Improving Culture with PBIS, Leader in Me, and Kickboard
How a Cleveland Public School decreased suspensions by 73%
Alfred A. Benesch
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
- Public K-8
- 349 Students
- 96.3% African American
- 1.4% White
- 1.4% Two or more races
“When we first got here, I would say our building was on fire. We were using a little bucket to extinguish a huge fire.”
This is how Assistant Principal Carlisha Bias described the school culture of Alfred A Benesch school, part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), when she and Principal Dr. Erin Murphy first arrived in 2016.
The new leadership team quickly began to address issues at Benesch. They worked hard to design a schoolwide PBIS system to combat less desirable student behavior, but the program fell short. Their adopted reward system of paper “Scarab bucks” was unstructured and difficult to manage, falling prey to students stealing or making copies of the highly valued reward.
The main behavior the Scarab bucks meant to derail, of students standing up and walking out of class without permission, did not subside. During the 2016 school year, administrators sometimes reported up to 20 such “walk outs” per day from students.
The school leadership team was also working hard to find a way to decrease their high suspension rates by being more proactive. They began to identify and address behavior patterns when they first began in order to keep small problems from growing into larger issues, but without a streamlined identification system, the process was cumbersome.
A Vision for Success
In 2013, Benesch became part of the CMSD’s investment school program to turn around the lowest performing schools in the area. With the district’s support, Benesch shifted focus to strengthen school culture and improve social emotional learning of each student to support academic improvement.
Mission Statement: Alfred A. Benesch is a scholar-led family of educators, caregivers and community members creating individual success through leadership experiences embedded in academics and social-emotional learning.
During the district’s restructuring initiative and push to implement PBIS strategies, Benesch was chosen for a program with a particular focus on youth leadership development. The school launched the “Leader in Me” curriculum, which develops students’ natural leadership abilities through incorporating lessons from 7 habits of Happy Kids in daily instruction and school culture programming.
Reframing and Strengthening Pre-existing Programs
Despite initial setbacks with Scarab Bucks, the school’s leadership team had faith in the system’s potential to accentuate the leadership capabilities of their students. In search of a way to reframe and align their existing programs, the administrators at Benesch found the Kickboard platform to be dynamic enough to complement their vision for “Leader in Me” while also giving the program and their PBIS initiative the organization and structure they were looking for.
Carlisha and her team decided to design their Kickboard configuration around the 7 Leader in Me Habits that aligned with the district’s leadership development program. Scarab bucks became tied to tangible behavior data tracked by Kickboard, making the system more easily manageable by both teachers and administrators.
While Kickboard was being used to track individual student behavior on a daily basis in the classroom, Carlisha and her team also used the program to manage month-long, schoolwide incentive programs.The power of encouragement to promote positive behavior is evident in the students’ eagerness to acquire enough points to collectively earn the highly sought after Friday Luau.
In addition to the Luau, the school also comes together during the Student of the Month assembly to recognize students who have embodied the school’s values both academically and behaviorally. Carlisha describes the event as “a really good expression of our leadership” as students are awarded for their growth as leaders and different student groups perform in celebration of such growth. Kickboard data is the backbone of both events by providing the data showing improvement so students may receive the praise and recognition that they deserve.
Punitive to Positive
A study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that the biggest challenge that most schools face when implementing PBIS is accentuating the positive. PBIS is meant to promote desired behavior from students instead of only reacting to violations. It can prove difficult to break away from this trend as school management structures have traditionally centered around the reactionary approach or corrective consequences.
The situation was no different at Benesh, with teachers tending to focus on negative behaviors. Some of the students’ self-esteem began to suffer if their behavioral standing hit severe negative levels that, in their minds, were beyond repair. In such circumstances, students were left with little hope for improvement.
The school’s culture experienced a huge turnaround, however, when “corrective” buttons were taken away from the Kickboard configuration at the beginning of the 2018 school year. With this new format, students could only accumulate positive points. Students became more invested in collecting points and teachers began to shift their focus from punishing negative behaviors to uplifting and encouraging positive ones. This shift, in Bias’ perspective, changed everything for the school and put them on track make strides in both behavioral and academic achievement.
Supporting Teachers in the Classroom
Teachers at Benesch were at first resistant to integrating Kickboard into their classrooms. A common misconception surrounding PBIS is that the program will add to the already heavy workload of teachers, which can cause difficulties in generating buy in for schoolwide use. However, once the school reconfigured their Kickboard platform to focus on promoting positive behavior choices, teachers saw shift in student behavior and welcomed the platform into their classrooms. Now, the majority of teachers utilize Kickboard on a daily basis to track student behavior and to engage students in the incentive program.
Teachers at Benesch utilize Kickboard in various ways. They use it to track students growth within the Leader in Me curriculum and to properly administer Scarab bucks. Each classroom is also equipped with a “Leadership Board” to provide students with a clear visual representation of Kickboard behavioral data. All students start each day fresh on green, signifying “ready to lead”. Throughout the day, a student may move down to orange or even red levels if certain infractions occur, but due to the chart’s fluid nature, teachers can easily move students back up to green if they exhibit a change in behavior.
While corrective student behavior no longer plays a part in Benesch’s incentive system, both teachers and administrators use Kickboard to record negative student behavior in order to properly track patterns in behavior and communicate such patterns to parents. Teachers at Benesch use Kickboard to record lunch detentions, parent phone calls, and to provide data for other systems they have set up in their classroom.
The administrators at Benesch wanted to provide data tracking tools for the classroom, such as the Leadership Board and Kickboard, but also wanted to give teachers autonomy. “It’s a way for us to give them [teachers] the respect that they know how their classroom runs while also giving them different opportunities for success” explains Bias. Kickboard has helped provide more structure in the classroom, something that both students and teachers crave.
After Benesch shifted focus towards using Kickboard as a way to reinforce positive student behavior in the 2018 school year, they started seeing major decreases in suspension rates. The staggering drop in suspensions, as much as a 73% decrease, can be seen when comparing data side by side from the 2017 school year to the 2018 school year.
The school made academic gains over that time as well. In a “Note from a Principal” Dr. Erin Murphy reported:
“For the third straight year, third grade reading passage rate went up from 0% in 2016 to 17% in 2017 and 46% in 2018! Our conditions for learning numbers continue to grow, especially in grades 4-8, where students are feeling more comfortable in school. Finally, we are pleased to announce a 5 point gain in our Performance Index, which compiles data across the school from attendance to academics to get a full picture.”
Various publications in the field of education prove the strong correlation that exists between school culture and academic achievement. For Benesch to experience such strong academic gains, they first needed to secure a safe environment to foster student learning. With fewer walkouts, fewer suspensions, and fewer fires to put out, teachers and administrators were able to focus more on providing high quality instruction and thus improving student academic outcomes.
In addition to the decrease in suspensions, Bias describes the school atmosphere as more “pleasant” since the reconfiguration of Kickboard. Students, teachers, and administrators alike benefit from the structure and boundaries that the behavior management tool has brought to the school. She says that she now has more time to be proactive in her role instead of constantly putting out fires. She and the rest of the leadership team are looking forward to continuing to expand the benefits that Kickboard has to offer.