This 409 program really allows us to keep our students in house, grow their needs and allows the district to just love them and create great success for them moving forward. – Amy Pfender
The goal is for them to be out in the classroom with their peers and interacting, but it’s also a safe haven on many days as well. So it allows that fluid and supportive and responsive atmosphere for our students. – Amy Pfender
It’s just not about the academic side, it’s about this holistic approach to supporting a student for themselves, advocating, becoming self-aware and building trust. – Amy Pfender
Everything that we do is student focused. By doing that we do focus on these small social and emotional growth, which in turn leads to much better achievement for our students. – Barbara Bolas
We really do try to work with our students early on because the earlier we identify their needs and meet their needs, then their whole academic program and school experience is going to be a much more successful time for them. – Barbara Bolas
If you want to see a student who struggles within a school environment, thrive, all you have to do is go on one of the community based service trips that are out there for them. Because they just shine. – Amy Pfender
I would like to thank our board as well, too, because really, and truly we are able to sustain this program because of the dedication our board provides to not just our 409 students, but to our students within special education services. – Amy Pfender
Annette Stevenson: Today we are joined by Barbara Bolas, Upper St Clair School District board president, and Amy Pfender, assistant to the superintendent of the school district. And we’re going to hear more about the district’s 409 Program. Thanks for joining us, Barbara and Amy.Amy Pfender: Thank you.
Barbara Bolas: You’re welcome. Thank you for having us.
Annette Stevenson: Absolutely. So, to start with, let’s just get an overview of the program and we are going to be featuring more about the program in our Bulletin magazine, which I’m excited about, but give us an overview of the program.
Amy Pfender: Our 409 Program at the high school is a program that was designed 15 years ago for students who have significant emotional support needs. That can come out of having a diagnosis of autism, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, but we were recognizing a need to develop a program that supported our more unique learners. So, in one sense, this program has allowed us to really keep our students in district. Many students who suffer from significant therapeutic emotional needs need to go to a more intensive school placement. Under special education law, we are able to provide programming that meets students’ needs through having a special education teacher, a classroom aid, that special education teacher has a strong background in emotional support programming and services. We also have a contracted social worker that works within the classroom to work through and build strategies for students.
Years ago, many of the students would have gone to more specialized out of district programs. So, this 409 Program really allows us to keep our students in house, grow their needs and allows the district to just love them and create great success for them moving forward.
Annette Stevenson: It’s so cool. Is this different than a traditional emotional support classroom scenario?
Amy Pfender: So, in many cases, an emotional support classroom is not as inclusive as our high school model is. Many programs may look more self contained, so that means that the students go to the emotional support classroom and spend a large portion of their day there getting their academic instruction. Whereas our students are going out into the general classroom setting and getting their special education services from the emotional support lens as they need it, and they may have a scheduled time in their schedule to come and receive support. Now, there are times, and this is what’s very special about our 409 Program, is that it is fluid. So, if a student is having a really rough day and they just feel like they can’t go to math and go to English. They stay in 409, they get their classroom work and that teacher helps them do the work. The goal is for them to be out in the classroom with their peers and interacting, but it’s also a safe haven on many days as well. So, it allows that fluid and supportive and responsive atmosphere for our students.
Annette Stevenson: So, it sounds like there’s a lot of flexibility to it. A lot of inclusivity, they are included in all the other types of programs and classrooms scenarios, but if they have a need to have some downtime, they have that ability as well?
Amy Pfender: That’s correct. So, the other thing that’s very nice about the fluidity and flexibility is there are times that students may hit a rough patch throughout their actual school schedule and they’ll communicate, “I just need more 409 time on a daily basis.” So, we meet as a team and we look at their schedule and customize the schedule that’s meant to really support them and get them through that rough patch while they’re also still being successful in their core area classes. So, lots of times, the decisions are also made based off of student input. If we don’t agree with that student, we meet, we talk and we build those skills as well, too. So, it’s just not about the academic side, it’s about this holistic approach to supporting a student for themselves, advocating, becoming self-aware and building trust. There’s a lot of trust that happens in this 409 Program. I like to refer to it as a family and I think that that’s another thing that makes it very different.
The kids, lots of times will refer to their teacher as mom and be like, “Wait, I didn’t mean that.” So, it really, it just has a feel to it that I really can’t put into words, to be honest, for you.
Annette Stevenson: Tell me a bit about the origin of the name, 409. Where does that come from?
Amy Pfender: It’s actually the classroom number at the end of the hall and it is a classroom that’s a little bit, it’s still in the ebb and flow of the building because it’s down by the gym, but it’s also not in the heavy ebb and flow. So, it feels very safe for the students as they’re walking down the hall, it doesn’t have as much hustle and bustle because a lot of our students also just need downtime in their day. It wouldn’t be uncommon if you walk into 409 and saw the kids just leaning up against pillows with earbuds in to just kind of decompress or they’re listening to music and also working on an assignment, but yes, 409 is just the number of the classroom.
Annette Stevenson: Great. So, 409 time is quite literal. Very cool. So, for the perspective of a school board director and from the school board perspective, it’s important of course, that all students are receiving access to high-quality education. How does this program provide a more equitable scenario for Upper St. Claire students?
