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Teaching kids with behavioral health problems

June 15, 2009
by Mark Bialzik
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The principal of a school specifically for these children shares his approach

As the longtime principal of Kradwell School, which serves students with behavioral health issues, I wasn’t surprised when we received an international award from Planetree, a group dedicated to patient-centered care. But I was thrilled.

Kradwell School, part of Aurora Health Care, won the Healthy Communities Award, which honors health systems that work with schools and other community partners to improve the health of the larger community. In fact, Aurora won 15 awards for its patient-centered care during Planetree’s annual convention last September.

Our school, in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, serves children in grades 5-12 with behavioral health needs and has had a statewide reputation for patient-centered care for many years. A private school nestled on the lush, green campus of Aurora Health Care’s Aurora Psychiatric Hospital, Kradwell offers a safe, supportive environment for students heretofore unsuccessful in school. I can’t tell you how proud I am of our staff’s and our students’ accomplishments.

The Kradwell School

The best reward is seeing tearful, proud parents at our graduations. These are parents who had almost given up in frustration as their families searched for answers for their children. We’ve had many of those success stories, including students who not only have graduated, but also graduated early.

Kradwell School fulfills a great need for children who do not succeed in a traditional school environment because of learning disabilities, depression, bipolar disorder, and other problems. Some simply are at risk of failing to graduate. Our teachers tailor the education to fit the student, and it’s amazing to see what our students can achieve when provided unique ways to learn and grow. Many Kradwell students are gifted and talented, although they may have trouble fitting into the expected mold.

The unusual aspect of Kradwell is its affiliation with the largest not-for-profit integrated health system in the state. When Aurora acquired the psychiatric hospital campus, it continued to maintain the school, which is so vital to students throughout southeast Wisconsin. Aurora provides the teaching staff and payroll, HR, and accounting services, as well as covers maintenance and administrative costs. It charges no rent for the building.

And although Kradwell is a private school, scholarships are available. Many school districts pay the tuition for students who need a specialized learning environment, with Kradwell receiving referrals from about 24 school districts in the area.

Students have the option of attending Kradwell for their entire education or returning to their mainstream school when they feel ready. This “incubator” atmosphere helps students feel more confident in their abilities, and many kids decide that they’re ultimately strong enough to leave the nest and move on.

To some students, Kradwell’s nurturing environment is not just a benefit but vital to their overall well-being, as demonstrated by the following diary entry shared by one of our students. It was written before she entered Kradwell:

When I go to school, the teachers expect so much that I cannot give. I could study 24 hours, 7 days a week and take a test but still do bad on it. Anytime I take a quiz my mind goes blank and I cannot remember anything.... I wish that I could go to a special school which would make me a lot more comfortable and happy. I wouldn’t be made fun of. I know I shouldn’t let things get to me but I do.

In a letter to me following summer school in 2000, her mother wrote:

After my daughter’s first month at Kradwell School, it became evident she was comfortable with the individualized instruction and supportive staff. Before leaving for school in the morning she opened the shutters and windows in her bedroom; something she had not done the previous few years. There seemed to be relief from the fear and anxiety she previously felt in her academic setting. As a parent, I was most impressed by the staff’s perception in anticipating areas of concern and acting on them before they become problematic.

Speaking of parents, we make sure to involve them in their children’s academic life. Progress reports (report cards) are issued every six weeks, and we take the unique step of sending weekly progress notes as well. These reports and notes are mailed directly to parents or guardians.

Kradwell’s structure is unique yet fulfills all the requirements necessary for any other Wisconsin school. Students attend a half-day, either in the morning or afternoon. Individualized instruction is key. For example, one student had a diagnosis of OCD, anxiety, and depression and had just begun taking medication. He had an additional challenge because poor time-management skills are one of the characteristics of OCD. The teaching staff reached back to their roots, when the school served inpatients, to collaborate with the clinical team to deal with each of these challenges. The student had above-average academic performance, so the focus was on his behavioral needs, based on clinical decisions and recommendations. Ultimately, the boy returned to his former high school as a junior.

The school staff considers all the needs of the student, in and out of the classroom. And that’s really what makes Kradwell unique.