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SIE interviews Andrea Gruber on transforming education in Győr

Andrea Gruber is the Director of CEE Operations at Pressley Ridge. Today, she’s speaking with SIE regarding a project called Towards Successful and Productive Living, which aims to transform the educational experience of school children in a socially deprived neighbourhood in Győr, Hungary.

Pressley Ridge’s CEE office, the Pressley Ridge Hungary Foundation, has created an educational program that helps children and families with complex needs.

The program is an intensive educational service that helps kids to successfully integrate into their family, and neighbourhood, and they will also be able to integrate into traditional schools. The method is based on the Re-EDucation philosophy that is used in Pressley Ridge schools and programmes throughout the US since the 1960s.

Could you tell us a bit more about the Pressley Ridge method? How does it work in practice, in Győr?

The Pressley Ridge method is a strength-based approach which works not only with the child but also with his/her whole ecology.  We base our interventions on the Re-Education of Emotionally Disturbed Children philosophy, or Re-ED for short.  First of all we focus on helping the child overcome his/her own behavior that is disturbing for others.  In other words, we work with children and youth who are very aggressive or violent.  We believe that the child is aggressive NOT because he/she wants to annoy us, but because this is the only way he/she can express some unmet need of his/hers.  If this is the case, then we can work with him/her to “unlearn” this behavior and learn more productive ways to express his/her needs.  To achieve this, our method emphasizes the everyday life events, and creates structure and frameworks for the kids that are most often missing from their lives.  We set up the kids’ day in a way that they can experience challenges AND successes each day and building on their small successes we gradually take bigger steps with them.  We believe that the best person for this is the teacher or other professional who spends the most time with the children.  Thus, we put a lot of emphasis on training, coaching, supervising the teachers in our programs that also allows them to find joy in their work every day.  In addition, we believe that the parent is the best expert of his/her child, so we involve the families in any treatment decision about their child; they are part of the team.

When reading the principles of our methods one may think that this is all common sense so what is so special here.  In the lives of the children who come to our programs this seemingly obvious things are distorted or missing.  It is no different in the Kossuth Lajos Primary School in Győr that serves the most deprived district of the city.  We started our program in the school in Sep 2010; we run behavior management systems in the classrooms of the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades.  Namely, the students in these grades have personalized behavior goals and by achieving their goals they earn school money.  Weekly they can spend the money they earn in a school store or on participating various after school activities.  Of course, we created a system that supports this simple intervention so that the children receive a consistent message from all adults around them.  The elements are as follows: teachers are trained to consciously use the kids’ groups to manage individual behaviors, as well as to use crisis situations as an opportunity for teaching the kids more acceptable behaviors; we apply the methods of experiential learning and experiential education; we invite parents to participate in making decisions about their child; we are in constant contact with other agencies operating in the neighborhood; the teachers have regular team meetings, coaching, and supervision to support them in being the best professionals.

The Pressley Ridge method is a complex system of interventions with over 20 distinct methodological elements.  It is the third school year in which we are implementing it in the Kossuth Lajos School.  We believe that long lasting change can only occur if we give time for a new method to take roots within an agency and there is enough time and support for the professionals to make the new tools part of their everyday practice.  Thus, we are still in the phase of introducing additional elements of the method in the school.  This school year we are focusing on creating a facilitative administrative system in the school that enhances the successful implementation of our method.

This project has been running since 2010. Pressley Ridge has been running in the United States since the 1960s. Have you made any major adaptations to the programme after experiences from your first year? How does the programme function differently in the Hungarian context?

It is obvious that the social service provision in the US and Hungary are very different.  Nevertheless, the Pressley Ridge method is built on the Re-ED principles which not only provide universal guidance on how to work with troubled and troubling kids, but also originated in methods developed in Europe in the post-World War II era.  When bringing the method to Hungary we very strictly tried to model the original interventions, meanwhile made significant efforts to understand what works in our interventions and WHY.  At the beginning we made only slight alterations to the program and methods.

As we collected more and more experiences in Hungary about how our method works and we had better and better understanding of what helps the change in the children’s behavior, we started to adapt some elements in HOW we deliver our services.  We kept the goal of the given intervention in mind and tried to achieve the same results as they do in the original model in ways that fit the Hungarian reality much more.  One example of this is the length of the class periods.  While in the US we structure the school activities into 30 minute sessions with no extra time for breaks in between, the law in Hungary did not make it possible, so we have 45 minute sessions with 10 minute breaks, but we structure the kids’ break time, too.

Shortly put, we did not make adaptations to the intervention principles and approaches of the method, but had to change some of the ways of service delivery.

What kind of social impact are you hoping to achieve for students? Will you be measuring this impact?

As a result of being in a Pressley Ridge program kids’ chances for leading a successful and productive adult life increase.  In the US we have numerous examples of once Pressley Ridge kids coming back to us and saying “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Pressley Ridge when I was a kid”.

It is true that the real impact of our services can only be seen in 10-15 years from now.  Nonetheless, after only two years in the Pressley Ridge program, students of the Kossuth Lajos School show significant improvement in school attendance and grades, as well as in their social skills, and they get involved with the police less frequently.  With these improvements they are already more likely to continue their studies in high school than their peers who do not attend our program.

At the same, we are in the process of developing a test battery, a collection of tools, in Hungarian that will enable us to systematically measure the impact of our program not only on the children, but also on the professionals who work with them.  The data collection by using the new tools will begin in Oct 2012.

You were a recent nominee for the Sozial Marie prize for social innovation. How has this affected your programme?

First of all, I would like to stress the internal effect of the nomination for the Sozial Marie prize.  Pressley Ridge Hungary staff has tirelessly been working on implementing the method in various educational settings in Hungary for five years.  The nomination has provided a feedback to us that our services and work has a value that is recognized by a larger audience than the schools and kids and families we work with.  It gave a huge emotional and professional boost to our staff.

The nomination has also brought heightened recognition of our work from our US colleagues, and raised our visibility among other NGOs in Hungary and in the CEE region.