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'They see there is hope': School program transformed poor student behavior

After Allen Elementary saw 212 suspensions in 1 year, the school created New Beginnings to change behaviors and the school culture.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

When Anthony Williams applied to be principal of Allen Elementary School in Marion, Indiana, everyone warned him that it was a tough job. Many students misbehaved and refused to do work, and teachers regularly had to suspend them. Yet, this didn’t deter Williams. When others saw problems, Williams noticed the school had everything it needed to succeed.

“We had the teachers. We had the parents. We had the students who wanted to love school and we had to put it all together,” he told TODAY.

Williams and his staff have created a program that dramatically changed the school by helping its students improve their behavior. During the 2013 to 2014 school year, Allen Elementary had 212 suspensions. During the 2014 to 2015 school year, there were 16 suspensions. The reason for this dramatic drop? New Beginnings.

“New Beginnings is a culture. It is a way we talk to students. It is a way to interact,” Williams said.

Since starting New Beginnings at Allen Elementary the staff has seen fewer behavioral problems and suspensions.Courtesy Anthony Williams

Culture change

When Williams first started as principal he often heard teachers say, “We don’t have that passion to teach anymore because of the behaviors we are seeing.” Students often interrupted class, refused to do homework or school work, didn't listen to instructions, fought, or acted rudely toward teachers, who often had to devote time to address the students.

This prompted Williams, Brenda McVickers — then director of elementary education for Marion County Schools — and Lendon Schwartz — then assistant principal — to remove poorly behaving children from the classroom. While this helped teachers, it also meant about 12 to 15 students sat in the office daily. They weren’t disrupting their classrooms, but they also weren’t learning.

The trio brainstormed and realized they needed to try something new. They visited a school in Texas that had an alternative behavior program for elementary students and this became the foundation for New Beginnings.

“It really started out of necessity,” Williams said. “It is not as much about compliance but about responsibility.”

New Beginnings helps students avoid suspension and teaches them to take responsibility for their actions and how to problem solve to avoid future bad behaviors.Courtesy Anthony Williams

While New Beginnings is a “last resort” for students who did something that would otherwise earn them a suspension, it teaches students to take responsibility for their actions. There are rules for New Beginnings but the administrators think of it as teaching, not punishment.

For the first offense the student is in New Beginnings for three days. The second offense is a minimum stay of five days, and the third offense is a 10-day stay. It is not in school suspension. Students have to complete their school assignments and need to work their way out New Beginnings. They earn points to leave the program.

“They can earn one of their ... points by raising their hands or being compliant,” Williams said.

But New Beginnings is more than helping students to follow directions. Staff try to understand the root of the problem and foster relationships with students. Often staff ask students what they need. Sometimes that’s as simple as a meal because the child didn’t have breakfast.

“Maybe they don’t have food. Maybe they live in poverty,” said Lori Brane, the school social worker.

After having their basic needs met, it’s easier to focus on improving behaviors.

“They see there is hope and work toward making better choices,” she said.

Brane has a food pantry, which is essential for many students in Marion County, a working-class community that suffered recently because of job vaporization. More than 92 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches and 100 percent receive free breakfast.

“Our kids come with a lot of extra things on their plate,” Brane said. “They bring those behaviors to school and building the relationship with them helps them know who to trust and helps them work.”

Learning new skills leads to success

Jo Messner has served as assistant principal since Schwartz left to be a principal at a different school. She sees New Beginnings as a way to teach students new skills. Students often role-play to understand how to deal with conflict.

“Teaching them is important because a lot of times they haven’t been taught,” she said. “We want them to be successful and know what it feels like.”

Annually the program averages about 40 visits. Sometimes students make repeat appearances in New Beginnings, but it is designed to provide students with the skills to avoid it.

“They need these skills to succeed in life,” said Brane.

New Beginnings addresses student problems and helps them make better choices to avoid being suspended.Courtesy Anthony Williams

While seeing fewer students being suspended is a good measure of success, hearing how the children behave outside of school feels very rewarding. Williams remembers a student from the first year of New Beginnings who adamantly refused all help.

“He was very apathetic about learning, very disrespectful to his teacher, very open about his disrespect,” he said.

One day, he left school. Stunned, Williams couldn’t believe the student would actually walk away. After following him and bringing him back, the staff worked closely with the student. He never had to listen at home so he simply didn't do anything he didn't want to do. The staff helped him understand that he had to follow rules and do things he didn't like to succeed in life. It took time but eventually he became an example for other students, even mentoring kindergarten students with behavioral problems. He’s now in middle school and recently visited his elementary school.

“He walks in with the biggest smile. He said, ‘My grades are good, I am on the honor roll and I am not getting into fights anymore,’” Williams said.

Williams attributes that student’s success to New Beginnings.

“We are big on building relationship. We know that there can’t be any significant learning with that relationship,” he said.