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Aperture Partner Case Study: Port Washington-Saukville School District

How one Wisconsin school district is using districtwide SEL to expand supports of student services

Educating children to reach their greatest potential drives the vision and goals of Port Washington-Saukville School District in Port Washington, Wis. To succeed in this mission, the school district prioritizes the process of continuous improvement based on research and data. 

A mid-size district, the Port Washington-Saukville School District serves just over 2,500 students. 19.2% of the population receives free and reduced lunch. 16% of students are identified as special education students, which is slightly higher than the state average.  

“Our approach to student support used to follow a more traditional pyramid of academics and behavior, but over the past few years we noticed a significant need for social and emotional learning (SEL) and mental health services to be integrated into that, and a new model was created to guide practices at our schools,” Director of Special Services Duane Woelfel explained. 

The Challenge

When staff started to see a rise in behavioral and mental health concerns, they reported it to their district administration. They felt they needed additional training to handle the increase in student trauma they were seeing. 

The district started to investigate tools and resources available to meet the gap in student support services. 

What they initially found and invested in was a universal screener centered around mental health. While this was a good start, the district was looking to focus on SEL in order to meet a broader range of students’ needs. By implementing SEL, every student’s mental well-being could be improved. The district would also be able to address barriers to learning and promote every student’s ability to thrive. 

The Solution

Upon doing research, district support staff discovered the DESSA — Aperture Education’s strength-based suite of assessments. A strength-based approach appealed to the district because of its number of significant advantages including: encouraging school success, promoting educational equity, and supporting strong relationships between students and teachers. 

“With the DESSA-mini only being eight questions it was a more realistic ask for rolling out an SEL assessment district-wide compared to the 26-question assessment we were previously using. In addition to the DESSA being more efficient, we liked that it was more resilience-focused instead of being mental health diagnosis-focused,” shared one Port Washington-Saukville counselor. 

Any students flagged by the DESSA-mini gets assessed using the full DESSA by their teacher. The DESSA data gets added alongside the other data the district collects. 

The district has positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) teams review students’ DESSA data. Then, the teams make recommendations for the added services, like small group meetings, students should receive. From there the classroom teacher or an interventionist follows up with a student’s family to explain how they will develop students’ areas for growth. 

Keep reading to hear how school psychologists throughout the Port Washington-Saukville School District: 

Used Educator Momentum to Expand Services 

Gained Educator Buy-In for Districtwide Roll Out 

Engaged Stakeholders Outside of the District 

Integrated SEL Assessment within Academic Assessment Scheduling 

Supported All Students 

Plans to Continue SEL in the Future 

A Bottom-Up SEL Approach 

The school psychologists credit administration’s overall support and financial backing with teacher buy-in and the community’s support of SEL. 

“Our administration validated our staff’s observations when they came to us with concerns. We were open to the idea of expanding our student support services. As our admin team got to discussing what we were currently doing, what we could do better to support our staff, we generated a lot of organic conversations with our educators. We’ve had a lot of support from the school board who also felt so strongly about expanding SEL. They even adopted a focus on overall mental health as a school board goal. This whole process started with teachers raising the need for additional support, it traveled up through administration, then to the school board, and it was a really collaborative process,” said Duane. 

Meeting Staff Where They’re at for Buy-In 

Another priority of the Special Services department was making sure that intervention was consistent across every school in the district. 

“The number of people and the number of buildings we’re doing SEL may be relatively small to many districts, but we wanted to make sure everyone in our school community was on the same page. We created steering committees to ensure all students, regardless of the school they attended had equal access to services,” said a Port Washington-Saukville psychologist. 

Jen Eason, high school psychologist, continued by explaining how school leaders approach further conversations around SEL. 

Incorporating SEL at the high school level can sometimes take a little extra time for teacher buy-in because they see a lot more students throughout the day. “We have found success with more individualized conversations at the department/content area level,” said Jen. “Conversations are going to be more fruitful when we develop a purpose and common course of understanding regarding the DESSA screener at the content level.” 

For larger buy-in, Port Washington-Saukville started with setting expectations at their large all-staff meetings. “We have teachers at high school connect the ‘why’ behind SEL,” said Duane. “Our staff at the high school were the ones who initially raised concerns for needing more support services. For us it was a matter of going back to those comments and developing purpose around the fact that we’re doing the DESSA and that we have resources to support students in ways we didn’t three years ago.” 

Going Beyond School Walls 

The school psychologists have also built out additional areas for student support. They partner with counselors from Ozaukee Family Services and Comprehensive Counseling, Inc., who use their resources for exploring students’ conflict resolution skills and managing emotions in effective ways. The district has also hosted professional development opportunities for educators through grants from the state of Wisconsin on trauma-sensitive school training. 

The district staff also suggest establishing a collaborative partnership with parents and caregivers as early as possible to garner the best support for students identified by the DESSA as needing instruction. 

Data-Informed Supports 

The DESSA measures eight skills: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Goal-Directed Behavior, Personal Responsibility, Decision Making, and Optimistic Thinking. All of these skills can be easily taught and learned by students. Data from the assessment reflects if a student is “in need of support,” is in the “typical” range of competence, or if an area is a “strength.” For example, if a student easily shows gratitude or empathy toward other students, but often turns homework in late, that student may have high Social Awareness but low Responsible Decision-Making skills. Working on students’ skills will help them succeed during their school years and even after they graduate high school. 

Usually, each school can expect for 59.1% of students to be in the “typical” range, 17.8% of students to be in the “need for support” range, and 23.1% of students to be in the “strength” range. 

The Port Washington-Saukville District approached SEL the same way they approached reading and writing exams, hearing and vision exams, and any other assessments they conducted.  

“It’s built into our testing model as a part of [student standards] not a separate component we assess,” said a school psychologist. 

Supporting All Students 

“When we looked at the data it confirmed the students we knew would have a [need for instruction in social and emotional skills] but it also caught a handful of students at each school that would have been missed if we didn’t use the DESSA. It helped us make sure we didn’t look over any students who may have fallen through the cracks and needed support,” explained a school psychologist. 

Lori Bruno, a school psychologist at the middle school level agreed that it also helps recognize students who are more “internalizers” of their skills or behaviors rather than “externalizers.”  

“Students who may not be as outwardly expressive like the ‘externalizers’ tend to go unnoticed. We’ve seen an opportunity for our teachers to think about how to connect with their students through the DESSA,” said Lori. 

“With the robust data we get from the DESSA we look at groups of students [with areas for growth] and craft strategies and activities that we integrate into our curriculum that leverage their pre-existing strengths to develop their skills. We try to layer in social skill and small group activities as much as we can,” said a school psychologist. 

Establishing SEL Roots for the Future 

Port Washington-Saukville is looking forward to further establishing their SEL roots within the community. Their plans include taking advantage of Aperture’s progress monitoring capabilities to track students’ strength development over time. They also are interested in digging deeper into the data to explore how to differentiate interventions to make student services even better. 

“Our long-term goal is to see a reduction in students’ behavioral infractions, [an improvement in how students are coping with trauma], and that students’ skill deficits are addressed through interventions,” said Duane. 


About Aperture Education  

Aperture Education empowers over 3,000 schools and out-of-school time programs across North America to measure, strengthen, and support social and emotional competence in K-12 youth and educators. This system enables education leaders can make strategic, data-based decisions about SEL within their organizations. The Aperture system includes the DESSA suite of strength-based assessments, CASEL-informed intervention strategies, and robust reporting, all in one easy-to-use digital platform. Aperture has supported over one million students in their social and emotional growth and continues to develop innovative solutions to bring the whole child into focus.   

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