One urban elementary school reform

Frustrated teacher in classroom, pupils in front of her are not listening to her.Susan McCloud became principal of T.C. Cherry Elementary School in Bowling Green, Kentucky eight years ago. In 1996 the school had 270 students, twenty-nine percent of whom received free or reduced-price lunch. Today, 69 percent are low-income students. During this time, the culture of the school has improved dramatically.

McCloud reports that in the 1997-1998 school year there were 880 disciplinary referrals. Students’ average score on the CTBS/5 standardized test was at the 56th percentile. In 2003-2004, only 30 disciplinary referrals were made, students’ average score on the CTBS/5 was at the 78th percentile and the school was designated a Blue Ribbon School.

McCloud reports that the school went from chaos to consistency in eight years. When she arrived, her days were spent dealing with conflict and discipline. Verbal and physical fighting were widespread. The staff was frustrated and discouraged and students weren’t learning to their potential.

After muddling along for a year, she called Western Kentucky University and found help from their Kentucky Instructional Discipline and Supports (KIDS) Project. McCloud’s school became one of the eight pilot schools beginning with the 1997-1998 school year. The KIDS program provided a plan based on establishing positive discipline policies as a foundation for learning.

This research-based, proactive discipline approach is designed to teach students responsible behavior, thereby allowing teachers to focus on academics. With a grant from KIDS, the faculty and staff agreed to participate in three years of training and on-site coaching.

The T.C. Cherry staff began by collecting objective data on which to base their policies and procedures. They studied every aspect of the school day. The staff, students and parents completed surveys that were analyzed to identify areas that required immediate attention. They organized a leadership team that attended training sessions.

Approach to discipline

Their school’s traditional approaches to discipline included punishing students for misbehavior by excluding them from the community, but it was reactive, punitive, and exclusionary and didn’t reduce bad behaviors. Through training, the staff learned to reverse these characteristics by emphasizing a proactive, positive approach and explicitly teaching students the expectations for appropriate behavior.

The goal was to promote positive student behavior in all school settings. Each teacher had to implement an effective management plan and write lessons to teach appropriate behavior in her classroom. It took time and effort, but in the end, teachers gained more time on task for regular subjects.

The KIDS program is based on the idea that a civil school is one in which everyone treats others with respect and dignity. When teachers greet students by name and talk with them outside of class, students feel safe and comfortable – even loved. When they feel honored and safe, they stop misbehaving, and then teachers have more time to teach.

The KIDS project provided training that gave the staff the necessary tools as well as the confidence to succeed at changing the culture of their school. It provided step-by-step guidance to develop written policies that covered every area of the school. Over time, the staff developed a procedures and protocol handbook that delineates responsibilities for every person and procedures for every activity at the school.

Teachers were helped to develop classroom management plans that taught their children how to behave during every activity and transition in the classroom. Guidelines specified when students were allowed to talk, how they could get the teacher’s attention to have their questions answered, what tasks were involved in each activity and the objective of the activity.

They learned when they were allowed to move around the classroom and what on-task work behavior looks and sounds like. With all these supports, the staff felt inspired by the clarity of their new vision and developed renewed confidence and a commitment to making change work.

Morning arrival reorganized

As an example, the first area marked for change was the morning arrival time. In their surveys, students, parents and staff identified it as exceptionally difficult and confusing. Many students walked to school and had plenty of opportunities for conflict. Once they arrived at school, there was no direction about where to congregate and there was nothing to do. It was a breeding ground for trouble.

The leadership team developed a comprehensive plan to manage everyone who entered the school, parents and staff included. It spelled out in great detail the responsibilities of both adults and children. It described which door to enter, where to get supplies to clean up breakfast spills, and available activities.

A morning assembly was added to recognize special achievements, honor birthdays, make announcements and generally start the day on a positive note. While it was easier to do this over the intercom, the assembly created a sense of community and students were thrilled when they were recognized, which led them to strive for excellence. With this change from reactive to proactive, mornings became calmer and more productive. Teachers and staff were fostering an atmosphere of caring and community that encouraged positive behavior.

Behavioral expecations journal

Over the last seven years, the staff has addressed each problem area it originally identified. McCloud reports that one of the most powerful steps the staff took beside the school handbook was having each teacher create a notebook for use in her classroom that identifies behavioral expectations and defines procedures and responsibilities.

This system encourages teachers to think about each day, each activity and each transition in their classroom, and to design proactive procedures that curb misbehavior. This work takes a lot of time and effort, but as adults saw the positive changes in the school, they found it harder to disagree with the innovations.

Bringing change was a struggle at first, but communication was the key. Whenever the leadership committee held a meeting, individual members were assigned other staff members with whom to discuss the outcomes. As the entire staff became involved, they began to believe in the system. Some staff left, but those who remained are committed to the reforms because of the positive results they have achieved.

“From Chaos to Consistency”, Educational Leadership, Volume 62, Number 5, February 2005, pp. 6-49.

Published in ERN March 2005 Volume 18 Number 3

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