Barbara Bolas: Well, it’s interesting. We actually have a 50 plus year history of working to develop each child’s own special skills and abilities to their fullest. I mean, that’s going back 50 years when the school board had that as a mission. Actually, our mission today talks about that we will provide learning experiences that nurture the uniqueness of each child and promotes happiness and learning. From our perspective, if a child isn’t happy, they’re not going to learn. They’re not going to be able to perform very well. We actually, five years ago, we got another strategic plan, some districts do what’s called a comprehensive plan and it’s put on a shelf, but ours is a living breathing document. We’re going to be working on another one. But during that, with our last strategic plan, even part of the customizing, learning and nurturing potential of our students, one of our key tenets was to work with a collaborative process to enhance our responsiveness to social and emotional learning needs of students and structure the time of the day and the growth and the mindset for all teaching and learning.
So, all of our students can have that social and emotional growth, which in turn helps them achieve academically. Everyone knows we are a high achieving school district, but we believe so strongly in the whole child. We actually recite our mission statement at every single board meeting so that we are focusing in on this, the whole child, that we are a student-focused district. We go through a curriculum developed process, we look at that curriculum twice a year. Everything that we do is student focused. By doing that we do focus on social and emotional growth, which in turn leads to much better achievement for our students.
Annette Stevenson: Looking at the whole student, as you said. Now, the program is at the high school level. Could it possibly be used at a younger, at any of the younger ages as well?
Barbara Bolas: It could be, but we do have a very strong emotional support program K through 12, and that one would have to look at it and see how adaptable it is and what they’re currently doing in their schools. And then look at the thesis (8:33) that would look like being successful for the elementary child, and even elementary children need time out every now and then. Back to the whole child and giving them the opportunity sometimes to just take a quick breath to say, “Hey, stop, hesitate, give me a break and then I can go back into the learning classroom.” Amy, if you have anything you want to add onto that.
Amy Pfender: I think that what’s unique in an early elementary perspective is that we are seeing mental health needs increase. I think that’s a common trend across districts and across the country at a younger age. So, we do have a more structured emotional support program, five through eight that was developed several years ago as an offspring of the 409 Program. In terms of our early elementary, we do have kind of checks and balances naturally in place to our systems that work to meet those needs. But those are also in many cases, students who we continue to watch and monitor for individual success in the district to determine what additional supports may be needed as they continue to grow in our educational system.
Barbara Bolas: Amy, I think you bring something up that’s really critical, is that we really do try to work with our students early on because the earlier we identify their needs and meet their needs, then their whole academic program and school experience is going to be a much more successful time for them.
Annette Stevenson: There’s five key barriers to achievement that the program has identified to overcome in the program’s work to help students achieve success. What are these barriers?
Amy Pfender: We looked at the barriers and really specific ways that students can overcome those barriers. When you meet each of our students in the emotional support program, you can see how this happens. So, we uncover the gifts of each student, despite his or her challenges and providing those opportunities to grow. Each of our students, one of their barriers is they have their own personal challenges that they bring to the table every single day, we help them overcome them by collaborating with parents and outside providers. We are also working to address the therapeutic needs of students. So many students have outside supports, we also have many students who are not accessing supports outside of the school system. So, our social worker and our special education teacher are their network in helping them grow and access therapy. We provide the necessary academic supports and accommodations, so many of our students don’t necessarily have academic barriers.
They are reading on grade level, they are accessing math on grade level. It’s their world around them, those emotional challenges that impact and become barriers to their academic success. So, we work to provide those necessary supports. Then we also work to enhance their social skills development through the community-based learning. And if you want to see a student who struggles within a school environment thrive, all you have to do is go on one of the community-based service trips that are out there for them because they just shine.
Barbara Bolas: That brings up a point, actually, the students had a presentation at the board meeting, and it was so exciting to see this one girl. It was obvious she had some issues, but she just blossomed when she talked about the program and how when she needed a timeout, she could go to the 409 classroom and once she was there and took a deep breath, she was able to go back into the regular classroom setting. From a board perspective, to have those types of programs actually presented during the board meeting, it helps the board understand how rewarding and fulfilling these programs can be and better entice them to fund them. Because it is a different structure financially for the school district and sometimes spending money differently, gives more rewards than the traditional way of funding programs.
Annette Stevenson: That’s a great point, and to hear it directly from the students themselves being impacted, what better way to understand how important that it is?
Barbara Bolas: Absolutely.
Annette Stevenson: So, you mentioned the community service projects, Amy. Give me an example, if you can think of one, of what that would look like.
Amy Pfender: So, one that we do annually is Toys for Tots, helping to sort toys and get this packaged and delivered for the holiday season. Another really big one is visiting senior citizen homes and being there for activity time and having our students wear like a Velcro pullover shirt and the senior citizens are throwing Velcro balls at them and they are moving targets, and just the video footage is amazing. The whole room comes alive and unfortunately, depending on the need of the senior citizen, some of them may need hand-over-hand assistance to throw that ball and there’s our students standing beside another individual, helping them overcome their own barrier at that point in time. So, it’s really unique to see the transfer of skills. So, we’re teaching our students how to overcome their own personal barriers. And then they’re going into another environment and shifting that learning and providing some different opportunities to people who are experiencing different barriers for themselves, given where they are at their point in life.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah. I was just thinking that what a neat connection, that the students that may require some additional support themselves are able to go and observe and be part of the additional support to another individual or group of individuals. That’s really cool.
