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When Susan Mele arrived as principal at Stewartsville Elementary, the majority of her day was taken up dealing with discipline issues at the school.
Something had to be done.
That next summer, at the challenge of some of the school’s teachers, she and the school’s guidance counselor attended a week-long training session for a program called Responsive Classroom. The goal—find a way to restructure the learning atmosphere at the school.
Mele bought into the program from the start, and sold it to the school staff. Teachers gave up some of their summer to receive their own training in the program’s expectations. From the beginning, the school experienced dramatic results.
In her first year at the school, Stewartsville Elementary had 164 discipline referrals and 40 suspensions. That was 2010-2011. In the next year, those figures dropped to just 76 discipline referrals and 22 suspensions. The downward trend in discipline, and the upward trend in learning continued in 2012-2013 with just 42 discipline referrals and 15 suspensions.
“As a faculty we wanted to do something about it,” Mele said of the discipline problems that plagued the school in that 2010 school year.
What Mele noticed in her first year, when the discipline problems were so bad, was that students, and teachers, didn't know one another. That's why the social aspect of the program—the morning meeting— has become an integral part of its implementation.
“The children didn't know each other,” Mele said. And, because of that, they didn't care what happened to their fellow students.
“Getting to know each other and forming relationships is just what we needed here,” she said. “And almost immediately we met with success.”
The morning meeting consists of a variety of group activities, including having students greet one another, having a time of sharing and allowing for a time of follow-up questions and comments from the students. The meeting includes a content-based activity to help students make that transition from coming from home to entering into the classroom and teachers end by giving some type of morning message.
“It's a way to form relationships,” Mele said of the meeting concept. They learn each other's names and they learn something about their classmates. By doing that, Mele said students realize that there are others in the class experiencing the same issues outside of school that they have — from having a cat die to having a parent away from home because they are serving in the military. Students are learning social skills they will use throughout their lives.
The overall result has been “a kindler, gentler” climate at the school. “The social aspect of what we do in school is at least as important as the academics,” she said.
While the initial results were almost immediate, it has been the staff's willingness to buy into the program long-term that has yielded the ongoing positive results. There are no lone rangers—everyone is following the same structure—but teachers are able to work their own personalities into that basic plan.
“The teachers have seen the difference,” Mele said. That alone has provided motivation to keep the program going. “They wanted something better for the kids. They were very open to it. That made all the difference in the world.”
In addition, staff continue to attend Responsive Classroom events to get new and fresh ideas. And the students have bought into it, too. There has been a distinct drop in tardiness to school; students don't want to miss their morning meeting times. “They perceive it as something fun,” Mele said.
Language and rules
For teachers a big part of the program is the language they use when interacting with students. What they say, and how they say it, can affect a student positively or negatively.
“We've made a real effort to look at the language we use,” Mele said.
There is also a school-wide collaboration, that unites all of the students. In this, each classroom had to come up with three rules that would help them achieve their hopes and dreams. Those rules were then put together into a school-wide list that is posted throughout the school building in strategic locations. Because those rules are considered vitally important, they are framed to show their value.
Every student had a part in helping craft the rules; every student knows them. And school-wide assemblies further the overall school spirit.
Mele said it's not unusual now, if there is a discipline issue, for the student to state which rule was broken before even being asked. Then all they have to do is figure out what needs to be done to correct their action.
What the change means
For Mele, having fewer discipline problems means she now has time to work with teachers.
People are noticing the change at the school.
Mele said a woman in her 80s recently visited the school and was going to a location she couldn't find. A fifth grade student saw her, stopped and asked if he could help. That student walked the woman to her destination and then told her if she needed any additional help, he would be glad to offer his assistance.
Mele said the woman was so impressed with the student that she went to the store, bought a thank you card and brought it back to the school to give to him.
“The kids feel a real sense of belonging,” she said of the social climate the school now enjoys. There is a sense of caring and responsibility Mele has not experienced at any other school she's been at.
“If you're going to do this, everyone really needs to be on board,” she said.
At Stewartsville Elementary, that commitment has paid big dividends—for both the teachers and the students.