Creating Positive Change, One Student and One Teacher at a Time

Principal with students

Ed Mathews is the principal at South Fort Myers High School, a 9th-12th grade school with a very diverse student body located in Lee County, Florida. In his third year as principal, Ed began to sense increasing frustration among the school leadership teams and staff. Ninth-graders were failing at a troubling rate, there was teacher burnout, and student achievement was beginning to plateau.

“We were all working so hard, but we just weren’t seeing our kids achieve the level of success that we knew they could,” he said. “There was a growing appetite to bring in more training and new resources that could help us better meet the needs of our school’s ever-changing ecosystem.

Mathews added, “We needed to try something new.”

Discovering BARR

Ed calls himself “a relationship person.” It comes as no surprise then that when he first learned about the relationship-based BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks) education model, he wanted to learn more.

Founded in Minneapolis by Angela Jerabek, a former school counselor, BARR is built on research about the importance of prioritizing relationships with the power of data. Intrigued by BARR’s claims, Ed pursued his due diligence about the program and decided that it was the right pathway forward for South Fort Myers. He became a strong advocate for engaging with the model and helped to build buy-in with teachers and the community.

The implementation of BARR at South Fort Myers did not disappoint. Following its adoption, the school saw dramatic and measurable changes as well as exponential academic growth. Attendance has increased for the school’s most challenging demographics, and, in a complete reversal of recent trends, the school now ranks lowest out of school suspensions for the entire district.

It was an unprecedented feat. And the results didn’t stop there.

In the first quarter that BARR was implemented, South Fort Myers realized a 20% reduction in failures for 9th-graders. At the end of the first quarter in the 2019-20 school year, they had a 27.36% failing rate—a 42% reduction from the prior year.

How It Works

BARR is centered on enhancing staff-to-staff, staff-to-student, and student-to-student relationships. Strong student-teacher relationships in school depend upon a shared understanding and appreciation of students’ strengths, challenges, interests, and circumstances, which is difficult to maintain in the departmentalized structure of a typical large high school.

The changes in school environments that students experience as they transition from middle school into high school are believed to explain many of the academic and behavioral challenges that students begin to experience in 9th grade. Research indicates that 9th-grade students who are just starting out in high school commonly experience increased stress and behavior problems. Grades frequently decline, as does attendance, interest in school, and perceptions of competence and self-esteem. All of these factors are strong predictors of dropout in later years. For students who do not drop out of high school, a positive 9th-grade experience is predictive of later academic success, including passing courses, higher overall grade averages, and improved college readiness.

BARR is designed to mitigate these changes in the school environment and effectively support student development and learning in both large and smaller high schools. With BARR, 9th-graders are divided into teams of students, each taught by a core team of common teachers. This enables teacher-student cohorts to build greater rapport through both regularly scheduled class time together and weekly sessions called I-Times, which allow students to practice communication skills and goal setting and help both students and teachers learn about each other’s interests, likes, and life circumstances.

By aligning smaller groups of teachers around students and then opening up communication channels with students’ families, BARR enables a tremendous amount of flexibility and provides a safety net for both students and teachers. Teachers develop productive relationships with students and are able to tap into a better understanding of what drives them, how they learn, and the opportunities that are best for them.

Under BARR, teachers also meet twice each week: once to review student data, such as attendance records and grades, and another time to brainstorm interventions, informed by their personal knowledge of each student’s circumstances.

“When teachers understand and relate to their students better, they can give them actionable opportunities and catch them when they stumble or fall,” said Jerabek. “With BARR, students receive the time and attention they need and deserve in the classroom so they can successfully be ushered to graduation.”

The Power of Change

Results aside, the culture at South Fort Myers has shifted since adopting BARR. Focused now on students’ personal and individual needs, teachers are more empowered to draw on the school’s resources to give them the support they need. With the personal attention and extra support, students are more focused, better equipped to handle challenges at home, and better able to face the challenges that transitioning into high school presents.

“The success that BARR has had on South Fort Myers has stemmed largely from our leadership’s willingness to wholly champion the model,” said Ed Mathews. “Students now want to go to school. And while they are here, they do better work.”

A Focus on Success and Well-Being

Jerabek explains, “BARR’s mission is to create equitable schools where every student, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status, has access to high-quality education where adults know them, recognize their strengths, and help them to succeed.”

Staff and students from South Fort Myers High School

Today, BARR has been implemented in over 140 schools across 17 states and the District of Columbia. Rigorous testing demonstrates positive impacts on students and staff. By 2021, Jerabek anticipates BARR will be implemented in more than 250 schools.

Principal Ed Mathews believes, “BARR has made me a better educator, and it has made my school a happier place.”