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New SOAR approach at Emerson Elementary has discipline problems down, test results up

By Steve Gunn
IPS News Service

Sometimes a new approach can make all the difference.

That's certainly been the case at Ionia Public Schools' Emerson Elementary, where a new strategy for addressing student behavior, teaching respect for others, and an overall focus on positive messaging, has resulted in far fewer disciplinary issues, and an impressive improvement in student academic performance.

The effort highlights one crucial fact - when you challenge kids to behave well and strive for excellence, and do so in a positive and constructive manner, they will respond.

The new approach at Emerson is not unique to the school. It's part of a district-wide initiative called Positive Behavior Intervention Supports, which is being implemented in every IPS building.

Each building has its own way of implementing the program, along with a unique motto. At Emerson the motto is Safety, Ownership, Achievement and Respect, which comes together in a very fitting acronym - SOAR.

"Through the process of building the awareness of those values, we have rebranded the building and gave it some new life," said Emerson Principal Jon Duley, who is in his second year in the building. "It's brought new energy and new life into the building. Staff, parents and kids are doing a great job of pushing it through.

"Now we have a group of students who respond much better to positive reinforcement and being recognized for doing good things."

The initiative calls for educators to take a different approach to discipline and overall student behavior. Instead of assuming that all kids will already know how to conduct themselves when they come to school, educators are challenged with teaching children in various situations how their behavior was inappropriate, and what the acceptable alternative should be.

"The reality is that somebody's values at home might be different that what's expected at school," Duley said. "It's important that we teach kids that there is a code shift. At home it might be okay to talk a certain way, but at school it's different. We want to teach students about that at a very young age."

A strong focus has also been put on teaching students to show respect for other students, and everyone around them.

"It's about respect for everybody and everything," Duley  said. "If you see someone's backpack lying in the middle of the hallway, move it to the side or put it on a hook. If you see somebody drop something, you let them know 'Hey, you dropped this.' It's about students having respect for other people, themselves, and everyone's property."

The initiative also calls for positive reinforcement for good behavior and academic performance. At Emerson, the most visible display of that approach is the Student Recognition Wall, located just outside the central office in the main entry to the building.

Every month, the two students from every class who have collected the most "soaring eagle tickets" - which are awarded for accomplishment and positive behavior - are honored by having their photos displayed on the wall. They also get to have breakfast with Duley, and are given yard signs for their families to display at home that say "My student is soaring at Emerson Elementary School."

"Families can show off how great their students are doing in school, and at school, other students can see the recognition they can earn by doing the right thing, day after day," Duley said.

The staff at Emerson has also worked hard to reinforce the new approach with positive messaging  throughout the building. The goal is to build a unifying positive vibe for students with constant reminders about the value of doing their best, and doing things the right way.

"You will find references to our mascot (an eagle) all over the place here," Duley  said. "We have encouraging words and banners everywhere. We have cool window decals, and eagle standing by the main entrance, and above the main entrance it says SOAR, to remind students every day about the focus and the goal."

The results of the overall effort have been impressive, starting with a sharp decrease in behavioral issues.

"There has been a huge difference between this year and last year in the number of students coming to office for disciplinary issues - 50 to 60 percent fewer, which is huge," Duley said.

That has undoubtedly led to the increase in academic performance. Emerson this year ranked third among the six elementary schools in overall scores from last spring's M-STEP exam, after finishing lower in prior years.

"I'm really proud of the work they are doing at Emerson," said IPS Superintendent Ron Wilson. "We are seeing it having an impact on reducing some of the bad behavior.

"It's just like teaching kids to read, write and compute. We're teaching them how to conduct themselves, then providing positive reinforcement. It pays dividends. Kids tend to learn what we teach them. If we teach them that these are the expectations for behavior and how we're going to treat each other, it makes sense that it's going to come back and be beneficial for the kids and for us."