addressed. Students are scheduled into any high school course that meets their needs. Some students participate in honors and Advanced Placement classes, while others enroll in academic classes or vocational-technical experiences.
Academic supports are delivered based on each student’s needs. Students have access to the 409 classroom throughout the day and can receive academic instruction as needed to support their involvement in general education classes.
“The 409 Program has been a life-changing program for students and their families,” Wagner said. “Over the past 15 years, 85 students have graduated from Upper St. Clair High School after participating in the program, 41 of whom completed postsecondary education.”
The program also provides unique opportunities for students to enhance their social skills development through community-based service-learning trips.
“Each month, the 409 students and adults participate in a day-long service trip to local organizations such as Kane Hospital, Jubilee Soup Kitchen, World Vision, and Toys for Tots,” Wagner said. “Once again, students with huge challenges are placed in a position where they are recognized and appreciated.”