The Panther Valley School District is pushing back against cultural influences that lead to rudeness, bullying and a lack of responsibility with an upbeat method.
Administrators are welcoming students to a common-ground culture of civility, respect for themselves and others, and personal responsibility through a statewide program called Positive Behavior Support.
"It's a common language. Whether a student enters the district this week or they've been here throughout their entire academic career, everyone gets the same expectations. Everyone understands these are the values here," said high school Principal Joseph Gunnels.
"It makes it easier. You come in, and you don't have to choose what you're going to do, because the culture has been created," said middle school Principal Lisa Mace.
In addition to seeing his young students treat each other more respectfully, elementary school Principal William Lombardo is "seeing a change in teachers."
Instead of seeing teachers scold a student for failing to obey hallway rules, he said, "now I'm hearing teachers say, 'I like the way these children are lined up'. They are not addressing the negative. They are addressing the positive, and all of a sudden, these kids are moving in. One of the keys is the modeling of the teachers."
Good teachers develop a rapport with their students, he said.
"Once they develop that rapport, you can take them to the positive, or you can take them to the negative. So, when teachers are positive, the child becomes positive," he said.
The Pennsylvania Positive Behavior Support Network's leadership team includes the Bureau of Special Education; the Governor's Commission on Children and Families; the state Student Assistance Program; the state Department of Health's Drug and Alcohol programs, and the Mental Health Association of Pennsylvania.
In essence, instead of a punitive approach, the program encourages teachers and other adults, including instructional aids, cafeteria and cleaning staff, to catch kids being good and acknowledge their behavior. The rewards vary according to grade level.
As of August, 141 schools in the state were on board with the program, according to the Pennsylvania Positive Behavior Support website. All three Panther Valley schools and the Penn Kidder campus of Jim Thorpe area School District implemented the program last year.
"After one year, we have noticed a dramatic decrease in discipline referrals and generally a more positive atmosphere. We are continuing to review our discipline data on a monthly basis and focus on our students that require more strategic behavior interventions," said Penn-Kidder Principal Brian Gasper. "Overwhelmingly, I would say the program is a success and we are continuing to focus on the positive behaviors of our students."
"Positive Behavior Support helps schools create safe learning climates and cultures by helping schools identify what their core values are, and by helping teachers and students to learn those. It's a common language of courtesy, respect and safety within a school," Gunnels said.
"It's not a canned concept," he said. "There is a framework, and each of the schools and each district can work within that framework. It's very customized to your community, your kids, your climate, your culture."
Each school creates a team, which arrives at several areas of concern whether it be lunch table manners, accountability or respect for others and determine how best to teach students those values in a positive way.
Lombardo's team came up with PAWS, with the core values promoted being safety, responsibility and respect. When a child receives a certificate for demonstrating those values, for example by inviting others to join games, crossing only at corners or promptly removing their hats upon entering school, he or she gets to put his or her name on a bright gold panther paw print in the school's front window. Once a month, the paws are taken down and entered into a raffle, which has several winners.
The recognition, Lombardo said, "helps students to see that this behavior is valued," a step toward making the practices "routine and habit."
The values are also woven into each teachers' lesson plans, he said.
The program is working, all four principals said. The program's success is being documented through the diminishing numbers of referral slips to the guidance counselor, improved academic performance and improving attendance records.
Middle school students "PURR with Pride," Mace said. They are Prepared to learn, Unified, Respectful and Responsible. Each grade has its own team with its own theme.
The sixth grade team leaders chose "Keys to Success." Each student has a paper key on his or her locker, which they decorate with their names. Students who demonstrate the PURR values are given certificates.
The seventh grade chose sportsmanship. They have personalized sports equipment cut-outs on their lockers. Rewards include free gym time.
The eighth grade is the Determinators. They chose to hand out tickets to students observed following through on PURR values. The tickets will be entered into a quarterly drawing for prizes.
Mace does a building-wide activity once a month to build a sense of unity among the grade levels.
The biggest problem at the middle school is the unstructured areas hallways and stairwells, she said. Students need to learn to share those areas politely and safely.
"Those are two areas where we've really had to take time to train our kids," she said. "We have focused a lot on manners in the cafeteria."
All done in a positive way.
"Praise is a big component. It's not looking at someone for not doing it, but it's celebrating the kids who do (demonstrate the values)," Mace said. That, she said, is what encourages students to want to join the effort.
She plans to expand the program to school buses and safety monitors.
Gunnels said that at the high school, the program acronym is PACE: Preparation, Accountability, Cooperation and Collaboration and Excellence values students need to become successful adults.
"Each student in grades nine through 11 is assigned a mentor teacher. At least once a month, we schedule a period for the mentor group to get together with their teacher."
Each group has about 10 or 12 students, and the time is spent with each student concerning the core values and how well the student is doing with them.
It's up to the mentor-teacher to design the class, he said. The ideas include group activities or individual projects, all of which explore the core PACE values. But each students gets time alone with the mentor-teacher. they explore how the student is succeeding, and what needs attention. For example, the teacher may observe that student expressed an interest in drama, but never followed through on joining the activity.
"For our seniors, we bring in someone from career services, or from one of the universities' recruiting offices" so the students can learn about filling out financial aid forms, for example, he said.
As incentives, schools that come in to do presentations often bring T-shirts or other freebies. Also, Gunnels nudges students to strive for perfect attendance by offering a chance to win a $20 gift card.
Last year, the food services director brought in a chef, and on Valentine's Day, 14 students who did well had a special dinner.
Incentives and rewards, Gunnels said, "show the kids you really value this." When school staff and community members cooperate and are on the same page with the program, "it develops the common language, and the kids know this is what we value."
At Penn-Kidder, principal Gasper said the PBS program "kick-off included specific trainings for all students in regards to our TORCH rules."
TORCH is an acronym for Teamwork, Organization, Respect, Choices and Honor.
"These trainings used the TORCH themes to model positive behaviors in specific areas of the building (bus, arrival / dismissal, cafeteria, lavatory, hallway, and recess)," he said.
"Our program uses a token economy system with TORCH tickets. Teachers are instructed to issue tickets to students following our rules. When a ticket is issued, the teacher must tell the student why he/she is receiving one to reinforce the positive behavior. Tickets can be used to "purchase" items in our SWPBS store (The Penn's Den) or other items of interest offered by our teachers. Last year two students saved their tickets for the opportunity to shave the head of one of our male teachers."