Professor Cynthia Franklin, Stiernberg/Spencer Family Professor in Mental Health at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, answers questions about her book Solution Focused Brief Therapy in Alternative Schools (Routledge, 2018), which was recently translated and released in Chinese.

The book provides a step-by-step guide for school social workers and counselors to work with other school professionals to create an effective, solution-focused, dropout-prevention program. Along with illustrative cases and detailed explanations, Franklin and co-authors detail the curriculum and day-to-day operations of a school that uses this approach.

What is distinctive of a solution-focused approach to dropout prevention?

CF: The solution-focused school is based on solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) and  is a therapeutic environment where mental health and social services are continuously wrapped around each student. Solution-focused approaches start with a growth mindset that says students are capable of change in academic achievement and their educational competencies are present and possible. Solution-focused dropout prevention starts with a philosophy toward a cancellation of past educational failures and a clean slate, starting where students are in the present. Solution-focused approaches use the self-determined goals and the formation of strong relationships between faculty and students. This creates the self-motivation and the attachment to the school that is needed to persist toward high school graduation. A person-centered and self-paced approach to curriculum is facilitative to learning and all school staff are trained in solution-focused counseling techniques. An interprofessional team model among administrators, teachers, counselors and school social workers create the facilitative conditions for social support and the delivery of on-going mental health interventions that can address the complexity in mental health conditions, and the challenging life experiences such as, discrimination, loss, and victimization, that often interfere with student’s completing school.

The book is based on the experience with this approach at Gonzalo Garza Independence High School in Austin, Texas. How did your collaboration with this school started?

CF: My collaboration with Garza started in 2001 when the founding principal of the school, Victoria Baldwin, asked a school social worker in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) named Joanne Garner for help in find more training in the solution-focused approach for the newly formed alternative school. Joanne contacted me and I asked my colleague professor Calvin Streeter to help. Professor Streeter and I received a two-year Hogg Foundation grant for training and conducting an evaluation study at Garza. I have been involved ever since that time as a trainer, consultant and friend of Garza.

"We Are Garza"
"We Are Garza"

What are some of the successes of the solution-focused approach in this school?

CF: The greatest successes have been the many thousands of students who have graduated from Garza and gone on to post-secondary education and successful jobs and personal lives. Approximately, 80% of Garza graduates go on to post-secondary education. That is why I call Garza High School a college-prep school for “at-risk” students. I was recently personally reminded of the success of Garza when one of our own graduates at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work approached me at the UT graduation and said, ““I am a Garza graduate and I just wanted to let you know that I made it all the way through UT.” Garza has also been recognized as a model and successful school program by Texas Education Agency( TEA) among others. Garza was selected as one of the top dropout-prevention programs by the United States Department of Education. It has been featured on Frontline, in Texas Monthly and many publications. But the fact that Garza routinely achieves the highest school climate scores in the AISD and top college entrance scores among Central Texas school districts says best what a solution-focused school is.

And what are some of the challenges?

CF: Funding is always a challenge. Keeping the numbers of counselors that are needed, for example, and the mental health resources. The partnerships with the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and Communities in Schools are critical for the Garza’s success as well as the support of the school district. It is a community effort to see all students succeed in education regardless of background and challenges. That is why my daughter, Christina, a Steve Hicks School of Social Work graduate, and I set-up a student scholarship for our social work students to be placed in internships at Garza to learn and to help with the mental health of students.

What do the next five years look like at Garza high school?

CF: Garza is a school of innovation. It leads the Austin district in providing on-line instruction for the entire school district and in innovative curriculums. Garza offered an inventive model for mentoring students through the pandemic, resulting in Garza students not experiencing the type of achievement gaps and educational and mental health setbacks that many other schools saw in their students. The next five years at Garza looks bright. I am working with doctoral students and colleagues on new studies and we hope to continue to scale this model to benefit other school districts.

Has the solution-focused approach to dropout prevention been implemented in other schools?

CF: Yes, the solution-focused approaches are implemented in schools in the United States and in other countries and SFBT is used as a counseling approach by school social workers and counselors. In my book Solution-focused brief therapy in schools I focus on how to practice SFBT; this book is written for school social workers. I published a meta-analysis on the effectiveness of SFBT in school in the United States and China. This is an effective approach for addressing mental health and interpersonal and social problems in schools across the globe. A few schools have also implemented school-wide approaches like Garza and we would like to increase the numbers. The vision of Garza’s current principal, Dr. Linda Webb and myself is for Garza to be a blueprint for others who want to create successful alternative schools for dropout-prevention. We want to see educational professionals come to Garza to learn and to be able to assist them to plant a solution focused school in their own cities.

What are three main takeaways of this book for social workers?

CF: One: Solution-focused brief therapy is an effective approach in schools. Two: This approach works alongside other interventions and is teachable to everyone who works with students, including teachers. Three: This is a very sustainable approach; we have sustained SFBT for twenty years at Garza and it continues to help students who would be viewed as extremely high risk of school failure because of mental health and other challenges.