Principal Sandra Cote explains the positive reinforcement program instituted at Greylock School.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Unruly, misbehaving children. Sick, stressed out teachers. Disrupted classrooms and learning environments.
The 2017-2018 school year was a rough one, Principal Sandra Cote told the School Committee on Tuesday night. "We had a problem at Greylock [School]."
There had been more than 1,300 referrals to the Student Support Center in that one school year for behavior issues.
"That's a lot," she said. "Now granted, we're only talking a few minutes for each student that were in there for the processing, but we really had concerns about that amount out-of-classroom time, not to mention that there were probably behaviors that were impacting the classroom leading up to the students actually being sent out. ...
"So as a school, we decided we needed to do something."
Cote surveyed Greylock Elementary's teachers and three things came to the fore: the children were having difficulty "self-regulating" their behavior; there was a lack of social/emotional support; and teachers were just exhausted and frustrated.
"They were really experiencing burnout," Cote said. "They loved the profession, but they were leaving each day totally exhausted from dealing with the behaviors as opposed to the curriculum."
The school applied for and received a Safe and Supportive Schools Grant in 2018 that allowed it to establish a social/emotional team that meets every three weeks to discuss and implement strategies. Cote and members of her staff and faculty also did a book study on helping traumatized children and attended a class of positive behavior interventions and support, or PBIS.
"We decided we needed to change the culture of the school in order to let teachers do what they're there for -- which is to teach -- and so that students will be able to be there to learn," she said.
Together, the faculty developed a mission statement for the school, goals aligned with the district's "respect, resilience, responsible" mantra and a behavior matrix that spelled out how everyone should act in school situations. They made the matrix more student-friendly, posted it in prominent areas and began imparting those expectations to the children.
"Every teacher has this binder [with the matrix and lessons] and they spent the first six weeks of school doing morning meeting lessons and teaching those different things," Cote said, pointing to her presentation slide, "This is an example of a teacher teaching the right way go down the slide, not the wrong way of climbing up the slide and crashing into your friend at the top."
Then they started handing out "positive paws" when students were being respectful, resilient and responsible. The little paper paws have become much desired as they offer the chance to hit up the "treasure box," get a free homework pass, eat lunch in the courtyard and even eat lunch with the principal, "which is actually pretty popular, believe it or not." At the end of each marking period, they could get a "brag tag" from a teacher and cash them in or put them in a drawing for prizes, like last month's for T-shirts with the school mascot, a tiger.
"It's working. This is where I'm feeling the pride. We went for example in September of 2017, where we really felt like we things were falling apart, we had 102 referrals in one month," Cote said. "This year, we're down to 53."
Teacher absence for illness has also dropped off.
"We were going through really a rough year and it goes without saying, you're dealing with things and you're burning out and you're exhausted, your immunity system goes down, too," the principal said. "So I'm not saying they're faking it. They were sick. But as you know, this year, it just seems like things are in a much better spot."
As for teacher burnout, the school has developed some small initiatives like a Friday coffee club and will be seeking feedback as the year goes on. Bits and pieces of the initiative were implemented last year but this will be the first full year all aspects of the program are being used.
"I like the positive paws because it gives feedback to kids that don't even realize that they're doing something positive," said School Committee member Karen Bond. "I think it's really important to get that feedback when it happens."
Cote said she's already fielded inquiries from two principals in Westfield who want to visit Greylock to see if they can implement a similar program.
Mayor Thomas Bernard said the school system is being pointed to as a model for a number of initiatives, including a curriculum presentation made ahead of Cote's by Kimberly Roberts-Morandi, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. People are coming to North Adams, he said, asking "how can we grab some of that secret sauce."
"I'm really impressed and you're to be commended for your leadership and your team's to be commended," said the mayor, the chairman of the School Committee.
Cote was the first of the four principals to offer a presentation to update the School Committee on projects in their schools. Superintendent Barbara Malkas joked that Greylock usually went last in alphabetical order but this time she switched it so Cote had a chance to go first.
In other business, Roberts-Morandi gave an update on the curriculum website and Elizabeth Whitman a presentation on the school district's English language learners program. School Committee member Tara Jacobs gave an update on a session she and Malkas attended on the new superintendent evaluation system, believing the committee should get a training, and panels she attended at last month's joint conference of the Massachusetts Associations of School Committees and of School Superintendents held in Hyannis. State Attorney General Maura Healey spoke at the conference and mentioned she had launched her violence prevention initiative in North Adams.
School Committee member Nicholas Fahey is given a clock with his name on it and a card from his colleagues. He is leaving this month at the end of his four-year term.
• The committee accepted two donations: one for $3,800 from General Dynamics Mission Systems and another for $500 from anonymous donor for the district's 21st Century After School program. Malkas said the after-school program donor was a parent/guardian whose children participated in the after-school programs for many years and wanted to make sure it continues.
• The General Dynamics donation is in support of science, technology, engineering, art and math programs and were requested by GD employee Joseph Johnson, whose mother worked for the public schools. Roberts-Morandi said the funds were targeted for a specific grade leve and school but since the teachers had been working together across schools, she is working out how they can be used as a resource. General Dynamics has been generous over the past few years, including a $6,000 donation in October, so Roberts-Morandi said she has been in touch with the company about formalizing a partnership and a meeting to thank them.
• Finally, the committee said goodbye to member Nicholas Fahey, who is completing his four-year term and did not run for re-election. Bernard said Fahey contributions had included being a member of the search committee that brought them Malkas and he had been active in guiding the group through the superintendent evaluations. He's also been a member of the negotiating subcommittee and chairman of the finance and facilities committee that helped shape the district's statement of interest for Greylock School.
"That's to say nothing of being constant and steady at the table for the time that I've been in this role so I'm very sorry that we are saying farewell to you. I want to thank you we want to wish you well," said the mayor.
"It's been a really awesome experience, meeting all of you and getting to see what happens behind the scenes," said Fahey, currently a computer and technology teacher at Herberg Middle School in Pittsfield.
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