Last January, 22 schools in St. Lucie County (roughly 58 percent) were recognized as PBIS model schools by University of South Florida (USF), the state’s liaison for the program.
PBIS, or Positive Behavior and Intervention Support, is a comprehensive framework, that came out of the 1997 Individual with Disabilities Education Act, that trains school districts in effective measures for improving behavioral and attendance issues. While initially designed for Exceptional Student Education (ESE), the program has expanded to take into consideration the entirety of the school environment.
St. Lucie School District has implemented PBIS for about 14 years. This year, seven more schools were honored in St. Lucie than last year, and of the 22 total honorees – all of which were elementary or middle schools – 14 received “Gold” status. Among the top recognitions were Allapattah Flats K-8, St. Lucie West K-8 and Westgate K-8.
While the PBIS program does not rate districts, and applications for model recognition are voluntary, Robyn Vanover, USF faculty member and PBIS Technical Assistance Specialist for the Treasure Coast, says an increase in model school recognition indicates a growing enthusiasm for the program in a district.
There is also a clear correlation between St. Lucie School District’s implementation of the program and its graduation and student retention rates, says Keri Padrick, district spokesperson. Last year, 90.1 percent of students in St. Lucie graduated, which is 22 percent higher than four years ago.
Each school applies the PBIS framework in its own unique way, depending on their individual needs, says Robert O’Neill, St. Lucie’s PBIS coordinator. “Everything goes through what the university calls a problem-solving model, whether addressing classrooms, individuals or whole schools,” says O’Neill. The questions each school asks are: “What are our concerns or issues? What do we hypothesize is causing them? What can we do to make it better, and does it work?” Based on individual school data, each school designs their own implementation model for PBIS, with help from the district, who in turn has recourse to PBIS consultants from the state.
There are three tiers within PBIS. The first application of the program is school-wide, and involves a core set of tenets that faculty and students are encouraged to observe: respect, responsibility, safety, and readiness to learn. About 80 percent of the student populations are responsive to this tier, says Bill Tomlinson, Executive Director for Student Services and Exceptional Student Education in St. Lucie. Tier 2 is designed for students in need of a more intensive framework, and is usually executed in small-group settings. Tier 3 is for those students in need of individual attention, and comprises roughly 5 percent of the school populations.
Tomlinson isolates classroom management as a foundation for PBIS in the schools. “We try to train our teachers in effective measures for classroom management,” he says. “The sole goal behind classroom management is being able to protect the integrity of instruction. If the teacher can’t teach, the children aren’t going to learn. So when we’re working with the teachers, we’re helping them to understand that it’s important to inform children throughout the learning process what the expectations are. There’s a constant feedback to students, so that they understand, throughout their learning, the expectations for every aspect of the curriculum or subject being taught.”
PBIS standards are implemented on all levels by the faculty, administrators and volunteer student team leaders. The schools consider a wide scope of data, such as absentee rates, student retention, academic performance, as well as disciplinary data.
There is also attention paid to the mental health or cognitive abilities of the individual students. “We’re in the student services business,” says Tomlinson. “The academic component of that is one thing. But the children carry a lot of things with them to school. Some of that is trauma they’ve been exposed to, things going on in the home that affect their ability to learn.” Tomlinson mentions that in concert with PBIS, the district has added many components to their mental health program, offering youth mental first aid training for faculty, as well as training in trauma-informed care.
Graduation rates among ESE students is also high. Last year, 83.7 percent of the district’s students with disabilities graduated, which is 17 percentage points higher than the state average of 66 percent.
At Allapattah Flats K-8, where PBIS standards have been in place for nine years, students are continually reminded of their model’s expectations by teachers, posters spread about the school, and through various meetings and events. In addition, the faculty and staff involve many of the students in the decision-making process by taking regular surveys among the student body. The elementary school has recently seen a decline in student referrals and out-of-school suspensions, which principal Ana Rodriguez-Oronoz largely attributes to their PBIS implementation.
“When you go out there and talk to students, and you see students in classrooms, in the cafeteria, at events, you can just see that they’re happy to be here, that they like our school and feel connected to the adults,” says Rodriguez-Oronoz.
Fourth-grader Emily Mojica, who recently transferred to Allapattah Flats from the Miami-Dade school district, says she’s noticed how happier and more productive she and her classmates are with the PBIS program. At her previous school, students were much meaner, she says, but at Allapattah Flats, much of this behavior is dealt with more directly, allowing her and her fellow students to concentrate on their studies more.
Additionally, Allapattah Flats has instituted a school-wide incentive program called “Gator Bucks.” Teachers and staff at the school will pass “Gator Bucks” out to students who exhibit exceptional behavior. This currency can be used at the school store, or to attend events like talent shows, fashion shows, and even magic shows. And at the end of every year, there’s a “Gator Buck” raffle where students can win play stations, bicycles, and other desirable prizes.
Mojica says the incentives are highly effective: all her friends are constantly looking for ways to collect the bucks.
Not only does PBIS help create a positive learning environment in the schools where it’s in practice, it can also help schools cope with traumatic events when they occur, such as the recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County.
“School climate and culture is paramount to physical safety,” says Vanover. “We want the students to feel safe, and that there is a trustworthy adult that they can go to. There is research. A certain institute in Minnesota did a study and identified that a young person really only needs at least one adult in their life to help them become successful. One adult who can be there for them, to listen to them, to advise them and mentor them. It plays a role, obviously, as we have learned. At Stoneman Douglas, there are a lot of systems that are in place that need to work together in order to prevent such a horrific event from happening. Hopefully when there are traumatic events, PBIS can be a huge advantage for helping students, teachers, administrators, and the whole community through that healing process.”
Article by: Adam Laten Willson, Correspondent