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Brooke Schools Reward Students' Good Behavior
by Jennifer Bundy, The Associated Press, February 13, 2005

WELLSBURG - On the first day of school in August, incoming freshmen at Brooke County High School were shown their lockers and classrooms and then herded into a cafeteria for a rundown of the school's do's and don'ts, including behavior expectations.

"Our purpose is to reward positive behavior," Assistant Principal Ken Hart told the students slumped in their chairs. "Hopefully, we can correct negative behavior as well."

For the past three years, Brooke County High School has been rewarding its students with "gotcha" awards for being prepared, striving to do their best, and showing and giving respect to fellow students and teachers.

The program has been so successful, it was expanded this year to all 11 schools in the Northern Panhandle county. Brooke is the first of West Virginia's 55 county school systems to use the concept of positive behavior support countywide.

The concept is simple: Prevent problems by encouraging good behavior instead of solely punishing the bad.

As the U.S. Department of Education gathers information on "persistently dangerous schools" under federal No Child Left Behind standards, education discipline experts tout positive behavior support as the best way to address school violence.

It has been gaining in popularity as educators realized the practice of zero tolerance isn't very effective and tends to discriminate against minorities and low-performing students.

"It's kind of the gold standard for the field right now," Don Kincaid, associate professor at the University of South Florida and director of Florida's Positive Behavior Support Project, said of positive behavior support.

"It's what schools should be doing."

PBS has been used for decades to improve the behavior of individual special education students. Because it works best if every adult in a school works together, the next step was to apply it to entire schools and districts.

The University of Oregon's Center for Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support has received about $7.5 million in federal education funds in the past six years to help 3,000 schools and districts in 30 states implement a positive behavior support program.

Schools that have completely implemented the program report up to a 60 percent reduction in school violence, said George Sugai, a professor of special education at the center.

West Virginia began using positive behavior to help individual students in 1991, and moved into schoolwide programs a decade later. More than 200 West Virginia schools now use some form of the program.

While statewide and Brooke County before-and-after discipline statistics are still being gathered, Grandview Elementary in Kanawha County reports discipline referrals to its principal have dropped from 250 in 2000-2001, the program's first year, to 79 last year.

And the type of referrals has changed from fights and classroom disruptions to playground horseplay that goes too far, said Principal Sherrie Davis. Fights have almost disappeared.

"It's all about expectations," said Davis, whose school serves 242 students in preschool through fifth grade.

Grandview's expectations are "expect to do your best, act appropriately, give and earn respect, listen and learn." Students can earn an award, usually a pencil and an announcement over the school intercom.

In most elementary schools, about 20 percent of students will not respond to a positive behavior program without additional intervention by counselors, social workers or special education teachers, Sugai said. Because schools are dealing with fewer problems, they can concentrate more help on those children.

The program is not just for high-poverty schools in tough neighborhoods. While 76 percent of Grandview's children are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, a poverty measure, only 27.44 percent of Brooke High School students qualify.

Despite its success, PBS has not replaced zero tolerance, which applies tough punishment to both severe and minor bad behavior.

Most researchers say zero tolerance doesn't work and isn't fair. And there is a high rate of repeat offenses among students who are suspended - so it's not a deterrent, said Russ Skiba, a professor at Indiana University who researches school discipline for the Center for Education and Evaluation Policy.

"We see a very consistent overrepresentation of minority students, especially African-Americans, in the use of suspension and expulsion," Skiba said. Black students also tend to get harsher punishments for less serious behavior, he added.

Both disciplinary concepts should be used in unison, said Bill Bond, National Association of Secondary School Principals' principal in residence for school safety.

Bond was principal of Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., when a freshman there killed three girls and wounded five other students on Dec. 1, 1997.

"The more you reinforce positive behavior the more positive behavior you are going to get," he said. But, "You have to be negative at times and you have to be consistently negative when there is a certain behavior you are trying to eliminate. You can't ignore it and think it will go away."

Nationally, violent crimes involving students ages 12 to 18 dropped from about 1.15 million in 1992 to 658,600 in 2002, a 43 percent decline, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In West Virginia there were 702 crimes in schools in the 2003-2004 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

By using positive behavior in every school, Brooke County administrators hope to teach children responsibility and manners early so middle schools and high schools have fewer discipline problems, said Everett Mace, the county's director of special education and staff development.

Brooke High School's program is designed to reward even problem students if they do just one thing right. Students "caught doing something good" receive a certificate and a pin and are in monthly group photos posted throughout the school.

Teachers also regularly send postcards to parents when students do something outstanding.

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