This week's featured newsmaker is John Engelke, who serves as a leader of the Student Support and Assistance Program at Gulfside Elementary School.
His job is to help students who might be at risk for dropping out.
Maybe a student is acting out in class. Perhaps he or she has issues with anger management or bullying. Maybe there's something going on at home that's affecting schoolwork, like a recent death or divorce.
It starts with classroom teachers who refer students to a panel that includes Engelke, principal Chris Clayton and behavior specialist Summer Wool. Once a student is approved, parents are contacted to give the go-ahead before Engelke begins trying to get to the root of the problem.
"Sometimes that means just stopping by for a chat or to give a kid a pat on the back or just a smile for doing something good," Engelke said. "Sometimes it means taking them outside to shoot some hoops so they can talk. Sometimes I try to provide them with skills just to get through that day."
"It's all about getting to kids early," said Clayton. "John basically serves as a buffer but he's also a positive male role model for students who might be having problems with things like staying on task or haven't been responding to social skill instruction in the classroom setting.
"When kids struggle in math, we teach them," he said. "When kids struggle in English, we teach them and sometimes we need to teach them proper behavior."
Florida's Positive Behavior Support Project is a state and federal initiative to improve the culture at schools and is being implemented in Title 1 schools in Pasco County. Engelke's position, which is funded by Title 1, is just one facet of the program that offers positive reinforcement for good behavior.
It's already making a difference at Gulfside, Clayton said, where last year disciplinary referrals topped out at 276.
"That was way too many for an elementary school," he said, noting that the goal is to cut that number in half this school year.
That could be reachable. Hudson Elementary started the program during the 2009-10 school year and has seen good results, said Hudson behavioral specialist Shirley Eyers. Last year, Hudson and Mittye P. Locke Elementary were honored by the state for their exemplary programs.
"It increases student engagement and social skills," Eyers said. "Our referrals have decreased, which really impacts students being engaged in the classroom."
Particularly when parents buy in.
"There are parents here that are looking for help," Clayton said, noting that 82 percent of Gulfside students qualify for the free or reduced-price meal program. "A lot of our parents are working two or three jobs just trying to put food on the table and pay their bills."
Engelke seemed to be the perfect fit for the program, Clayton said. "I saw how he interacted with the kids and the parents.
As a former police officer from Long Beach, Calif., Engelke had some experience to draw on.
"I worked in a high-crime, multicultural neighborhood," he said. "I'd been in their houses; watched the gangs take kids and watched the kids die in the gutter."
After retiring from the police force, Engelke went on to become a substitute teacher in California and Ohio before moving to Florida, where he worked as a full-time math and science teacher at Schwettman Education Center and an ESE (exceptional student education) teacher at Seven Springs Middle before landing at Gulfside two years ago.
These days, he draws on those skills and tries to get kids on track by offering support and some fun activities and rewards for positive behavior such as "completing tasks on time, taking turns and keeping their hands, objects and feet to themselves at all times."
The words of one mom in particular have served to fuel his passion for the program and keep him on track, too.
"I'll always remember what she said to me when I talked to her about her son," Engelke said. "She told me, 'I will allow you to see my son as long as you don't quit on him because every male in his life has quit on him.'
"I promised her I wouldn't."