Kelsey Carroll looks up at a guidance counselor during a meeting at Somersworth High School in New Hampshire. Credit: Dan Habib/whocaresaboutkelsey.com

“Not a nice person.” That’s how student Kelsey Carroll described herself as a high school freshman. For teachers and administrators, the litany of Kelsey’s issues is wearily familiar: Failing grades, self-mutilation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a history of abuse. How do you reach a student like Kelsey?

In the new film “Who Cares About Kelsey?” airing Sept. 28 on KQED television in San Francisco, director Dan Habib shows how a school’s adoption of an drop-out prevention program that was based on research of what works led to a turnaround in discipline policies, school climate and support for students like Kelsey.

“Kelsey’s story is about a kid who was on a trajectory for dropping out, teen pregnancy and prison – she said this herself – and how a school did some incredibly innovative things to change that trajectory,” said Habib, a filmmaker at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire and director of the documentary “Including Samuel” about classrooms that include children with disabilities.

Figuring out how to help hard-to-reach students is a pressing issue in California under the terms of the new school funding formula law, which requires school districts to prove they are reducing drop-out rates and creating more positive learning environments on campus.

At Somersworth High School in New Hampshire, where Kelsey went to school, drop-out rates were among the highest in the state when administrators, teachers and staff adopted the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach – used by 750 schools in California – to reducing drop-out rates and improving school climate. As part of the new interventions, students leaders created a chart with the name of every student on it and asked to have it put in the faculty lounge. Teachers put a check mark next to students with whom they had a positive connection.

“Some kids had seven or nine connections, and some kids had none,” Habib said. In a show of humanity and an awareness that students perform better academically when they have an adult on campus to connect, faculty chose from the list of “unconnected” students and made a plan to connect with them.

For Kelsey, who had been suspended from school for selling her own medication to students and hadn’t earned a single academic credit as a freshman, a key turning point was the school’s suggestion that she put together her own weekly support team. The goal was to plot a path to change her behavior and achieve the seemingly unreachable goal of graduation. The youth-directed planning program was called Renew, and a high school crisis intervention counselor named Kathy Francoeur was on Kelsey’s team.

“Kelsey says in presentations that there are some people you can tell are going to give up on you,” Habib said. “She will push back, and be a bear, and find out how easily people are going to give up on her. Kathy would never give up on her and finally broke through and gained a deep sense of trust.”

Change happened for Kesley and the school. Within three years of the start of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Somersworth High School reduced its dropout rate by 75 percent, Habib said.

He noted that evidence supports the success of positive, rather than punitive, approaches to students with emotional or behavioral disorders, including bipolar disorder, depression, withdrawal, and aggression.

“Nationally, 40 percent of students with an emotional or behavioral disability graduate from high school,” he said. “Seventy percent of these students never get help.”

“Who Cares About Kelsey?” is airing on public television stations throughout California. Check here or local listings for broadcast times and channels.



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