Middle school: Kids responding to new tact

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By Josh Adams

Using a new strategy to curb unruly behavior at the middle school, educators there have seen a dramatic dip in the number of student outbursts, according to Principal Karen Bukowski.

During a recent District 91 school board meeting, Bukowski outlined how teachers and administrators are making improvements at the middle school in response to federal requirements under No Child Left Behind. Her report touched on the use of new data to better guide teachers' efforts, as well as a school-wide disciplinary tactic.

At the start of the current school year, the middle school implemented a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Teachers and staff were trained in the program during the 2007-08 school year, according to Bukowski, and so far are seeing results. The overall number of incidents during the first semester is down 20 percent compared to the previous year, she said.

Bukowski did not provide specifics as to the total number of disciplinary issues.

The model calls for greater reinforcement of good behavior as a way to encourage more of the same, rather than an emphasis on punishing bad behavior. Students, for example, have been allowed to eat lunch outdoors and accumulate points throughout the week each time they are "caught" behaving themselves. Working quietly in the library, helping a classmate and being respectful are all ways that students can earn rewards.

The program is also forcing teachers to quantify their expectations of students.

"I think it has improved consistency among our teachers," Assistant Principal Beth Kovacic said.

During the introduction of the behavioral program, school staff members said they wanted students to be more respectful towards authority, said Bukowski. However, each had a different idea as to what respect looks like. Before teachers could begin rewarding students for certain behaviors, they had to agree on which actions had merit.

According to a Web site devoted to the program, www.pbisillinois.org, many of the disciplinary issues in a given school can be addressed using a generalized approach. Some 80 percent to 90 percent of students should respond to the merit-based program, according to the Web site. A lesser number of students, roughly 5 percent to 15 percent, will require more individual attention. With one semester of the new program under their belts, Kovacic said educators will now begin those intervention strategies.

An estimated 1 percent to 5 percent of the student body will require an "all-hands-on-deck" approach, said Kovacic. For these students, school officials will reach out to anyone who may be a positive influence in that child's life, including parents, and ask that they adopt portions of the merit program.

Middle school administrators also presented board members with a review of the 2008 Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, administered in October. By and large, students in grades K-8 are performing at grade level, according to the scores, though students consistently struggle with math.

According to Kovacic's report, students who have been in the district at least two years fare better than their classmates who have recently transferred into the schools. The widest gap in test scores between these two groups was consistently apparent in the eighth grade.

The Iowa tests do not determine a school's standing under federal education guidelines.

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