Q-and-A with Great Circle’s New Vice President of Education
Dr. Mike Golden talks about his experience working with students who have special needs and why he wants them to know, “we won’t give up on you.”
In his role, he oversees Great Circle’s educational programming, which includes six Great Circle Academy (GCA) locations serving more than 500 children across Missouri.
You have a long history in public school systems. Why did you make this transition to Great Circle?
Working with student populations who have social and emotional behavioral challenges has always been my niche. I started in this field as a teaching assistant, then became a teacher, then served as the principal for a public school focused on this student population. And finally, I was a district administrator.
In previous positions, I spent a great deal of time collaborating with Great Circle Academy, which serves students whose needs aren’t being met elsewhere, the same students I’ve dedicated my career to serving. When this position opened up, it was a perfect match for my skill set and experience.
What do you believe makes Great Circle Academy unique?
At GCA, we believe in meeting students and families where they are. The kids we serve may have already struggled with a variety of services offered through their home district, and it hasn’t worked out for them. There are many reasons why this might be the case. Fortunately, at GCA, we can bring additional resources to bear. Our attitude is: We will find a way to serve you.
The thing that really makes us different is our trauma-informed approach. Especially for students who have emotional issues or who have experienced myriad difficulties in their home lives, we truly treat suspensions as a last resort. We’re committed to building relationships with our students, using restorative practices and demonstrating that not only are we not going to give up on them, we are going to help them develop the skills they need to be successful.
Why is GCA sometimes a better option for a student instead of the student's home school district?
I’m a big believer in public education, but sometimes, particularly in smaller school districts or schools, there may be low incidence of students who need the mixture of educational and behavioral services GCA provides.
If a district has only one or two students with these needs, it’s a significant challenge to adequately fund the necessary programming. The individual schools can’t mimic the in-depth level of service we offer, but they can send students who need this vital programming to us. It’s not only more cost effective for the district; we’re also the experts in the field.
What’s one thing you’d like people to know about special education?
Most of our families are doing the best they can. When students come to us, they’re trying to navigate a variety of challenging life circumstances or cognitive issues — and often with trauma in their backgrounds, which interferes with their ability to learn. They need adults in their lives who will not give up on them. That’s the culture we work to maintain at GCA. We are there for our kids; we meet them where they are. And we won’t give up on them.
What do you think is next for GCA?
The need across the state is great, and we’re working to meet this need. Most of our students are learning on GCA campuses, but in an effort to serve more families, we’ve begun partnering with local communities. For example, in Lebanon and Farmington, we’ve established classrooms in existing school buildings. There are other communities where we believe this model will work. It’s all part of our commitment to meeting students where they are.
Because of COVID-19, this school year is likely to present its own challenges for all educators, parents and students. Do you have any advice to offer?
All we can do is be flexible and give each other a little bit of grace. As long as we keep the safety of our students and staff first and foremost, we will all come out of this okay — even if that takes a little longer than we’d like.
Are there any additional impressions you’d like to share about GCA or Great Circle in general?
In special education, you quickly learn how few students fit into one clear category. Many students work through a range of challenges stemming from behavioral or cognitive issues, past trauma, instability or addiction. Because GCA is part of Great Circle, we have a comprehensive understanding of how these issues interact, and we know how to connect students with the specific services and programs they need to move forward successfully.
About Dr. Golden
Dr. Mike Golden joined Great Circle in June 2020. Before becoming our Vice President of Education, he spent 20 years working in various public school systems, where he specialized in helping students with social and emotional behavioral challenges. Golden earned a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Maryville University in St. Louis. His work is guided by his belief: “Excellence is a continuous journey, not a destination.”