TREE: Transforming Rural Experience in Education

By Brittany Ray

Students at Milbridge Elementary

Students at Milbridge Elementary

For most educators, the start of the school year is a time associated with reflection, hope, and renewed commitments. For me, it has also been a time when I think about the fact that school is not a level playing field for children. This awareness has dominated my work for many years. It did not make me dislike my job, become less committed, or drop into a negative funk. Rather, my realization that education was not serving as an equalizer resulted in frustration that I seemed to be doing things the same way, getting the same results, and relying on outside experts to solve the challenges of my school and community. This was certainly one of the reasons I was most drawn to TREE. 

When I first encountered TREE, I heard people who cared passionately about education and equity talking about changing the odds for children and making connections between advances in neuroscience, child development, and the importance of relationships. For the first time I was encountering a way of looking at challenging student behavior and limited academic success that no longer blamed students, but looked to the root causes of behavior and then worked to change the adult response to such behaviors.

I had spent so many years trying to solve problems by hacking at the leaves and not digging down into the roots. Now 15 months after becoming the Director of TREE, I am confident that TREE’s collaborative and systemic approach to supporting students, parents, teachers, and communities is the hopeful approach we have long needed in our schools. 

TREE’s response and model design is rooted in an understanding and respect for the community, which only comes through a commitment to thoughtful listening. As we reported in our Spring newsletter, TREE interviewed and listened to 22 administrators and conducted focus groups with 131 teachers and 186 students in Washington County to inform program design. TREE also took care to listen to parents and an array of non-profits working throughout Washington County. We knew the importance of gaining a true sense of both the strengths and challenges for Washington County schools and communities. TREE filled itself with this knowledge and then, in collaboration with educators and researchers from Colby College and the University of Maine, we entered an intensive design process. 

With thoughtful listening as a foundation, TREE is now poised to begin working in 3 pilot schools here in Washington County. Milbridge Elementary School has been selected as the first pilot school to receive the full TREE pyramid of supports, with Jonesport Elementary School and Charlotte Elementary School receiving support for meeting basic needs and mental health supports onsite in the first year and then moving to the full model of supports in year two.

Our model design is represented in this pyramid, in which all levels are clearly rooted in collaboration and partnership with the school and community. 

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 9.45.06 AM.png

TREE is not coming in to impose a model or dictate changes. Rather, TREE will support schools in meeting basic needs by facilitating a greater connection and sharing of resources, providing mental health supports onsite for students, and using a full time coaching model to build Social and Emotional Learning for all and to increase opportunities for student voice and empowerment. Additionally, TREE will support instructional strategies in the classroom and leadership development. 

In August, TREE enthusiastically welcomed its first School Resource Coach, Laura Thomas (You were introduced to Laura on page 3). Since Laura’s start with TREE, the two of us have been busy working on the ground with our 3 pilot schools.  Those months of intense design followed by months of detailed program and evaluation decisions are now being met with enthusiastic receptivity, which is energizing. Above all, we are excited to be addressing institutional and systemic challenges that have left rural populations struggling.

Laura Thomas and Brittany Ray presenting the TREE Model Design

Laura Thomas and Brittany Ray presenting the TREE Model Design

Autumn has also been filled with detailed implementation decisions. We have selected an evidence-based Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum for Laura to deliver with teachers at our pilot schools. SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. We believe SEL will empower students to play an active role in their education and in their communities. TREE is listening to real parents and teachers with real concerns and a deep desire to gain skills to better support children.

In a recent federal report, The Health and Well-Being of Children in Rural Areas from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, we read that our country must explore ways to deliver affordable mental and behavioral health care services for parents and children, such as integrating these services into primary care settings and schools. TREE is doing just that.

Through TREE, the CCLC has come full circle to further address that first question at the root of the organization, “How can we leverage the best that education can offer to meet, honor, and serve the spirits, hopes, and dreams of young people here in Washington County?”