A 180-degree turn: A school on its best behavior
“Well, back to the old drawing board,” a phrase which first appeared in a 1941 New Yorker magazine cartoon created by American artist Peter Arno, depicted a scene where things were going very wrong. The caption implies an obvious need for a complete redo if one expects to experience success. So, where art imitates life, such was the case with student behavior at Liberty High School in the Iowa City Community School District. Things were going terribly wrong, and it was time to go back to the old drawing board.
In the fall of 2017, the high school building was literally fresh off the architect’s drawing board. A community’s dream come true – brand new building, brand new staff, and 750 students enrolled in the state-of-the-art high school. While the new physical structure settled nicely into place during the requisite break-in period, inside the building where student climate and culture live, there were clear signs of cracks in the figurative foundation.
Liberty’s student body hailed from multiple locations, and reflected the gamut on the socioeconomic continuum. There was no established senior student leadership in a newly formed school population. It was clear that some students wanted to be there, others did not. Put simply, many students did not feel they belonged.
That’s where implementing Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS), a multi-tiered system of support for behavior, helped turn things around. PBIS focuses on school conditions to support learning by providing positive, predictable and safe environments, and also provides teachers with a framework to deliver and monitor prevention and intervention practices.
When PBIS is implemented with fidelity, it can help reduce major disciplinary infractions, improve prosocial behavior, reduce out-of-school suspensions, improve academic achievement, and improve overall school climate. PBIS is just one initiative that the state is taking on to maximize an environment conducive to learning. Other initiatives include Social Emotional Learning, school safety, and children’s mental health.
Last summer, Liberty High School staff initiated a major culture shift. Academics and behavior would no longer be separate, and supports and expectations would be put in place for all kids to achieve positive results.
“We had a complete mind shift,” said Scott Kibby, principal at Liberty High School. “Now we live PBIS instead of just talking about it. Our staff completely embraces it. It’s how we do business. We look at the positive office referrals. We are student, family, and community focused.”
Allison Bruhn from the University of Iowa began a partnership with Justin Colbert, assistant principal at Liberty High School, and created a Liberty PBIS team. The team meets at least monthly, analyzes data, plans lessons, brainstorms new initiatives, does fidelity checks, and has the autonomy to plan the PBIS program. Colbert even overhauled the staff handbook to weave PBIS throughout it.
Staff also now receive professional development two to three times per trimester. Staff is trained in how to teach and reinforce the tenets of PBIS, what discipline looks like, and how to find opportunity to highlight the positive, and staff create lesson plans to teach the skills involved.
Known as the Liberty High Lightning, students started referring to themselves as BOLTS. Together, students and staff created a behavior BOLTS Matrix, where each letter stands for something crucial: B=Belonging, O=Ownership, L=Leadership, T=Teamwork, S=Safety. The matrix, with detailed bullet points, is visible throughout the building, and matrix posters are in every classroom.
Mission Mondays are a way of life, where positive office referrals about students are generated by staff, sent to the office secretary, where administration adds comments, and it is sent out by postcard or email to parents or guardians. Over 1,700 positive office referrals have been created this school year. Positive office referrals for teachers may be submitted as well.
Attendance Blitzes are another creative, positive incentive for staff and students. Blitzes are a school-wide intervention designed to target high levels of tardiness. If a spike in tardiness occurs, administration announces a series of “blitzes” over the building intercom, whereby teachers report when all their students arrive to classes on time. Those teachers are entered into a drawing for a pre-determined prize for the entire class.
Kibby meets regularly for private, individual conversations with all building staff. They discuss their frustrations, pride and hopes for what Liberty can become. Kibby also has held focus groups with students, to learn directly from them about their experiences, what’s going well, what needs work, and what can be done to enhance their school experience. Students are invited to use their voice, and educators are encouraged to listen.
Emphasis on the family component for students is highlighted. This year, the school hosted family engagement events during the Martin Luther King holiday, where families were welcome to participate in a variety of activities held on the school grounds.
For Liberty High School, now in its second year in the new building, and first year of implementing PBIS with rigorous fidelity, the details are in the data. From last September to March, the school has experienced a 58 percent decrease in suspensions, an 84 percent decrease in negative office referrals, and has 30 less students on the D and F grade list. All that, with a surge of about 200 more students in the school’s second year.
Liberty High School’s staff and student achievements were recognized at the Association for Positive Behavior Support (APBS) global conference in Washington, D.C., where student videos about positive behavior ranked in the top 10 in the world. Staff have also spoken at a regional conference in Omaha, sharing their experiences and helping others who wish to make similar improvements in school culture.
Looking to the future, Kibby says, “Belonging is the most important piece.”
Liberty High School went back to the old drawing board and created a blueprint for success.
View Liberty High School student videos:
- Belonging Video for MLK Day
- Tardy Video
- Welcome back video
- District Belonging Video- We are Iowa City Schools
- Ownership Video- Message from a former student
- Online Safety Video Message