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Bridging to Resilience Series: Tyler Swalley Episode 45

Bridging to Resilience Series: Tyler Swalley

· 19:00


RS 45 Tyler Swalley

[00:00:00] All right. Welcome to the Resilient Schools Podcast. We are here live at SDAC's Bridging to Resilience Conference, and we have Tyler Swally, uh, who's a principal. Tyler, why don't you introduce yourself a little bit and tell us about

I'm a principal at Opportunity Academy in Newton, Kansas. We serve 7th through 12th grade students. We serve three separate populations. We serve a residential, like foster care. Home, that kids have a PR, they're in a PRTF, which stands for Psychiatric Residential Treatment.

we also have private pay PRTF kids, um, so they're working to reintegrate back home with their, their parents. And then I serve the Newton Public Schools community, um, kids that have struggled for various reasons. Anxiety, depression, attendance, they're maybe disruptive, whatever. With the Newton Public Schools community, so.

you? Okay. And how far away from Wichita is Newton?

it's about [00:01:00] 25 minutes

Okay, so basically a suburb of Wichita. Okay, cool. Very good. so You work with kids who are going through a lot right and and so they're they're in a super difficult situation that it's it's basically not safe for them to be not in your Opportunity Academy and it's a Do the kids live there as well, or?

So the, the girls that, the group home girls and the PRTF girls, they live on campus. and there's little cottages. There's one north of us and one south of us. And they just walk, walk to school every day, their staff. And so, uh, we have a partnership with the, uh, Ember Hope Youthville.

Which is kind of the, the organization that takes care of them and is putting all that on. Cool. So, uh.

the group home girls and the PR tech folks, they live on campus. Okay. And there's their cottages as well. Okay. Yeah, okay. They're studying. Okay. We have a partnership with them. Okay. Cool. So, uh, when

So interestingly enough, I thought about becoming like a high school principal or [00:02:00] athletic director, and, wife has always, it's al it was always a dream of hers.

Um, and I, she let me know on like our second date, uh, that she wanted to be a foster parent. And so, We, at the time, uh, so we got married and shortly after that we began, uh, our parenting courses for foster care and, my second, it, so it would have been my second year in grad school or whatever, we had kids come to us, so, um, they are now, we, we adopted all three of them, um, their siblings set, um, but we were, we were foster parents through Ember Hope Youthville, who happens to be the organization that Newton Public Schools Partners with.

So as we were, going through the process of, you know, just having them and doing all that, Ember Hope and USD 373 got together and they wanted to open a school. And so they announced it in one of our high school staff meetings that they were opening up this alternative school partnering with Ember Hope and it was like, Never thought of it,

They announced

like, this is what I'm doing with my life right now anyway.

I've got [00:03:00] kids in care, gonna be working with the kids in care, and so, it's just kind of evolved. It just kind of fell in my lap, honestly. It didn't, wasn't a plan, um, I can't imagine doing anything different now.


being a part of, like I, I think alternative schools, like, it's just gotta, it's so much better than regular.

So why do you say it's better than regular?

So, I think of it as like, I think it's a challenge, but it's like a fun challenge.

we are the last stop. we are the, most of these kids last chance. And so, there's no other place to go send them. So I have to figure, we have to figure it out, my staff and I.


It's, it's something if, if we don't help these kids, then they're gonna struggle the rest of their life.


And so, I love that aspect of it. Uh, you get to know the kids. So we have about 60 kids in the building, so I can go, it's, it's a hallway long. I mean, I can go class to class to class and see every kid, every [00:04:00] day, get to know 'em, talk to 'em.

And even though I'm not in the classroom, I can be a part of their daily life, it's, I'm not so removed like a traditional school where

where the

time you go into your principal's office it seems, you know, is for discipline, and so it's like for, for me it's like I can greet them every morning and I see every kid, I know who's there, who's not, I mean, and so you just get to know them on a different level.

a different level.

with my thought about what makes a school like yours so powerful is similar to what you're saying, but it's also about that.

Like you're the last chance, but also you're, you're the best chance. Like they don't have anything to lose at that point either, right? Like, so you're both coming to this recognizing that, like, where do we go from here?

Like, it's pretty much like really bad situations only from here on out. Jail, homelessness, suicide, other things, like, it's, a [00:05:00] bad place to be in. And so it could be easy to think that there's no hope, but what do you see about hope in your school?

So that's a big thing that we, we push is, you know, to love the kids, give them hope, provide them with an opportunity, you know.

