Baylor Center for School Leadership Leads Miss. Schools to Build Thriving Learning Communities

February 2, 2024
MS team of educators

A team of Baylor Center for School Leadership (BCSL) faculty and staff is paving the way to build thriving learning communities in partnership with the William Magee institute at the University of Mississippi, and teacher leaders from 10 Mississippi public schools that have been impacted by the opioid crisis. 

Marc and Rowena Treitler funded the initial project with a generous gift. Their gift led to additional resources through a grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Building on the BCSL’s improvement science framework and networks, 10 school teams of teachers, administrators, and counselors are using collective leadership to build interventions to enhance student flourishing and reduce substance abuse and misuse. This is the first year of a three-year project to design, pilot, scale, and evaluate interventions.

“The work we are doing in Mississippi could not be more important as student lives are at stake in a state where more than 16 percent of high school students have attempted suicide,” Dr. Jon Eckert, Co-Executive Director of the BCSL and Lynda and Robert Copple Endowed Chair for Christians in School Leadership said. “Baylor’s position as a Christian Research 1 institution and the BCSL’s expertise makes us an ideal catalyst for hope and improvement.”

Led by Eckert, the team includes Dr. Bill Sterrett, Educational Leadership Chair; Dr. Grant Morgan, Associate Dean for Research; and Dr. Marilyn Rhames, BCSL post-doc researcher. The multi-year effort has framed the initial work through the lens of the key concepts of feedback, engagement, and well-being, which anchors Eckert’s recent best-seller from Corwin, Just Teaching. Sterrett, who also serves as Co-Executive Director of the BCSL, brings school improvement research experience and public-school principal experience to the work, while Morgan is leading the research evaluation administration. Rhames is managing the research components and helping connect research to professional development on the ground.

“As a former elementary and middle grades teacher in Chicago, I was eager to apply my research skills to making a direct impact on student lives,” Rhames said. “The vast majority of students do not use substances, but the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that about 30 percent of high schoolers in America are currently using some sort of mind-altering substance. The paradox is that while overall youth drug usage is declining, youth overdose deaths are increasing at an alarming rate.”

During this first year of the project, the school teams from Mississippi are focusing on building an intervention plan that will fit well within their respective school programs, guided by the principles of feedback, engagement, and well-being. Dana Bullard, Ph.D., Oxford High School principal, is a group member of the task force created by Baylor. Her team has begun work on a plan for their next steps.

“We are continuing to utilize our vape detectors to identify students who are using or addicted. Once identified, we have an intervention and support group for those students,” Bullard said. “For the rest of the student body, we are focusing on the positive. We are being proactive in recruiting students into clubs, athletics, the arts, and other small groups so that students have a supportive peer group.”

Bullard also noted that in her school both educators and administrators are working on developing mentoring relationships with students.

“I envision a time when all adults are mentors in the building,” Bullard said. “Our faculty is focused on helping our students reach their hopes and dreams.” 

Through leveraging actions such as staff-student mentoring and climate surveys, some schools reported an initial drop in discipline referrals and increased attendance. Morgan overviewed the research design which will guide efforts, and Eckert, Rhames, and Sterrett have taught sessions on leadership and best practices. 

Eckert is hopeful about the effort, noting, “Whenever we bring teams of educators together around shared problems of practice, I am encouraged by the energy and passion they bring.”

Sterrett echoes Eckert’s sentiment and is encouraged by this work, as it is fulfilling the BCSL’s mission to build better schools, together.

“Through the Thriving Learning Communities project, the Center is a part of a research design to have a long-lasting, sustained impact in fostering healthier school communities,” Sterrett said. “Whether we are engaged in work here in the states, or overseas, we hope to be a positive, consistent presence that can be a reflective partner that helps schools and their leaders see successes for all students.”