This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has embraced the framework known as Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) as an approach to improving school climate in Philadelphia, embedding the program in her strategic plan, Imagine 2014, and decreeing that all schools adopt its key elements.
This is both good news and bad news for the people who have worked the hardest to bring PBS to the city since even before Ackerman arrived.
They are concerned that rather than the targeted, intensive rollout in 20 schools they had planned for this year, with four full-time coaches focused on keeping these schools on track, the broader implementation will diminish the chances for success.
For more than two years, advocates have worked with various District departments to shift disciplinary focus onto prevention of bad behavior at a time when zero tolerance and expulsions have been at center stage.
The key in PBS schools is rewarding students systematically for good behavior, regarding infractions as a teachable moment rather than simply as an occasion for punishment, and carefully cataloguing disciplinary incidents to problem-solve and target interventions.
“The implementation of PBS requires teachers and administrators to collaborate well and to adopt in some cases very different beliefs about students and discipline than they currently hold,” said Matt Riggan, a board member of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a member of a task force that worked on the program. “It requires a lot of support to do it well.”
United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania had offered $200,000 a year for three years to pay for the four coaches, provided the District matched the amount. “We offered a challenge grant; we had a few donors really interested in this issue,” said David Fair of United Way. But those funds are now in jeopardy, he said.
“What they’re doing now is not what we’re proposing to support,” he said. The District is mandating that schools use the program rather than making them demonstrate their readiness through a vote of 80 percent of the staff. Coaching – considered the key piece of the approach by its developers – is now just one more task for the regions’ Discipline and Truancy Liaisons, done part-time over a larger number of schools.
“What they’re doing is not bad, but in my opinion it is not likely to have a very long-lasting impact,” Fair said. “It is giving more priority to training people on principles rather than nurturing them on adopting new ways of doing things. You need to nurture them because almost everything that happens in schools works to pull them away.”
In ordering the wider implementation, Ackerman maintained that the underpinnings of PBS are “common sense.”
Even so, for many schools it requires “a shift in thinking, an understanding that when a student does something wrong, it is not just an opportunity to get rid of them, but to teach them appropriate behavior,” said Ericka Washington, who is coordinating the program for the District.
What PBS does, according to Washington, is continually buttress a “single school culture” so that all the staff knows that “this is the way we do things around here; that we are on the same page with processes, procedures, a common vision, common goals; and that we align practices to meet those goals. They have to be written, shared and reinforced.”
John Frangipani, the District’s new chief of school operations and formerly a regional superintendent and principal, said achieving a common outlook among all staff in a school can be tough. “Everyone has different beliefs about what discipline should look like, from their own personal background and experiences,” he said.
Washington is optimistic about using elements of PBS districtwide. “We’ve been given the instructions that we want to see every school developing some element of the PBS model,” including a team that meets monthly to set expectations, clarify rules, establish a hierarchy of consequences, and regularly review data.
Washington also initiated a revision of the disciplinary referral form, called the “pink slip,” to better reflect PBS thinking. The old pink slip requires teachers to categorize the violation and specify the steps taken, like a call to the home or a conference with the student.
The new one will ask the teacher to say why the student was acting out. “We want people to start thinking about motivation,” said Washington.
It will also ask for more details about the incident to gather needed information for the development of a database to focus problem-solving strategies.
The A.B. Day Elementary School in Mount Airy first used PBS after applying for a grant in 2003. It eagerly applied to be one of the 20 cohort schools this year.
The school, whose team name is the Tigers, came up with a system of rules and expectations called ROAR – for respect, obedience, attitude, and responsibility. In the beginning of the year, teachers take students to different parts of the building – the hallway, the lunchroom – and teach a lesson on what being respectful in each location looks like.
Students get ROAR cards for following these behaviors, which then go into a box for a weekly drawing. Winners get perks like free dinners at Applebee’s. Some teachers go further, bringing in home-cooked meals for the students with the most ROAR cards at the end of the week.
Dean Karen White showed the data analysis of October disciplinary incidents. The colorful bar graph showed that among the lower grade students, most of the infractions were for teasing. Among older students, it was bad language on the playground. So the school is looking into socialized recess, White said.
Under the influence of positive reinforcement, “I’ve seen students completely change,” said teacher Carol Doman, “from being disruptive to being your right-hand guy. It works.”