Each day is a clean slate.

Um, and we just try and get to know the kid, their story, what's going on, why, you know, what led them to this point, what happened for them to get here, and then how can we best help them from day to day. so, like, our students, I have, I have six teachers, I have a middle school room, and then I have five high school classrooms.

The, the kids are in that room all day, every day.

and then I

So they have the same teacher. It's kind of like going back to elementary

gets to know

right? But that teacher gets to know them, their quirks. You know, maybe when they're getting anxious, they can kind of, you pick up on those really quick. Um,

I figure by the time we've had a kid for two or three full weeks, that's [00:06:00] probably, you know,

a quarter

of what it would take for a high school teacher to get to know that kid, right?

And so it's like we've already spent all that time,


Yeah, that's really powerful. so, what is something really amazing that you're doing at your school that you think is just like, hitting the nail on the head? Oh,

amazing that you think is just like hitting the nail on the head? we, we had the news come through a couple weeks ago, so, I have a, I have an aide at my building, so there's a teacher and an aide in every classroom for the ten kids, and, um, I've had an aide that's been with us for, um, like four and a half years, uh, she came to us kind of midway through the first year, and, She's taken on a couple of different little projects, so it started with, we didn't really have many books in our library, and she got those donated.

Well, her most recent project was picked up by Cake News, uh, her name's Shawna McGinnis, and she stopped by my office one day and was like, Hey, you know, some of our kids just don't have very good clothes. Do you mind if I turn the old girls locker room into, like, a little clothing closet? [00:07:00] Sure, yeah, whatever.

That's, that was my involvement in


right there, and, uh, she's collected, Clothing. And so our kids have renamed it the Drip Closet to get new, new drip clothes, you know, and they go, they want to go in there and they'll leave with bags and bags of really nice clothes,

leave nice clothes. You

and you can just see it on their faces.

They're feeling good about how they look. Um, there's that big confidence boost with that. And so, uh, that's been something that's been really cool and it's kind of grown this year. She's turning her sights on to the boys locker room so that she can expand it a little bit.

That's cool.

yeah, Kate News came through and did it.

Um, it's open to, they take them for free, right? And so if they want to take it for their siblings,

whatever, yeah. So it's all set up where they can just kind of come and take what you need. And

so the kids really enjoy that.

That's really great.

Those are, those are the kinds of things that, you know, when we think about like Maslow's hierarchy of [00:08:00] needs, like having your clothing taken care of and not having to worry about that is, is a bigger deal than we often give it credit for. Like it's just clothes, like who cares if you're wearing hand me downs.

But, um, but I was listening to a, to a talk this morning and the guy was talking about how he always managed to get new clothes for school, but his mom would wear the same. skirts and dresses all the time and she never got anything new but he always shows found a way to make sure that he did those are little things but they're also really big things.

when you you think about the the kids you're working with a lot of times They may come to you and the kids that I interviewed that have spoken at this conference, a lot of them talked about how, they felt like people didn't really see them, didn't know them. There could be this lack of trust between the kids and the system.

And this is just another school, they don't really care about me like my last school didn't. How do you help them feel [00:09:00] seen besides the clothing thing? But what other things do you do to help them feel seen and like they're real people?

thing, but what other things do you do to like they're real people?

speak their Yeah.

Cussing, things like that, and it's like, but that's just what's spoken at their house, and that's their lingo, that's how they've grown up, and so, not taking offense to that, you know, making things kind of, you know, when they get upset, like, not taking it personal, things like that have been huge, um, and then just showing up consistently, checking in on them, talking to them, having conversations, being interested in whatever it is, figuring out what they like, they dislike, and spending time investing in them.

each kid's a little bit different, um, but there'll be times where I'll just call them down to my office and we'll just sit and talk, like, [00:10:00] you can tell you're not doing well right now, or something's off, like, let's talk, it's, you know, judge free zone, I know you're struggling with something, and we just start talking, and, I operate the building on it's not a gotcha moment, you know, I want you to understand, I want to promote honesty, right?

So, one of the things is, is kids have to turn in their phones every day. but we've always got a couple of kids that are like, they're trying to sneak in the phone, or they're trying to do stuff, and it's like, no, I want you to be able to have a conversation with me, be honest, because that's how we build trust.

And it's like, I'm not looking to suspend you or send you home every time you screw up. And I think a lot of our kids just kind of assume,

ran one in

um, you know, I've

had kids that,

that's what they want.

well no,

it's like, well no, I, I, I can't build a relationship with you, I can't talk to you, engage with you, work with you, if you're not here.

