• Black Hawk Middle School in Madison

    Jessica Jones-Carver and Mike Jones

  • Black Hawk Middle School in Madison

    Students in Jessica Jones-Carver's art class

  • Black Hawk Middle School in Madison

    Collage illustrating a social-emotional learning target

  • Black Hawk Middle School in Madison

    This year's theme at Black Hawk Middle School

How Black Hawk Middle School transformed their culture

On a recent Friday morning, the halls of Black Hawk Middle School were empty and quiet as Mike Jones, the school’s Positive Intervention Behavior Specialist, made his rounds, peeking his head into a few classes. 

In Jessica Jones-Carver’s art class, students were busy working on a "We Are Black Hawk" sign while listening to “Today’s Hits” on Pandora radio. 

He paused at a few spots between classrooms to point out student artwork themed around “social and emotional learning targets” decorating the walls.

I can recognize how my family and culture influence my beliefs and actions, reads one, skirted by a collage of colorful drawings and magazine cutouts.

I can understand how advocating for my community contributes to the common good, reads another, which introduces student-created posters connected to one another with a common path.

A year ago, Jones says, the environment wasn’t quite as serene. Back in the office, he and Jones-Carver and some of their colleagues gather around a conference table to talk about the change in culture they’ve helped create.

"We were constantly plugging holes. Plug one up and another one would pop." – Kenya Walker

Back then, Principal Kenya Walker served as the Assistant Principal, “but it was like I was a Dean,” she remembers. Like many of her colleagues, Walker says behavior response monopolized much of her time. “We were constantly plugging holes. Plug one up and another one would pop.”

Black Hawk Middle School principal Kenya Walker

Principal Kenya Walker

The office sometimes fielded 70 or 80 calls about behavior from classrooms in one day — calls about students walking out of class without permission, disrespecting others or cursing.

“Last year our behavior response was stretched so thin,” Walker says. “We couldn’t reach all the classrooms in time.”

Part of the problem, Jones offers, is that “we weren’t communicating with each other. If I talked to a student, I may not realize that I was the third staff member who talked with that student that day. There wasn’t a system for addressing each behavior.”  

The result was that from October 2014 to mid-January 2015, Black Hawk staff tracked 2200 incoming behavior calls.  

“This year,” Jones offers in comparison, “between September and January, we’ve had about 1200.”

“Eleven twenty-three” to be exact, Walker clarifies. “I’ve got that number burned into my brain,” she says, laughing.  

So what changed?

Distributing leadership

Last spring, then-Principal Sean Storch, Kenya Walker and others on the School Based Leadership Team began discussing ways to more effectively address behaviors. During a day in March dedicated to professional development, they implemented a plan to tap in to the talents of their staff, asking grade-level teams to identify behavioral problems specific to their grades and giving them autonomy to dictate behavior policies.

"There aren’t words to describe the difference that has made." – Tracy Drill

Teachers worked together to identify the problems and had to agree to be unified on whatever decisions or suggestions came out of it. Walker and Storch made the final decisions on how the behavior responders and administration would support the grade-level teams.

“There aren’t words to describe the difference that has made,” says Assistant Interventionist and Special Education Assistant Tracy Drill of the staff buy-in this year. “From the top down you hear, ‘I trust you, I value your voice.’ That makes staff want to come in earlier, give up their lunches, do the extra work.” 

Consistent expectations and consequences

For each behavior, staff developed a tiered set of interventions that were consistent throughout the entire school, using the Behavior Education Plan as a guide. The interventions were designed to be restorative, giving students a chance to reflect on their choices and repair any trust or agreement broken. Eighth grade students who arrive late to class at least four times in a week, for example, are required to attend a lunchtime reflection meeting as their first intervention.

Clearly communicating policies with students and families

Just as important, staff communicated these plans clearly to both students and families at the beginning of the school year. They were asked to sign a contract — everyone understood expectations and consequences. Jones explains, “It was clear that at the first incident, this will happen. At the second, this will happen. The message to parents is, ‘We’re trying to support your child in being successful in school.’” 

