Sometimes schools and students can get caught in a negative loop. Teachers expect certain behaviors and when students can’t meet basic demands such as getting to class on time, the whole day can feel like a battle.
Soon after Indian Springs High School in San Bernardino opened in 2012, our staff morale was low. With many new teachers and because our school is in one of the poorest areas in the country, students faced a plethora of problems from poverty to exposure to violence. We wanted to break the cycle of misbehavior and punishment so we decided to implement a program to reward students for good behavior.
There were skeptics. Some teachers felt we would be rewarding students for behavior that should be the norm. Others felt a positive behavior program better suited elementary kids rather than teenagers. Given our current plight, we figured we had nothing to lose.
In 2015, our school started using Hero, which is a management system for teachers to award points to students for being on time, being dressed appropriately, being ready to learn and other appropriate behaviors.
To help ensure success, we agreed to start very slowly with eight teachers testing the program. After a successful first semester, all staff had access, but to keep them from being overwhelmed, we suggested using the program for one period a week. Slowly, we ramped up to using it every day in every period. Today, about nine of 10 teachers use the program.
Getting teacher buy-in was only half of the puzzle. We wanted students to be able to redeem their points (they could earn five for each period) at a school store stocked with Indian Springs gear. When we first opened the store, we were anxious that students might not be motivated by the rewards we offered. But a line formed immediately and when we counted over 100 kids waiting, we knew we had crossed a threshold. Today, every student in our school is enrolled in the program.
Our high school has 1,760 students, with 85 percent of them eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Nearly 80 percent of our students are Hispanic; 11 percent are African-American. Two of every 10 students are English language learners.
The benefits grew as the program became more entrenched. We added tickets to a homecoming dance and football games to our store, and students who hadn’t been able to afford these events were now able to attend. Also, we noticed that students were using their points to buy items as gifts for family and friends. A skinny ninth grader proudly choose an XXXL sweatshirt before Christmas, letting us know he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford a gift for his mom.
Teachers noticed students were better behaved in class and, likewise, students observed that teachers seemed happier and more positive. As teachers focused on positive student behavior, they saw more encouraging acts in their classroom.
The number of disciplinary actions and severity of these actions has dropped. Dramatically. In the past, about 200 kids would be tardy for each class; now the average is 15. The number of “big fights” at the school decreased from 16 in 2015 to just three in 2016. (“Big fights” are classified as incidents that include more than two people and result in injuries.)
Academic achievement also improved. We have the highest state rating for English Learner Progress with the percentage of students who made gains towards English proficiency increasing from 59 percent in 2015 to 83 percent in 2017. Eleventh grade assessments have also improved in the last three years, although we still can do better. Enrollment in Advanced Placement courses has increased and more students are passing their classes.
Using reports from the program has even helped us communicate with parents. In our community, parents are typically intimidated or too busy to attend school functions. Now, when they do come in for a conference, they can learn about their child’s positive behavior as well as their academic progress.
We do warn that no one program is a magic potion and just purchasing a positive behavior system will not change the culture in your school. But if you start to recognize students’ good behavior, while listening to staff concerns during rollout, you will find students and teachers will create better relationships.
Our staff went from reactive to proactive. And in just three years, Indian Springs High School went from a school people didn’t want to work at to a school teachers consciously choose.
Jacob Rosario is the Vice Principal and Chelsea Ramirez is the PBIS (Positive Behavioral and Intervention Suppports) Program Manager at Indian Springs High School in San Bernardino, California.
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