So, you know, I'm going to keep you here even though you don't want to be. And we're gonna figure this out, right? You [00:11:00] know, I'm not the person for everyone, but I hope one of my teachers is, if I'm not, right? And so, you know, I tell them, just find one person here that you can connect with and that you appreciate, whatever.

If it's me, great. If it's someone else, awesome.

Awesome. And, and so do they find one person?


I mean, pretty much everyone has.

We've had pretty good success with just about every student, I think we've graduated over a hundred students in the first five years that we've been open, and we only have 50 or 60 at a

Yeah, that's good.

And so, um, we feel really good about that. I think our biggest struggle is just when I can't get a kid to come to the building.

Um, that's, that's one thing I wish I could figure out, is


how do I get kids into my building that

isn't a building?

They, they hate school so much, they've had so much struggles with it, the anxiety, whatever it is. getting them to the building is like, probably our most difficult thing. For just a couple, like, if they don't show, it's, it's really hard for them to connect.

If they, if [00:12:00] they show up and give us a shot, I really, like, they're so, they always find


But, like, I have, I've had like one or two over the first five years that I'm like, if you would just come.


You know, and so, but I don't know whether it's


family life that's holding it, you know, they gotta, they feel like they gotta work, or there's other things, but we chip away at the kids and just make sure they find a person, and I, if they come, they find a person.

Yeah. Yeah. That's pretty cool. And I think that there's a lot of value in that idea of just showing up


you know, you don't have to be perfect when you're here. You don't have to be your best, but if you're here, then we got the skills and the tools to teach you and connect with you. But if you don't show up like we can't do anything.

And, and so that just makes it really challenging. One of my previous jobs was being principal of a prison school, and, you know, it's kind of that same idea, like, this is, [00:13:00] this is the last step, like, there's nothing worse than being in prison, and so, how are you guys gonna show up in this situation, and, in, in that situation, it was that they, they lost a lot of privileges if they weren't good in school, and so, they didn't get their free time at the end of the day, uh, and, You know, so they worked really hard to, to be there and to be appropriate, but that doesn't mean that they were like engaged in the learning, right?

And, and so how do you manage that part, the academic part of it, and how do you approach that?

so we've, we incentivize, similar to like the free time, we incentivize, um, their work and work completion.

Um, so the, the big thing there is, is trying to increase time on task. it's interesting, some of our kids, they're like, well, if I sit next to the teacher, she just gives me all the answers. I'm like, no she doesn't. And I go and I [00:14:00] sit there and I'll watch and I'll go. No, the teacher taught you and you learned, like, this is, but, you know, we, we're not without our faults.

Some of our kids are definitely, you know, they're there to kind of coast through, so we do everything on ingenuity, and it's, it's all computer based, because I've got kids all over the place in terms of what they need. And so, that can be. You know, some, some kids are really highly engaged and motivated to learn and some it's like, Hey, we're just working to kind of show you that you can do this and you can achieve it.

And so, um, we do an individual plan of study for each kid based on what credits they need, um, for the state minimum to graduate. And we have conversations and you just kind of slowly chip away and, you know, the big thing that I've noticed too is as we've gone through this process is teachers have built rapport with the kids in the room and then.

As we add a new kid, you add one or two new kids, and you, you know, your older kids kind of become your leaders, and then you're just kind of teaching kids and bringing them along.


You know, so a lot of our students do a [00:15:00] lot of encouraging, or like, they'll provide you with that positive buy in, right? Like, hey, no, no, this is a good teacher.

Like, you're taken care of, like, just give it time, right? Trust what they have to say. The academics, uh, is something we're trying to kind of keep building on, but...

trying to kind of keep building on. Yeah. Well, and truly the academics is not as important as them, as the other things that they're learning, right? Exactly. And so, like, we put a lot of emphasis on that as educators because that's what we think our job is. But really our job is to help them be good adults, right?

Yeah. And so... So, like, you don't, you don't really need algebra to be a good adult, but you do need to, you need self regulation. You do need patience. You need kindness. You need love. Like, those are all things that you need, and those are, more difficult to measure, more difficult to teach, but are so powerful and so impactful in how people live

that it's worth it to, to do that.

And so,

Yeah, [00:16:00] this has been good. Thank you for your time. Thanks for being here, Tyler. And, uh, look forward to staying in touch and learning more from you in the future.

Awesome. Appreciate it. Thank you so much.

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