Puyallup Herald

‘I feel like I can talk to him.’ Edge Coach helping at-risk Tacoma students

There’s no job in the Tacoma School District quite like Nelson Garbutt’s.

He’s not a counselor. He’s not a tutor. He’s not a teacher.

Garbutt’s an Edge Coach. To students, he’s “Mr. G.”

“My primary role is to help students figure out how to accomplish their goals,” said Garbutt, who works primarily at Truman Middle School. “I really help decipher the choices they make and break those choices down.”

It’s not just any students Garbutt works with, but at-risk students who have faced trauma, have trouble with impulse control, focus and executive function skills or have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Students in Edge often work hard but forget to turn in homework, or want to fit in but are impulsive and disruptive, according to the Edge Foundation, which is based in Seattle.

“What we’ve learned is that these students can be highly intelligent and have a lot of energy, but they have difficulty establishing priorities,” said Craig Shurick, regional representative for the Edge Foundation.

Garbutt is the only school employee whose sole role is Edge coaching, but more and more teachers across the district are being trained.

A typical Edge program costs districts $13,000. The Edge Foundation tries to accommodate schools where there’s a need for the program, said Edge program direct Tim Kniffin.

Edge coaching was first introduced in Tacoma 2011. Currently, there are six Tacoma schools providing the service: Jason Lee, Giaudrone, Mason and Truman middle schools, Oakland High School and Wilson High School. Wilson started training this school year.

The foundation is looking to expand.

The program is different from other personalized coaching because it’s student-led, said Andre Stout, principal at Truman Middle School.

“Edge coaching is about coaching kids through those moments when they do make a bad decision,” Stout said. “It’s really based on a model where (Nelson) is coaching them through asking them questions: ‘How could you do this different? What happened here?’ And make them start thinking about the decisions they make.”

Educators are already seeing results, both tangible and intangible. Schools measure the attendance records and GPAs of the students in the program, in addition to gathering anecdotes of how students feel tackling their goals.

In the 2015-16 school year, Tacoma Public Schools saw a 42 percent drop in failed courses, 54 percent drop in absences,18 percent drop in tardies and .2 percent increase in GPA for all of its Edge students.

“I do enjoy my job,” Garbutt said. “The best thing about Edge is it gives me the opportunity to see behind the tough surface that the kids portray outside of this coaching room.”

Every day, Garbutt meets with some of his students one-on-one to discuss their life goals. This year, he works with about 20 of them at Truman Middle School.

One of them is Amber Acheson. An eighth grader at Truman, she started in the program in sixth grade, where she was struggling with behavioral issues that impacted her grades.

“I wanted to make my dad happy, and my teachers saw that I was struggling, so they decided this program would be good for me,” Acheson said.

During the three years in the program, Acheson’s behavior improved, and her reading ability jumped several grade levels, preparing her for state testing, according to principal Andre Stout.

A big part of the success was being able to share how she feels with Garbutt, Acheson said.

“I like him,” she said. “I feel like I can talk to him.”

The school is careful how it selects students to participate in the program, Stout said.

“Those kids are natural leaders,” Stout said. “When you’re doing things bad and you’ve got kids following you, it’s a lot different than kids doing good and having kids following. So even though it’s only 30 or 40 that (Garbutt) works with, the Edge program impacts the entire building.”