When Jennifer Bouckaert began her career in the public schools of Southbridge, Mass., as a school adjustment counselor, she saw that the schools and the students were overwhelmed.
“Students were struggling behaviorally. There weren’t a lot of structures or systems in place to support them. We didn’t have preventative or proactive procedures,” she recalls.
“We were firefighting. We weren’t problem-solving and getting kids what they needed.”
In 2016, Southbridge’s public schools were taken over by officials from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, who put the school system into receivership, citing years of “persistently low student performance” as well as the fact that “Since 2011, seven individuals have served as superintendent, and there has been a similar level of turnover in other leadership positions in the district.”
Massachusetts, the Department said, had provided years of assistance and resources to Southbridge, “but the district-led efforts did not improve student performance significantly.”
Bouckaert worked with her Southbridge schools colleagues to build new systems and structures. They partnered with the Center for Behavioral Education and Research to implement the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program or PBIS.
“The goal was to help build the capacity of the teachers and school staff to create an environment where all students would thrive. We developed a system of positive acknowledgement where students were praised for what they did well and retaught expectations when necessary. This was the beginning of creating a positive, proactive climate and culture.”
When the pandemic arrived, Southbridge was hit hard. As they did in many districts, many children and families struggled to meet basic needs, and schools shifted gears to make remote learning accessible. Unfortunately, many students disengaged from school and achievement gaps grew.
In September of 2021, Southbridge began implementing City Connects, and Bouckaert became a City Connects Program Manager.
“Given my school counselor background and my responsibility directing the PBIS initiative in my district, it just made sense that I would be the program manager and facilitate City Connects. I knew the systems and structures in the schools. I had relationships with the principals. It fit perfectly.”
It fit so perfectly, in fact, that after six months Bouckaert joined City Connects as our Senior Manager of Learning and Development. The heart of her work is teaching City Connects’ practices and principles to our coordinators and program managers as well as to outside educators who enroll in our professional development programs.
“I recently finished creating a social-emotional wellbeing module for our coordinators,” Bouckaert explains. “The idea for it came from feedback we received from both coordinators and program managers in the field who said there has been so much heightened concern about students’ mental health.
“We’ve seen such a rise in referrals for individualized counseling that there aren’t enough clinicians to meet the need. So we brought coordinators together to brainstorm about different ideas for services for students who are struggling.
“There can be pressure to immediately refer students for counseling, but that’s not always appropriate and it’s not always available, so we wanted to strengthen coordinators’ abilities to identify options for students and identify areas where they want to create more interventions. We created a reference chart to help coordinators better understand the context, duration and severity of students’ needs, and we created case studies so they could practice using the chart.”
“If a student does need individualized counseling, but they end up on a waitlist for six weeks, we want coordinators to be able to provide other kinds of support right away.”
Bouckaert also works with the Systemic Student Support (S3) Academy, a Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Program run by the Rennie Center and the Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children that invites schools to dive into the work of providing integrated student support.
“In the academy, we’re encouraging schools to talk about all their students holistically through the four domains of academic social, emotional, behavioral, health and family, and then also talking about their needs and their strengths, really thinking about the assets that students bring.”
Bouckaert sees herself as something of a rocket booster, helping until she’s no longer needed.
“I absolutely love coaching schools, it’s one of my favorite things to do. I love when we’re working on doing the practice together, and then all the sudden I see the lightbulb go off for the educators I’m working with. I just had a school, email me and say, Hey, we’re ready to do this on our own. And that’s my goal to help schools grasp these ideas and run with them.”
Next for Bouckaert is more outreach and more work.
“My hope is to provide all schools with access to this model of integrated student support.”