NEW PORT RICHEY
Tabatha Wolowicz's first- graders moved single-file down the sidewalk at Mittye P. Locke Elementary School, their hands clasped in front of them or jammed into their pockets.
Assistant principal Kara Merlin smiled at the children and praised them as they passed. "Nice walking, kids," she said.
The youngsters beamed. "We just got a compliment," one boy said cheerfully.
In some schools, this interchange might seem ordinary. But at Mittye P. Locke, the students and staff have put in loads of effort to get to this point.
Just three years ago, the school struggled with student behavior. It had 438 office referrals, with the biggest problem with aggressive acts such as hitting and fighting.
Instructional time lost dealing with these disruptions reached into the hundreds of hours.
After studying the details, the school's behavior committee, headed by Response to Intervention coach Tara Davis, came to the conclusion that it had to do something to get kids to keep their hands and feet to themselves. If their discipline would improve, so, too, would their academic performance.
But many of the children were not getting social skills training at home. So school leaders decided to do the job themselves.
They added behavior lessons into the daily curriculum, set clear schoolwide expectations and held firmly to them. They also looked to reinforce and reward positive behavior rather than simply punish bad acts.
The effects came swiftly.
Office referrals dropped by one-third in one year and continue to decline to this day. The A-rated school also has seen increases in the percentage of students at or above grade level on the FCAT.
"It's changing the culture of the school," principal Tammy Berryhill said.
People inside the school aren't the only ones to notice. Florida's Positive Behavior Support Project, a state and federal initiative to improve the culture at schools, recently rated Mittye P. Locke's initiative as exemplary in the state.
"What they have done a phenomenal job on … is making decisions based on what the data told them to do for their students," project co-director Heather George said.
Too often, George said, school leaders believe that if they take the time to teach behavior, academic performance will suffer. Studies indicate that such a correlation is false, she said. At worst, student results remain flat. At best, they improve.
At Mittye P. Locke, she continued, "they have seen the added benefit of doing this. That's why they are excelling in so many areas. They're doing a fantastic job."
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Consistency is key in the effort.
The school staff adopted three essential rules:
They infused those rules into lessons whenever possible. Signs are posted throughout the campus reminding everyone of the rules, as well as the behaviors that go along with them while in the halls, cafeteria, classrooms, playground and just about anywhere else you can think of.
The staff praises the children who act appropriately. (Misbehaving kids are still dealt with, too.)
The school uses Second Step lessons weekly, exposing students to social situations through stories and videos and then talking them through the ways they might resolve similar problems.
"A big part is, the language is consistent" throughout the school, first-grade teacher Wolowicz said. "They understand the meaning of expectations. I can say one word, and they know what you are expecting. You are able to pull them back a lot faster."
From the staff side, the benefits are multitude.
Kids act better and do better in school.
More than that, though, the teachers feel more empowered to control their students as well as to talk to other students in the school, as they're using the same words to enforce the rules. They also have more input into the system, as they helped write it and continue to help review and revise it.
"That's a huge lesson learned," assistant principal Merlin said. "You need to work together to move in the right direction."
That piece in place, the administration has been freed from the burden of having to make every decision and handle every discipline case that comes up.
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What the kids see most is the praise, and the prizes that come with it.
Everyone on staff carries "Caught ya being good" cards that they hand out to students who are following the school rules. (Even these play into data collection, as they're color-coded so the staff can see which teachers are handing them out and which teams of students are getting more, or fewer, of the rewards.)
The kids hand in the cards for a small token, such as a pencil or a temporary tattoo. Then once weekly, Berryhill and her team pull out the cards of 10 primary and 10 secondary students to post on the 200 Club chart in the corridor.
The students post their cards on the bingo-style chart using randomly drawn numbers. Once a row is filled, everyone in that row get a mystery motivator — things like 15 minutes drawing on the sidewalks with chalk, or an end-of-the-day root beer float party.
Fourth-grader Adrian Vega-Quintana, 9, was jubilant when his name got called last week, and even more excited when he completed a row on the chart.
"It means we're going to get the mystery motivator! I just can't wait," Adrian said after posting his card. "I'm thinking it might be huge."
He and fellow fourth-grader Kayla Cooper, 10, speculated on what the prize might be — although they'll have to wait until Thursday to find out.
They said they work hard to deserve the rewards.
"I'm always good," Kayla said.
"Be safe, be responsible and be respectful. Those are the three keys," Adrian said.
First-graders Isabella Newton and Krystal Nguyen, both 7, said they liked being recognized as much as they looked forward to a surprise.
"You feel proud," said Isabella, who got her "caught ya" for walking in line nicely.
"I'm happy," Krystal said. "Every day when I get a 'caught ya' I'm very happy. I'm so lucky I get picked."
Kindergartner Anthony Teel, 6, said his grandmother also is pleased when she gets a note from school saying that he was doing something good.
Teachers who helped set up this program are pleased with such a reaction. They say it's evidence that the school is headed in the right direction.
"I think we're accomplishing what we set out to do," third grade teacher Rick Card said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.