Behavioral system touted as big change

Published 12:33 am Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Austin High School junior Jeremiah Nyikew and sophomore Ochudo Cham are two students of African heritage who have found a home not only in the Austin community but the schools as well. -- Eric Johnson/

This story originally appeared along side “Growing need for diversity training” in the Sunday print edition of the Herald.

Austin Public Schools officials have touted the Post Behavioral Interventions and Supports system in recent weeks as the answer to behavioral issues in the district. But what is the PBIS and how does it help in the classroom?

Austin schools' success coach Ojoye Akane spoke to parents of African heritage Thursday afternoon at Sumner Elementary about helping their children strive and fit in and succeed.

PBIS is a U.S. Department of Education-sponsored initiative that’s been around for more than a decade. In effect, the PBIS defines student codes of conduct in hallways, bathrooms and classrooms, and makes disciplinary actions consistent across grades. In other words, students face the same consequences for classroom misbehavior across the board, which district staff says takes away any prejudices a teacher or staff member may carry.

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“PBIS is a culturally responsive way of defining classroom behavior,” said John Alberts, Austin’s educational services director.

Ellis Middle School officials say preliminary data backs successful anecdotal evidence about PBIS, which Ellis and Woodson Kindergarten Center started this year. Seventeen percent of sixth-graders in the first quarter this year had major infractions, compared to 11 percent of sixth-graders during this year’s second quarter.

“We’re excited about the results we’re seeing already,” Assistant Principal Jessica Cabeen said last week.

There’s a 35 percent decrease in out-of-school suspensions building-wide this year compared to last year first semester. Last year, 64 suspensions at Ellis involved students of color during the first semester, compared to 40 during this year’s first semester. Thirty-nine suspensions involved white students last year, compared to 27 for white students. Though there’s still another semester to consider, the initial data is seen as a good sign.

“That’s an increase in the right direction,” said Kevin Anderson, Ellis’ school psychologist and member of Ellis’s PBIS staff team.

National research on behavior and academics make it clear race is still a factor in the classrom. Studies show white students tend to be punished for objective reasons, like getting into fights, smoking, vandalism and other reasons, whereas black students tend to be punished for things like disrespect, excessive noise, and threatening behavior.

“Those are things that have cultural implications,” said Kristi Beckman, Austin’s integration coordinator.

That’s why school officials see PBIS as a proverbial panacea to integrating different cultures in the classroom. Everyone knows the rules, everyone is on equal footing. As Cabeen puts it, everyone knows what to expect from day one.

“We didn’t assume anything,” she said.