• May 7, 2020

    USCHS program earns national honor

    Magna Award Winner Upper St. Clair High School’s therapeutic emotional support program was recently named a first-place award winner in the 25th annual Magna Awards, sponsored by the National School Boards Association's flagship magazine, American School Board Journal.

    This is the third year that the Magna Awards have focused on recognizing school districts and their leaders for their efforts to bring educational equity to their students.

    “Focusing on equity requires school leaders to think differently and creatively,” Thomas J. Gentzel, National School Boards Association executive director and CEO, said. “The 2020 Magna Award-winning districts showcase the amazing and innovative work going on in public schools to ensure students are supported and provided with the tools and opportunities needed to succeed.”

    Known simply as the 409 Program – named after its room location – the program’s goal is to provide students with significant mental health needs the opportunity to fully participate in their high school.

    “Meeting individual children's needs from both a developmental and programmatic perspective is something about which the staff and students associated with the program should be very proud,” Dr. Timothy Wagner, Upper St. Clair High School principal, said. “The 409 Program is another way that Upper St. Clair High School continues to fulfill its mission on behalf of our residents.”

    Students receive comprehensive learning supports, intensive therapeutic/emotional supports, behavior management, social skills training, individualized coursework, and community-based service-learning opportunities.

    “409 is more than a program. It is a place that means something different to each student and family given the uniqueness of the program,” Amy Pfender, assistant to the superintendent, said. “The most rewarding part is seeing the individual successes of students and hearing about their accomplishments after high school.” 

    The 409 Program was created 15 years ago in response to parental concern regarding children’s ability to attend high school if they exhibited emotional and behavioral issues that impacted their learning.

    “At that time, an appropriate program did not exist at USC. Therefore, students with significant mental health issues attended specialized schools outside the district,” Mrs. Pfender said. “Going outside the district left many of those students feeling ostracized and, in some cases, it negatively impacted their lives within the community.”

    The 409 Program serves approximately 25 students with a team that includes a highly trained emotional support teacher, learning support teacher, paraprofessional, social worker, and behavior specialist as well as outside therapists and psychiatrists. 

    “Within the 409 classroom, staff members create a therapeutic environment, where students can share their struggles and seek help from adults as well as their peers,” Mrs. Pfender said. “The classroom has become a sanctuary for students. Within this supportive community, students can begin to develop resiliency and experience more success in high school.”

    Participating students qualify for special education services and exhibit a variety of mental health diagnoses, including autism, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and/or oppositional defiant disorder.

    “The relationships that are formed between the adults and students are clearly the most rewarding aspect of the program,” Dr. Dan Beck, assistant principal, said. “We believe that students who have these positive relationships with adults - and each other - are more likely to have a positive and engaging high school experience.”

    The 409 Program seeks to remove the barriers to achievement in five key ways:

    1. uncovering the gifts of each student despite his/her challenges and providing opportunities to grow,
    2. collaborating with parents and outside providers,
    3. addressing the therapeutic needs of students,
    4. providing the necessary academic supports and accommodations, and
    5. enhancing social skills development through community-based service learning.

    “409 is a community. One of the most important aspects of a community is feeling a sense of belonging, connectedness, or membership - and that's what takes place in this classroom,” Dr. Beck said. “We believe that students that are connected to the 409 community are less likely to engage in problematic behaviors. Further, we also believe that these students will do better academically, grow socially, and adapt emotionally.”

    Students receive individual and group therapeutic sessions to address their diagnoses and presenting problems. When students experience behavioral challenges within their general education classes, the emotional support teacher and licensed social worker collaborate with teachers to create solutions.

    Academic and learning needs also are addressed. Students are scheduled into any high school course that meets their needs. Some students participate in honors and Advanced Placement classes, while others enroll in academic classes or vocational-technical experiences. Academic supports are delivered based on each student’s needs. Students have access to the 409 classroom throughout the day and can receive academic instruction as needed to support their involvement in general education classes.

    “The 409 Program has been a life-changing program for students and their families,” Dr. Wagner said. “Over the past 15 years, 85 students have graduated from Upper St. Clair High School after participating in the program – 41 of whom completed postsecondary education.”

    The 409 Program also provides unique opportunities for students to enhance their social skills development through community-based service-learning trips. 

    “Each month the 409 students and adults participate in a day-long service trip to local organizations such as Kane Hospital, Jubilee Soup Kitchen, World Vision, and Toys for Tots,” Dr. Wagner said. “Once again, students with huge challenges are placed in a position where they are recognized and appreciated.”

    The Magna Awards, supported by Sodexo, a leader in delivering sustainable, integrated facilities management and food service operations, honor districts across the country for programs that break down barriers for underserved students. An independent panel of school board members, administrators, and other educators selected the winners from more than 100 submissions.

    This year’s three grand prize winners and 15 first place winners were selected from three enrollment categories: under 5,000 students, 5,000 to 20,000 students, and over 20,000 students.

    This marks Upper St. Clair School District’s third Magna Award recognition from the National School Boards Association. In 2013, the district was named a first-place winner for its Student Leadership Academy, which helps students understand how they can change the world through their leadership. In 2017, SHOP@USC was selected as one of three national Grand Prize Winners. SHOP@USC (Showing How Opportunity Pays @ Upper St. Clair) is a fully-inclusive student-run business housed within Upper St. Clair High School’s Innovation Hub. Students in the Life Skills program and their regular education partners design and manufacture USC spirit-wear products while learning how to develop a business plan that includes all aspects such as pricing, marketing, sales and inventory of products.

    2020 Magna Awards: Grand Prize Winners

    • Under 5,000 enrollment – Fremont County School District #6, Pavillion, Wyoming
    • 5,000 to 20,000 enrollment –Liberty Public Schools, Liberty, Missouri
    • Over 20,000 enrollment – Moreno Valley Unified School District, Moreno Valley, California

    2020 Magna Award First Place Winners

    Under 5,000 students:

    • Bergenfield Public Schools, Bergenfield, New Jersey
    • CodeRVA Regional High School, Richmond, Virginia
    • Manassas Park City Schools, Manassas, Virginia
    • Shawnee Public Schools, Shawnee, Oklahoma
    • Upper St. Clair School District, Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania 

    5,000 to 20,000 students:

    • Cajon Valley Union School District, El Cajon, California
    • Meriden Public Schools Meriden, Connecticut
    • Roseville Area Schools Roseville, Minnesota
    • San Luis Coastal Unified School District, San Luis Obispo, California
    • Vail Unified School District Vail, Arizona

    Over 20,000 students:

    • Compton Unified School District, Compton, California
    • Guilford County Schools, Greensboro, North Carolina
    • Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District, Bedford, Texas
    • Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, Maryland
    • Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Virginia Beach, Virginia