Middle schools to promote respect with reward program

October 5, 2011

Brandon Welcome, an eighth-grader at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Clinton, looks forward to Fight-Free Fridays.

If there are no fights at the school for two weeks, students won’t have to wear uniforms on designated Fridays under a relaunched behavior-improvement program that kicked off Sept. 28 with a rally.

“It’ll change things for the better,” Brandon, 13, said of the program.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports — or PBIS — offers school dollars that can be exchanged for rewards and items at school stores to students displaying such positive behaviors as respecting others, accepting responsibility and behaving appropriately. Individualized models of the program, which operate in more than 80 Prince George’s County elementary and secondary schools, will be implemented in all middle schools by the end of the academic year, program coordinator Doug Gaither said.

Stephen Decatur Middle School Principal Barry S. Cyrus said they have seen mixed results since the program was implemented three years ago, in part because the students weren’t fully invested in the program.

“We never sold [students] on it,” Cyrus said. “We’re hoping they’ll have a better idea of what [the program] is and what it can do for them.”

A middle school task force convened by the school system recommended that the program, introduced to county schools in 2000, be used in all middle schools after examining the schools’ disciplinary data, Gaither said.

Elementary, high schools, academies and charter schools can choose to use the program, but all schools must pay a registration fee and the cost of training principals and staff members. Schools use discretionary funds from their budgets, local and federal grants, or donations from parent-teacher organizations, to pay for the program, which costs less than $500, Gaither said.

The schools that run such programs have seen a decrease in suspensions, Gaither said. Other evidence of the program’s success, including drops in the number of office referrals or improvements in the environment at a school, are tracked at the school.

Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville and G. James Gholson Middle School in Landover were recognized for their effective programs last year by PBIS Maryland, which is a partnership between the state Department of Education, local school systems, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and the Baltimore-based Sheppard Pratt Health System, said Richard Moody Jr., supervisor of the county school system’s Student Affairs/Safe and Drug-Free Schools office.

PBIS brings about an increase in positive behaviors that translates into fewer disruptions, more time spent in class and, hopefully, higher test scores, Cyrus said.

“It makes people more happy and wanting to follow directions,” said Dejah Selders of Clinton, an eighth-grader at Stephen Decatur Middle who emceed the rally Sept. 28.

Students can use Eagle Bucks — named for the school’s mascot — to buy candy and supplies from the school store or to purchase a dress-down day on which they don’t have to wear a uniform. In previous years, students could pay for candy and supplies with cash; now, in an effort to promote behavior that yields Eagle Bucks, the store accepts only the school currency, Cyrus said.

Marigel Merillna, who teaches math to seventh- and eighth-grade special education students at Stephen Decatur, said her students are excited about the opportunity to earn Eagle Bucks. In Merillna’s classroom, they can do so by meeting expectations such as coming to class prepared and on time or respecting each other.

“This is the first year we are being thorough with [PBIS],” she said. “I want it to improve classroom management.”

In addition to rewards for good behavior, PBIS includes a mentoring program run through the county Sheriff’s Office, which this year formed a partnership with eight middle schools to mentor 30 to 40 students per quarter at each school, said Cpl. Rick Johnson, who is assigned to Stephen Decatur and Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Temple Hills.

“It’s to promote positive behavior with the kids who are struggling and to help bridge the gap between the ‘A’ and ‘E’ students,” said Johnson, who eats lunch with students, occasionally sits in class with them and checks on their behavior. The mentor role allows students to see him in other than a police role and as more of a big brother, he said.

Jalen McCreary, an eighth-grade student who is mentored by Johnson, said he stopped a fight the day before the rally and added that he often helps a peer who is in a wheelchair navigate the hallways.

“It’s really changed me,” said Jalen, 12, of Clinton. “I’m looking forward to keeping myself out of trouble and getting my grades up.”

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