Changing the classroom: One of an occasional series
May 13, 2013 4:00 AM
Pittsburgh Faison fourth-grader Kovie Miller rushes to embrace cohort manager Janice Motley after he was recognized as a "positive" in the weekly meeting of students on April 25.
By Eleanor Chute Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood, fifth-grader Sha'nya Currington was so excited to be recognized for her good behavior that she ran across the gym, jumped up and gave a huge hug to educator Janice Motley.
Ms. Motley was announcing both good news and bad to third- through fifth-graders.
The good news for Sha'nya was she is now considered a "positive." She had been a positive before, but she had dropped to a ''neutral" because, she said, "I kept talking."
Such news also brought cheers from the other students in grades 3-5 who were seated on the gym floor for a weekly "leveling" meeting. Students in lower grades have their own assemblies by grade level.
Some other students heard bad news, such as remaining among the "concerns" in the front row or being added to the concerns, the lowest level.
For those who didn't improve, Ms. Motley told the group, "We're going to wrap our Faison arms around them and help them."
At Faison, good behavior is taught alongside academics in an effort to change the culture of the 530-student school long plagued with academic and discipline problems.
As a result of clearer, more consistent and highly structured expectations this school year, teachers -- who have a major say in how the school operates -- say they are seeing improvement in academics.
"There's a great deal more learning going on," said third-grade teacher Amy Boyd.
"This year there's more academics because the behaviors are better," said Ms. Motley, a teacher who is cohort manager of grades 3-5.
Teacher William Cary Allen, who has been at Faison since it opened, said: "I know where we've come from. We've really moved ahead. We're much farther along. The environment is much more conducive to learning that it has been in the past."
Fifth-grader Tamiyah Williams agreed, saying: "It's funner. I'm learning more than I did last year. I'm paying attention more than I did last year."
Nobody is saying Faison has solved all of its problems.
Principal LouAnn Zwieryznski said: "It takes three to seven years to turn a school around. ...We have a long way to go."
Still, deputy superintendent Jeannine French said: "The transformation in my opinion is remarkable. ... The feeling tone of the school is different. The children seem happier; the staff seems happier; the parents seem happier. It sets up an environment that is conducive to learning."
As of last week, there had been 16 one- to three-day suspensions this school year, compared with 324 this time last year.
The number of four- to 10-day suspensions for more serious offenses is zero so far this school year, a drop from 14 this time last year. There were no expulsions either year.
Ms. Zwieryznski said this year she has better alternatives, better communication and help from the Homewood Children's Village, which contacts families that may need social services.
"There was just so much disorder last year. ... I didn't have other alternatives. I had to suspend. I was not going to put another child at risk," she said.
It's hard to say how long it will take for the improvement in behavior to translate into improved state test results.
While this year's results are not in yet, the tests taken in spring 2012 showed 27.4 percent of students were proficient or advanced in reading and 32.1 percent in math.
At the recent leveling assembly for grades 3-5, the tally was 19 concerns, 81 neutrals, 16 positives and 79 pledges, which then was the highest behavior category earned. By last week, three had moved up to lions. No one has reached the top category of executives.
Positives such as Sha'nya get privileges and responsibilities.
They can walk through the building or go to lunch unescorted and participate in special events, such as a dance. Responsibilities include serving as student ambassadors to new students.
When Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, first heard about the new discipline system at Faison, she said she thought it sounded "awful" and wondered how the leveling would affect student self-esteem.
"When I went there, I totally changed my mind," she said. "The kids love it. They are so excited. The teachers were energized. ... They don't make fun of anyone. They celebrate the good."
Faison has been troubled since it opened in 2004-05, but it reopened last school year as a turnaround school with a new principal and replacement of 81 percent of the teaching staff.
Teachers applied to be at the school and were given the power to help design the school's direction.
"At this school, the teachers drive the changes," said Sabrina Stevens, a fifth-grade teacher in her second year at the school.
While Ms. Zwieryznski has remained the principal, nearly half of the faculty is new this school year, the result of widespread furloughs by seniority and certification area.
This year's faculty has continued the efforts of last year's faculty to overhaul the discipline system.
The school has blended two approaches: Success Schools, which focuses on intrinsic motivation, and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which includes extrinsic rewards.
The system takes a total school buy-in with everyone using the same standards and language, whether it's calling students "neutrals" or holding up a fist and telling students "zeroes up" for quiet.
Teachers deliberately teach the rules and expectations on the first six days of school. Re-teaching days are scheduled throughout the year, including immediately after breaks.
But for all the attention on behavior, Ms. Boyd said, "The students are very clear they are students. We are here to teach them, and they are here to learn."
Success Schools was hired -- for $280,000 in federal funds for this year and next -- after some Faison staff members last school year visited the John B. Stetson Charter School in Philadelphia, where the Success Schools program is used.
Success Schools already was operating a program at Clayton Academy on the North Side for district students in grades 6-12 who are disruptive in their home schools.
As described in the behavior and life skills chapter in Faison materials, the Success Schools approach tries to create an "active and intentional positive peer culture that celebrates and promotes student empowerment."
At Faison, students who need extra help on behavior are assigned to a Success Schools "academy" within Faison. They stay for at least a semester and usually longer.
The 20 students in the academy are taught by three adults, giving them more attention than they could get in a regular classroom.
"It makes them feel as though they matter," said Sheila Johns, director of operations for Success Schools at Faison.
At the same time, teachers in the regular classrooms face fewer disruptions of their lessons.
Whether students are in the academy or in a regular classroom, there is 15 minutes a day in which teachers ask students how they are doing, with students answering with green, yellow or red in some classes or on a scale of 1 to 10.
If a student says, "My throat hurts," the teacher better understands why the child may not want to talk that day. Or if the student rates the day low, the teacher or class can give him some space.
Ms. Johns helped design a schedule in which the student traffic flow is timed so that there aren't too many students in the hall at one time.
The school's "overarching values" are respectful, on task, appropriate and responsible, known as ROAR.
In addition to the leveling system, the school has one other major acknowledgement program called Random Acts of ROARing 200, which includes recognizing students for doing something above and beyond through a bingo-like game posted prominently outside the cafeteria.
In addition to Faison and Clayton, Milliones 6-12 in the Hill District, also known as University Prep, has a $140,000 one-year contract with Success Schools, and King PreK-8 on the North Side has a $93,000 one-year contract.
Each does not use Success Schools the same way, although all have schoolwide behavioral expectations.
"All three have had exponential gains in creating a positive school culture," said Eddie Willson, director of operations for student support services for the district.
With the specific feedback the Success Schools approach gives students on how to improve, Mr. Willson said, students no longer are labeled the "bad kids."
"With Success Schools, we can all be the smart kid. We can all be well behaved," he said.