Accomack School Board Debates Behavior Intervention Program for High Schools

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By Stefanie Jackson-  A presentation on Accomack schools’ success implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in its elementary and middle schools escalated into a debate over whether the school division should continue with plans to implement the program at the high school level.

Coordinator of Student Services Chester Hall informed the audience at Tuesday night’s school board meeting that according to Virginia code, “positive behavioral interventions, strategies, and supports” must be considered when children’s behavior impedes learning.

PBIS is not a pre-packaged program but a framework used to customize behavioral interventions for each school based on its individual needs, Hall said.

It is part of the Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports (VTSS), providing behavioral support at multiple levels. Tier 1 interventions are effective for 80 percent of students. Tier 2 interventions target the next 15 percent of children and include the “check in, check out” method of student behavior selfmonitoring and peer mentoring. Tier 3 interventions reach the remaining 5 percent of students.

“It’s not stickers and lollipops,” Hall said.

PBIS programs are monitored by three software systems and five teams of coaches at the state, division, and school levels.

Forty-seven states, plus Washington, D.C., use PBIS. In Virginia, 41 percent of schools participate.

Nationwide, schools using PBIS experienced a 33 percent reduction of both referrals and out-of-school suspensions last year.

(A referral is a form filled out by a teacher and sent to an administrator reporting student misconduct and referring the student for disciplinary action such as in-school or out-of-school suspension.)

Metompkin Elementary Principal Belinda Rippon reported the number of referrals given at the school dropped from 482 during the 2016-2017 school year to 311 during the 2017-2018 school year, a 35 percent decrease.

Pungoteague Elementary Principal Brian Patterson reported similar results. Between the 2016-2017 and 2017- 2018 school years, the number of referrals dropped from 389 to 250, a 36 percent decrease. The number of out-ofschool suspensions was reduced by more than half, from 96 to 42.

Accawmacke Elementary Principal Javan Thompson demonstrated the unique way his school implements PBIS: Each student receives a “membership card” that is hole-punched every time the student is observed exhibiting a positive behavior. As students collect hole punches, they work their way up to silver, gold, or platinum membership status.

Arcadia Middle School Principal Brian Tupper also attested to the effectiveness of PBIS. The school’s positive behavior intervention program is represented by the acronym PRIDE: personal responsibility, respect, integrity, determination, and excellence. It was built on the school’s motto, Panther Pride Runs Deep.

“If a child can’t read, we teach them how to read. If a child can’t add and subtract, we teach them how to add and subtract. But if a child can’t behave, our typical response is to punish. Many of these children don’t know how to behave in the public school setting, and so we need to take the time to teach them how to behave,” Rippon concluded.

But school board member George Waldenmaier cautioned his peers that, in his experience, positive behavior interventions are ineffective with high school students.

“A six-year-old is a very different kind of person than a 16-year-old, and an out-of-control six-year-old is a very different thing from an out-of-control 16-year-old,” he said.

High school students tend to “game the system,” which “stops any discipline from advancing any farther” and leads to “poor faculty morale,” Waldenmaier added.

He cited Nandua High School as evidence of his point. After the school abandoned a previous effort to implement PBIS and instead adopted a code of conduct, it won a VTSS award for the highest reduction of referrals in the state, he said.

Waldenmaier recommended reducing the number of referrals by providing intense professional development for the teachers who write the majority of referrals.

He was against “lowering write-ups by preventing people from writing up” due to complicated disciplinary procedures or “pressure coming from the top on building principals: ‘You best not be suspending anybody because we’re watching you.’”

Superintendent Chris Holland responded, “Be very aware of what I’m saying. … We’re going to still suspend children if they’re disrupting, if they’re disrespecting my teachers, my administrators. They’re going to go home. … The high schools need to understand that some stuff we will not tolerate, and that’s what it’s going to be because I’m going to give the directive.”

Waldenmaier said principals should have the choice to “opt in or out” of PBIS.

School Board Chairman Ronnie Holden answered, “A principal is a part of a team, and that principal has got to be a team player, or else we need another principal.”

Waldenmaier did approve of one aspect of PBIS: “Working on school culture pays giant dividends” and leads to “happy teachers … less bullying … higher achievement and … few discipline problems.”