Amy Pfender: There’s a really big incentive too, because our students love going out on those trips. So, if a trip is scheduled on a Friday and on Wednesday, it’s like X, Y, and Z still has not been done well, how much do you want to go and be a part of this? Because we go as a family, we work as a team. So, you have to pull your weight here in the classroom. So, it really serves as a strong incentive as well, too.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, well-rounded. So, the 409 Program was established 15 years ago, I understand. How has the program grown since its inception? Where did it start and where is it now as far as student participation?
Amy Pfender: So, from a student participation lens, it is a program that is recommended through the special education process. From a caseload standpoint, we average right now anywhere between 25 to 28 students a year. We really look at the unique needs of the learners and what 409 will provide to them. In terms of the growth of the program, I talked a little bit about how we’ve looked to develop some more emotional support programming at the five through eight level. So, that would not have happened had we not have had a successful 409 Program at the high school. But we are constantly evaluating the program and building in different layers of support. So, we have worked with a local university professor to come in and help be a consultant to our teams because she can look at student needs very differently. In many cases, not as personally as we do, because we care so much about the kids. The parental supports have definitely grown over time because we are growing our inner agency connections with those outside supports and able to support our parents.
Because as we all know, home can look very different from the school environment as well, too. So though there’s challenges and barriers that are happening in the school setting, home can look that much more challenging as well, too. So, we are also here for our parents as well.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah. Important. That’s an important layer. If our listeners would like to know more about the program, where can they find out more details?
Amy Pfender: So, they can certainly go to the Upper St Claire School District website and access any one of our contacts, which could include myself. We have an in-depth special education page that they could access and also contact our director of student support services. Honestly, anybody in the district who has worked within the 409 Program would be happy to talk about it at any time. So, anybody who would like to reach out to any of those contacts on our district website, we’d be happy to spend some time with them as well.
Annette Stevenson: Great. Well, thank you both, Barbara, Amy, thanks so much for sharing the information that you have and hopefully this may help inspire other programs, starters, and other ideas that are being generated in other districts. Thank you so much.
Barbara Bolas: Yeah, thank you for having us.
Amy Pfender: You’re welcome. And I would like to thank our board as well, too, because really, and truly we are able to sustain this program because of the dedication our board provides to not just our 409 students, but to our students within special education services. This is really a unique program in the sense that it keeps students in district and as a result is, though there’s an investment from a district lens, it’s also a cost savings standpoint. I know Barb hit on that earlier, but we couldn’t do this without the support of our board and their knowledge base as well when it comes to providing appropriate supports and education to our students.
Annette Stevenson: Congratulations on the award as well.
Amy Pfender: Thank you so much.
Barbara Bolas: Thank you very much, it’s exciting.
Amy Pfender is the assistant to the superintendent for grades 9-12 of the Upper St. Clair School District. She started working in public education as a special education teacher 19 years ago. Prior to her current role in the district, Amy was the director of student support services and Boyce Middle School principal for grades 5 and 6.
Barbara Bolas is a 43-year resident of Upper St. Clair, with a long history of service to the USC community and the school district. Barbara has devoted much of her adult life to education and to public service. After graduating with a B.S. in Education from State University of New York (Brockport), Mrs. Bolas held teaching positions in New York, Wisconsin, Canada and Venezuela. She has always believed that public education is the cornerstone of America’s democracy, and she soon sought to make a broader impact through school board service and other leadership roles, from the local to the national level. She was first elected to the Upper St. Clair School Board in 1985 and is proud to have helped build a legacy of educational excellence in USC. She currently serves as president of Upper St. Clair Board of School Directors.
As her commitment to public education grew, Barbara became involved in advocacy at the state and national levels, eventually serving as president of both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) in 2001 and, ultimately, as president of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) in 2008-09. Her NSBA position took her to nearly every state in the nation, and to countries abroad to experience cutting edge, best practices in education. These experiences have given her important insights as a school director in Upper St. Clair.
While Mrs. Bolas has held numerous offices and continues to serve both PSBA and NSBA in advisory roles, her strongest commitment has always been, and will continue to be, at home in Upper St. Clair. Her experiences have enabled her to stay on top of emerging education issues and trends and have kept her abreast of the latest regulatory, legal and financial issues in education. In her leadership roles, Barbara has been exposed to the best (and worst) of school board management and the direct correlation on student performance. She strongly believes that Upper St. Clair is successful because the school board has always encouraged innovation and exploration by the administration and staff. Barbara continues to have a passion for serving our children and the Upper St. Clair community. She hopes to continue bringing her rich experience to the district and to leading continual improvement in our great schools.
When she is not busy with school-related commitments, Barbara enjoys community service in the Brookside Woman’s Club, gardening, and, most of all, visiting her three grandchildren with her husband, Jim.