He was receiving a reward in an experiment taking place at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School in improving kids’ behavior—a challenge that principals citywide say they need more help with from their bosses at the central school board office.
Heriberto (pictured) was one of eight students who were “caught being good” at the Kimberly Avenue middle school Friday, on the last day of class before Spring recess.
The fifth-grader won entry to a weekly raffle at the school through an act of kindness.
“I helped two kids when they left their book bags at lunch,” Heriberto explained. When he lugged the bags back to the classroom, his teacher “caught” him, and cited him for good behavior. (Click on the play arrow to watch him accept his prize.)
Top school officials are looking to replicate how Betsy Ross manages behavior, as they respond to results from a survey taken by the leadership of the district’s 47 schools. The survey was the first time principals had a chance to “grade” their supervisors at central office. It came as the city embarks on a five-year school reform drive that aims to close the achievement gap, in part by increasing adults’ accountability.
Central office staff were the first to be graded as part of the reforms. Teachers and administrators will be next. Committees are finalizing recommendations this week for new ways to grade administrators, and to grade teachers based on student progress.
Betsy Ross Principal Peggy Moore (pictured), who’s also the president of the school administrators’ union, said her school’s “caught being good” program has helped dramatically drop the number of suspensions, and has improved behavior across the school for most kids. However, she said it falls short of addressing a problem principals expressed in the surveys—that principals still feel under-equipped to deal with cases of extreme bad behavior.
Nearly three-quarters of the district’s principals and assistant principals, 74 out of 105, completed the surveys in December and January. They graded central office on a range of topics as either “problematic,” “needs improvement,” “satisfactory” or “excellent.” Central office, which is comprised of top superintendents and coordinators, got high marks in a number of areas, including laying out a clear vision and goals.
In grades and written responses and, they also highlighted areas where they felt the district is letting them down. They reinforced a message that central office has been hearing from other voices—that schools need to do more to get parents involved. Special education and English-language learning (ELL) was another area of concern. Fifty percent of respondents graded the district as “needs improvement” or “problematic” in providing alternate tests for special ed and ELL kids; and 40 percent said they need more flexibility in curriculum and programming for special education and ELL.
“Special ed needs improvement as far as resources and not allowing students to go years without any supports,” one anonymous principal wrote. “There is too much red tape to test students and too much pressure on the school for differentiating instruction.”
Behavior Support “Needs Improvement”
One of the most significant findings, in the eyes of school reform czar Garth Harries, was that the district has “a strong need to improve behavioral support for students.” Nearly two-thirds of principals rated the central office as “needs improvement” or “problematic” in providing behavioral supports. That includes “discipline, interventions, and behavioral programs” for insubordinate kids.
Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli pointed to a pilot program at Betsy Ross as one place to look as the district searches for more tools to control behavior. The program is called Positive Behavior Support (PBS). Betsy Ross and two other schools first piloted the program three years ago. Now five schools in the district use it.
The goal of PBS is to reduce suspensions and office referrals by focusing on positive behavior.
At Betsy Ross, the method has been integrated into everyday teaching. It can be seen in classroom and in the hallways, where staff and teachers hand out two types of rewards—tickets and pieces of paper with the words “caught being good.” The rewards are tailored to the child.
For example, Principal Moore may hand out 10 tickets to a student who’s walking down the hall instead of running. Or a teacher may notice that a child is sitting still for 90 seconds, when he usually only squirms after 20.
“Caught you being good!” she’ll declare, and hand him a paper reward.
Those slips of paper, called “caught you being goods,” go into a raffle box in the school lobby. Each Friday, at the end of the day, the entries are sorted by grade level, and two winners are picked from each grade.
Two teachers, Emilie Greene and Susan Laughlin (pictured at left and right) coordinate the PBS program at Betsy Ross. At 12:45 p.m. Friday, Laughlin scooped up a bunch of prizes in her arms and took them to the front lobby.
Meanwhile, Assistant Superintendent Shawn True announced the winners over an intercom system. Eight smiling kids walked down to the front lobby to collect their goods. Each got a certificate and a prize—a board game, a monster from Where the Wild Things Are, a pink bag of cosmetic supplies were among the loot.
