Board questions behavioral, academic programs at new Brunswick school

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BRUNSWICK — School Board members expressed several concerns Wednesday about a behavioral intervention system at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.

They also discussed the wisdom of skills-based grouping for math and literacy at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels, during a workshop meeting on Wednesday night at Maine Street Station.

Last year, teachers voted to implement the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support system, or PBIS, at the new elementary school. Teachers described the program as a way to provide consistency and predictability in response to students who misbehave.

The teachers created a matrix that establishes expectations for student behavior in various parts of the school.

For example, appropriate hallway behavior includes keeping to the right, walking at a safe pace, staying in line and staying silent or speaking only in a whisper. In the lunch room, students are encouraged to have a calm body while waiting in line and eating, and to have the correct number of people at a table. Posters reminding the students of how to behave are placed throughout the school.

Awards are given to students who meet the matrix’s expectations, from including others in playground games or keeping quiet on the stairs.

But the quantity of expectations and emphasis on being quiet bothered several school board members.

Rich Ellis said he heard from parents who are concerned that the PBIS system places too much importance on keeping quiet, especially in the lunch room.

Chairman Corinne Perreault said the award system disturbs her.

“It was all about being silent,” she said, adding that she would prefer to see good citizenship and academics rewarded over speaking softly.

But Jim Grant said he endorses teaching children how to control their voices and said maintaining quiet is important to ensure student safety.

Andrea Wilson, who teaches third grade at Stowe, said the emphasis on being quiet was especially important early in the school year, when students were still figuring out how to navigate around the new school.

“At one point in the day there are 660 kids passing in the front hallway,” Wilson said. “With it being so loud and kids sort of pushing through, we really had to focus in that point in time on keeping kids safe … and it ended up being, you have to be quiet.”

The teachers said they are constantly adjusting the system and are starting to shift their priorities towards other behavioral expectations.

But the teachers’ presentation, which highlighted its positive attributes, angered board member Michelle Small, who called the it “a dog and pony show” and “a rah-rah session.” She criticized both the School Department and the teachers for not presenting a more nuanced look at the system, and said she found School Board workshops to be “worthless without a balanced approach.”

But Ellis said it’s unfair to expect teachers who support a system to present anything but a positive perspective. He said “some of us may be coming in with the automatic assumption that (a policy is) wrong.”

Small, however, praised the next presentation by a different group of teachers on skills-based grouping, which she said was more balanced.

The teachers explained what factors they consider when assigning children to groups for math and literacy classes, including regional and national test results, local placement tests, parental insight and teacher recommendations. They also discussed the pros and cons of skills-based grouping and acknowledged that the debate between the two camps is unlikely ever to be resolved.

Board members raised a few questions about the grouping, like how teachers determine the success of skills-based grouping, and how to prevent children from feeling stigmatized for being in a particular group.

They also expressed support for allowing fourth- and fifth-graders to be in the same skill groups and not distinguishing between the two grades, something teacher Pete Stevens called “cutting edge.” They also discussed ways to assist students falling behind in math.

With the exception of Small, most board members seemed comfortable with the grouping system, a variation of which existed previously at Jordan Acres and Coffin elementary schools, and periodically at Longfellow.

Ellis encouraged parents with concerns about either system to talk to their children’s teachers and administrators because “the School Board isn’t the place where these should be addressed.”

He also urged Stowe staff to make sure the school is as open and welcoming as possible, and encouraged them to listen to parent feedback and make changes, especially to the behavioral matrix.

“I hope you keep an open ear to the process and keep revising this and making it better,” he said.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.