This alternative school lowered its suspension rate by 90%. Yes, you read that right.
Establishing a school that is safe and supportive for students can be challenging. You would think it would be even harder in an alternative high school. You would think.
But the Expo Alternative Learning Center in Waterloo has rounded a corner in the last seven years, adopting Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, known euphemistically as PBIS. The result? Suspensions are down 90 percent. Credit accrual is up by 125 percent. And while the four-year graduation rate is just 55 percent, consider what it was seven years ago: 17 percent.
Just what is PBIS? It is a multi-tiered continuum of supports for all students in the school environment. Supported by the Iowa Department of Education, PBIS provides schools with the framework and organizational plan to promote and maximize academic achievement and behavioral competence for all students. It is a school-wide effort, with staff being trained in PBIS and supported by leadership.
PBIS is not a curriculum that schools purchase or something they “do” to their students. Instead, Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports focuses on conditions to support learning by providing positive, predictable and safe environments. PBIS has been shown to reduce major disciplinary infractions, reduce out-of-school suspension, improve prosocial behavior, boost academic achievement and improve school climate.
It started in earnest at Expo Alternative when Cary Wieland came to the school as its principal.
“(Assistant Principal) Henry (Shepherd) and I sat down wanting to focus on this,” Wieland said. “When we got here, only about 45 percent of the staff were invested in this building. If we don’t have the staff, we’re not going to make progress. Henry and I wanted to take a strength-based approach. For the first three years, we built a foundation for a set of rules and focused on staff. Today 96 percent of the staff is truly invested.”
The administration then added a program called Leader and Me, a program that boosts school and youth leadership development with proven teaching methods, classroom techniques and social-emotional learning. The program, ostensibly, empowers teens. After all, staff were being trained in PBIS, why wouldn’t students also be trained?
“Students make up the majority of the building, so why wouldn’t we include their voices?” Wieland said.
Still, some schools might be hesitant to take on more than one program aimed at creating a safe, supportive environment.
“Some people think they should do one or the other in order to maintain integrity,” Wieland said. “When we started talking about the Leader and Me, we decided that we couldn’t replace PBIS. We needed to marry these two programs so that they complement each other.”
In fact, the school has done so well with both programs that it was honored as reaching the highest accreditation in both PBIS and the Leader and Me. In fact, the Iowa Department of Education earlier this month gave Expo Alternative the highest honor – Model School – for its work on PBIS, one of only three schools achieving that honor in the entire state.
“By reaching the top of accreditation in both programs shows that you can do both programs with integrity and not have to choose one or the other,” Wieland said.
In addition to ensuring both programs are deployed with fidelity, the school focuses on ensuring each student’s needs are met, both academically and emotionally.
“We provide students the opportunities to thrive,” Shepherd said. “We do that by customizing student plans so that each student feels like a name rather than a factory line. In a high school, sometimes a teacher will have as many as 150 students on their roster. They don’t have the time to know their backgrounds.”
Not so at Expo Alternative. The class sizes at the school are smaller, typically around 15 students, enabling more one-on-one time with each student.
“We also do surveys gauging their interest in learning,” Shepherd said. “We want to know their learning styles and base the instruction on how they learn best. We differentiate instruction.”
The school also differentiates giving compliments to students for good work.
“We learn how a student wants to receive a compliment,” Shepherd said. “Some like it when they are praised out loud, others prefer something quiet and in writing. We celebrate our kids in the best way possible, based on their needs.”
It’s not just the students who receive attention.
“The staff works extremely hard in building positive relationships with kids and families,” Shepherd said. “Every quarter they send positive postcards to all of the family. In those postcards, they can’t discuss grades or behavior.”
“Our mindset is that we’re like family members,” Wieland said. “We keep that in mind when dealing with suspensions. We built a paradigm shift here where all the staff believe the students need to be kept here in school.”
The school’s environment is responsible for changing how students see school.
“Our students now have a platform to build their leadership skills,” Shepherd said. “They are taking over a lot of activities that staff have done in the past. For instance, we do a school-wide PBIS celebration. Historically, that was facilitated by adults, but now the students facilitate it.”
Student voice continues to be heard. A year ago, students decided they wanted a mascot at Expo Alternative.
“Our students came to leadership with the idea and presented their case,” Wieland said. “They did research on mascots and came up with an eagle. They put it up for a vote. And now we’re the Expo Eagles.”
A requirement at Expo Alternative is that students need to participate in service learning projects, such as cleaning up a neighborhood, something the students have taken a shining to.
“They are bettering themselves and their community,” Wieland said.
It’s even prompted the students to go above and beyond the service learning projects.
“The kids go out beyond the program, they generate ideas,” Shepherd said. “One student was working on a homeless project – her brother was homeless and had passed away. Students decided to start making blankets and funds to provide the homeless. It’s really cool they are thinking beyond themselves and thinking about others.”
A key to PBIS is being proactive, not reactive, to behavioral issues.
“One thing our staff does really well is be proactive with student behavior,” Shepherd said. “We recognize our students with PBIS SOAR slips anytime a student displays any of the seven habits of an effective teenager,” which come from the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
(SOAR stands for self-control, ownership, achievement and respect and responsibility.)
Wieland laughs when he hears that some school administrators say they don’t have time for such initiatives.
“I would say that this is completely worth your time, energy and effort initially to get it up and going,” he said. “The positives you will yield from it – so long as you do with fidelity – the positives are overwhelming. You tailor it to your own school. The key is consistency, consistency, consistency, and walk the talk every single day.
“It has changed the narrative of our school. When people drove by our building, they used to say ‘that’s where the bad kids go.’ Now they say ‘that is a highly recognized school.’
“We’re very proud of that. We’re proud of the time we have put into it, both our staff and students.”