The prizes were donated from staff and local businesses. McLaughlin herself donated two—a binder from her husband’s business trip, and a T-shirt from a recent trip to Thailand.
In a separate rewards system, teachers issue amusement-park-style admissions tickets. Those can be saved up and cashed in at the school store, which carries random goodies like highlighters and pencils.
Moore said she learned about PBS from central office three years ago. She welcomed the chance to try a new way to manage behavior.
“Suspensions do not change behavior,” she said. “We needed something positive to change students’ attitudes.”
Moore put Greene and Laughlin in charge of implementing PBS. They set up a committee of teachers to help spread the word about the new method and share how it worked in each grade.
They said running the program doesn’t take a lot of work—just distributing a roll of tickets and a stack of paper with the words “caught you being good.” One key to success, they said, is in continuing to drum up donations for the prizes. That way the kids feel special, and cool, when they’re called out for good behavior.
The program is now in its third year at Betsy Ross. Principal Moore said it has made a noticeable difference at the magnet school, which serves about 500 students from grades 5 to 8. Over the last two years, PBS helped the school achieve a dramatic 50 percent reduction in suspensions, she said.
Laughlin said PBS is not just about changing how students act—but changing adult behavior. Research has showed that in general, teachers spend nine times as much class time giving negative feedback rather than commending kids for doing something right, she said.
“We’re quick to always recognize negative behavior because we want to change it,” Moore agreed.
To help teachers address this, Greene and Laughlin handed out teachers self-assessments on how they use positive versus negative feedback in class. The surveys weren’t collected; they were meant to give teachers a time to “self-reflect.”
Moore said about 95 percent teachers in school now use the new method on a daily basis. She said she “definitely” aims to continue the program.
PBS is currently used in three magnet schools (Ross-Woodward, Betsy Ross, and Troup) and two neighborhood schools (Hill Central and Brennan/Rogers). Typhanie Jackson, the district-wide supervisor of social work, oversees monthly meetings with representatives from each school’s PBS program.
Jackson and other PBS supervisors track behavior data to see how the program is working. She said infractions for bad behavior have fallen by 5 to 9 percent among PBS schools.
Overall, she said administrators and teachers say PBS has a positive impact on the overall school climate, in creating “clearly defined behavior expectations” and in developing a way to reward kids.
Jackson said next school year, the district plans to implement the method in four more schools: Conte/West Hills Magnet School, Barnard Environmental Magnet School, Bishop Woods, and Wexler/Grant.
“On Your Own”
Moore cautioned that while PBS works for most kids, it does not work for all.
“To some degree, it helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem” of kids with serious behavioral issues, she said.
Moore said principals and teachers are still at a loss to deal with the handful of kids with “severe emotional problems.” These are kids who occasionally have emotional outbursts during school. When that happens, Moore said she calls paramedics to make sure no one gets hurt. But “we need something in place before we get to that explosive issue.”
That’s where district officials are letting the schools down, she said.
“There’s nothing coming to us from central office saying we will support you in this manner,” she said. “You can only put them on suspension for so much. ... You can’t send every kid to Urban Youth,” which specializes in kids with behavioral problems.
“You’re on your own,” she said.
Moore said the cases of extremely insubordinate behavior are by far the exception in her school. But Betsy Ross, like many others, does have a handful of students who disrupt learning for their peers.
“This is a concern for us,” she said, referring to her fellow principals. “Give us some support.”
School reform czar Harries said the district’s new school code of conduct, which was implemented in the fall, will lend more consistency to school discipline across the district.
In response to “a serious spike in discipline” last school year, schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo also launched a program last fall to address student behavior. For the first time, he enlisted psychiatrists called “behaviorists” to work with kids who have trouble cooperating in the classroom. The program is being piloted at three schools: Wexler-Grant, Troup and John Martinez.
Harries said the principals’ surveys show that behavior management remains a big challenge.
“We’ve got to focus on it,” he said.