Ross Whiting, Clayton Model Revolutionize Special Education Methods

By: David J. Detweiler, Writer / Follow South Jersey Child Welfare Intern

Photo: Clayton Public Schools

The “Clayton Model” has seen massive success in helping students not only educationally, but from a social standpoint as well.

The Clayton Model all started with a $3.2 million grant given over the course of five years, which was used towards building a counseling center at Herma Simmons Elementary School. The counseling center provided multiple forms of support for students. It became a big success and a prominent piece of the school. 

As the funds that kept the center and program afloat began to run dry in 2013, The Pascale Sykes Foundation, which is implementing a social service delivery model across Southern New Jersey called the Whole Family Approach, saw that success and not only funded the program, but also extended it to two other schools in Clayton. The Senator Walter Rand Institute at Rutgers University-Camden then partnered with Lisa Twomey, the architect and program manager of this model, to not only track the success of the program, but to help garner the attention it deserves. One counseling center for one elementary school has now snowballed its way into the “Clayton Model.”

“The Clayton Model fills a known gap in education. We know that kids with disabilities are typically served by the individualized education program or the 504 process,” Ross Whiting, director of Research and Evaluation at WRI and principal investigator of the Clayton Model evaluation, said. “Then there’s another group of kids, which is the majority of kids, who get the social and emotional support they need from a teacher. This model fits that gap in between those two groups of people where the teacher doesn’t have time to provide the additional support necessary, and [the student] doesn’t receive IEP services… I mean, this is the thing missing in my opinion, as a former teacher as an educational researcher. This is the thing that is missing in education today, and the Clayton Model fills that role.”

Twomey explained how she felt about the success of this model after being dedicated to it for seven years. She also described how she stayed committed to the progress of the Clayton Model.

“It’s very exciting,” she said. “One of the things that I think has helped me stay committed to this project is the fact that our Administration at Clayton is committed to the process. They are all very open-minded, and they embrace new ideas and concepts… It’s their support and commitment to the process that I had to make this successful.”

The Clayton Model certainly has been a success story to this point, as its model of support is being explored by larger public and private entities. Considering Whiting has at the forefront of analyzing its outcomes, he painted the picture on just how game-changing this program is for students. 

“What we found was that when caregivers worked with the Clayton Model staff to support their students, they helped each other more and created a more supportive environment for children in their households, which is incredibly important,” he said. “We did some analysis of grades. What we looked at was Math and Language Arts grades for young kids in second through fifth grade, and we found significant increases, meaning we can likely attribute these increases to the Clayton Model in itself.

“When I talk about significant increases, they moved whole letter grades up in Language Arts and Math, and they stayed there even after they ended their time with the Clayton Model, which is really important because it shows that kids have learned something to help them adapt to whatever environment they are operating in,” Whiting continued.

Whiting then furthered his evidence of the program’s success by breaking down a Strengths and Difficulties questionnaire in which teachers and caregivers of the participating students fill out questions that are based on things such as the ability to focus or other skills that result in classroom success.

“Caregivers saw that there was significant improvement on emotional regulation and behavior at home. Teachers saw something different,” Whiting added. “They saw that students were significantly more attentive and focused and that they had better relationships with their peers, which creates less conflict in the classroom. The important thing that we found was that both caregivers and teachers found significant reductions in behavior difficulties, meaning that they were better able to regulate their emotions.” 

These improvements resulted in an overall better quality of life for everyone involved – students, teachers, and caregivers – all thanks to the Clayton Model. Perhaps the model’s strongest asset is the fact that it benefits a student’s life both in the classroom and at home.

“The fact that the Clayton Model in particular is affecting kids both at home and in schools is very important and absolutely critical,” Whiting said. “Students need to be supported in the home as much as they need to be supported in the school.”

Given such promising results, it’s no wonder why the Clayton Model has attracted such support and attention. When asked if the Clayton Model should be instituted in schools throughout New Jersey, Whiting and Twomey both didn’t hesitate to agree that it should be.

“Every school that serves young kids should have something like the Clayton Model — or something that also provides these kinds of comprehensive, individualized educational supports that students really need,” Whiting said.

A program like the Clayton Model could help students substantially with these huge adjustments that have been made — especially in a climate such as today’s with the stress of remote learning and possibly being impacted in some way, shape, or form from COVID-19.

This article was produced by a Follow South Jersey news intern thanks to a grant provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the New Jersey Health Initiatives program to create hyper-local news to meet the informational and health needs of the City of Bridgeton, N.J.