"We don’t have students walk out of class. We put systems in place to control that." – Kenya Walker

Keeping students in classrooms, learning

It started working almost immediately. Take “walk-outs,” for example. Last year, students leaving class was one of the school’s major behavior issues. “This year,” Walker begins, pausing dramatically, “We don’t have students walk out of class. We put systems in place to control that.”

Thanks to these strong systems, teachers feel more equipped to respond to behavior issues themselves, rather than reach for the phone at the first sign of trouble. “The call is now the last thing they do,” she says. “They do everything they can prior to that to keep students in the classroom, learning.”

Black Hawk Middle School Dean Jamie Sims with a student

Black Hawk Middle School Dean Jamie Sims with a student

Authentic authority figures

Principal Walker also credits Black Hawk’s new Dean of Students, Jamie Sims, for setting the right tone with students and helping staff stay consistent with expectations and consequences. His colleagues describe him as someone students can relate to “without being phony.”

Sims calls himself “a big believer in getting parents involved in kids’ behavior. I like to help bridge that gap, so parents know when their kids are having issues. Not just to have them in the loop but to be supportive of what we’re doing.”

He bridges that gap skillfully, thoughtfully choosing his words when calling parents. He begins all calls with, “We really like your kid….”

Attitudes changing

Kathleen Zuniga, Bilingual Resource Teacher and one of the leaders of the eighth grade social-emotional curriculum, says she’s seen a shift from last school year to this school year in the attitude of the students who need more support.

Bilingual Resource Teacher Kathleen Zuniga

Bilingual Resource Teacher Kathleen Zuniga with a student

“There were times in the last few years,” she says, “when you’d have to clear all the students out of the classroom because a student was refusing to leave the room. They knew the ‘consequence’ was not going to be a restorative thing.”

Now, Zuniga says, “they understand they need support and know it’s going to help them and that you’re there to support them.”

Most of the time, if Sims does need to remove a student from the classroom for an intervention, “we’re bringing kids back,” which was not the case last year. “It’s usually an easy fix, like a restorative conversation, maybe getting parents in on the conversation. And teachers are comfortable with us bringing them back into class.”

In fact, he says, sometimes he’s called to a classroom only to arrive to find the problem has already been solved. “The teacher will say, ‘Nope, they’re fine. I told them you were coming and they’re fine.”

Zuniga says it helps that the consequences are tiered, getting progressively serious. "The students know that and don’t want to bump it up to the next level.”

Rewarding positive behavior and getting to the root of problems

Something staff weren’t able to do for students last year, simply because they were busy “plugging holes,” is reward students for positive behavior.

“It’s hard to be a Positive Behavior Coach if you’re just addressing negative behavior,” Mike Jones says. “Yesterday we had a movie day where we were actually able to reward kids who are doing the right thing.”

What’s more, social workers, counselors, psychologists and other Student Services staff once overburdened helping to respond to behavior cases are now are better able to focus on helping students through their specialized roles.

Kathleen Zuniga underscores the importance of this — “It's finding the root cause of the behavior instead of just have them go sit somewhere else.”

The learning goes on

During their chat, two walkie talkies belonging to Sims and Jones briefly crackled. They paused, ready to respond, and then there was silence.  

“I don’t even carry a walkie this year,” Principal Walker says. “We’re averaging maybe 10 calls a day.”

"The kids who haven’t had behavior problems or don’t typically have problems are not being disturbed." – Jamie Sims

“Even less,” Jones counters. “At the highest we averaged 10 or 12 calls a day in September,” at the very beginning of the school year when students are testing limits and getting used to rules.

As you would expect with the drop in calls, the number of other indicators has also dropped. For example, by this this time last year, 29 student fights had taken place. This year, there have been two.

“The back of our shirts say, ‘We are all in this together,’” Jessica Jones-Carver points out. “That’s the overall theme this year. If there’s a need, we’re not afraid to help each other. We’re here to support the students together."

And, Walker says, “It’s showing in everything — especially their learning. This year, with a more restorative approach, we’re not just plugging holes, we’re repairing relationships, having kids reflect on the choices that they make.”

The culture has impacted all Black Hawk students, not just those needing interventions. “The kids who haven’t had behavior problems or don’t typically have problems are not being disturbed,” says Jamie Sims. “That doesn’t happen anymore. We handle it — and not by tossing them out of the building. The learning goes on.”

— February 2016