June 23, 2024


Science It Works

N.J. district may have game-changer for learning disruptions | Editorial

Many people in K-12 and special education circles are talking about “The Clayton Model (or “The Clayton Pilot”) as innovative and revolutionary.

Far fewer people, especially outside the ivory-tower loop that encircles education-policy academia, know that the reference is to the small Clayton Borough public school district in Gloucester County.

Briefly, the Clayton Model is what’s known in the trade as a social-emotional learning (SEL) program. In layman’s terms, SEL is a way of getting school to work for those with behavioral and other issues that can disrupt classes for all students, bring on disciplinary actions that are either unnecessary or too punitive, result in dubious special-education placements, and otherwise make things more difficult for students and instructors.

What’s different about the Clayton Model? First, it’s been around since 2008, when the district opened the Child Connection Center that administers this SEL program. Second, its resources (and the center) are available to all of the district’s pre-K-to-5th grade students, not just those who are singled out by the system as potentially at-risk.

The program provides a cornucopia of support services for both students and teachers, and for parents at home, and is capable of surrounding them with an intervention-like response when required.

The lab, if you will, for the program is the Herma Simmons School, the Clayton district’s sole elementary building. But, this is the Clayton Model’s day in the sun. The model has spread to schools across Gloucester County, including those in Deptford, Elk Township, Paulsboro and Westville, as well as Gloucester City in Camden County. Some of the expansion has been funded by federal CARES Act money, but plans are underway to make it available statewide, starting as a pilot program.

Based on legislation signed three months ago by Gov. Phil Murphy — which had been championed by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, both D-3, the program will roll out to five more schools in Gloucester County, plus others picked as pilot sites in one North Jersey and one Central Jersey county.

Backers say the Clayton Model reduces truancy, suspensions and expulsions, and has improved the culture in the Clayton district. The claims will be put to the test by the Sen. Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University in Camden, which is also aiding in implementing the expansion.

Clayton Superintendent Nikolaos Koutsogiannis told the Philadelphia Inquirer recently that he expects the program will be especially helpful this fall, when many children will be returning to the classroom full time for the first time since COVID-19 hit. The change is expected to bring an elevated share of emotional, mental health and readjustment issues. Outside of the pandemic, the Clayton Model could turn out to be an effective response to research that shows that minority children — and, particularly Black boys — are disproportionately suspended, expelled or shoved off to schools for behavioral problems, compared to white kids dealing with the same issues.

Last week, the Clayton Model was featured in a segment of WHHY-FM’s “Radio Times,” with the Rand Institute’s Ross Whiting as a guest. Also involved are Lisa Twomey, who directs the Child Connection Center for the Clayton district, and the Gloucester County Special Services District, which is tailoring some initiatives originally designed for its special-needs students.

Time will tell, as the cliche goes, whether or not the Clayton Model is a panacea for tearing down some of this young generation’s barriers to learning. If innovative approaches do not get tested, however, today’s adults will have failed their communities and their children. A cheer here, for everyone who has helped to take to the next level a model that started out serving just one 1,500-student district.

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.

Send a letter to the editor of South Jersey Times at [email protected]

Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.