District seeing positive changes in the classroom

Published 6:01 pm Saturday, March 10, 2012

Students in Julie Walski's seventh-grade honors language class work in groups during a discussion of the concepts of utopias Friday morning at Ellis Middle School.

Ellis Middle School teachers see positive things happening in the classroom.

They aren’t talking about academic performance, per se. Many staff see changes in the classroom for the better since Ellis started the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports system this year.

“It’s really a team initiative,” said Assistant Principal Jessica Cabeen.

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The building-wide behavior curriculum 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 Ellis staff says takes away any prejudices a teacher or staff member may carry.

“Consistency is a huge part of it,” said Dave Brown, sixth-grade teacher. Brown, who is also the Character Counts coordinator, said he has seen a marked improvement in student behavior after Ellis sixth-grade teachers concentrated on PBIS lessons during key parts of the year, when teachers know students are more likely to act up based on several years’ worth of behavioral data.

For example, sixth-graders learned proper hallway etiquette, mainly walking on one side of the hall in an orderly fashion. Walkway signs and taped-off lanes act as reminders. The lessons are so successful that teachers use the signs and lessons building-wide.

Ellis officials say preliminary data backs the anecdotal evidence. Seventeen percent of sixth-graders in the first semester of 2011 had major infractions, compared to 11 percent of sixth-graders during this year’s first semester.

“We’re excited about the results we’re seeing already,” Cabeen said.

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.

The PBIS system works nicely with Ellis’s Character Counts program, in that Character Counts provides definitions for behavior while the PBIS is a way to measure behavior and act accordingly.

“When we talk to the students, we can always refer to (Character Counts),” Brown said. “It’s broad enough where it encompasses everything.”

What’s more, students are recognized for good behavior with Packer Pride cards, which students can use for drawn prizes. Recognizing students’ good behavior has worked wonders.

“They understand what they’re seeing and they enjoy it,” Brown said.

Ellis will keep doing PBIS for the next three to five years, collecting data to determine whether the behavior system is effective. Austin High School is set to implement PBIS next fall as well, meaning PBIS may go district-wide within a few years if the program is shown to be successful.

Ellis staff are excited for the next several years, as they hope students will leave middle school with a better outlook on learning.

“They need to be on time, they need to be prepared, they need to be engaged in learning,” Cabeen said.