Parents question behavioral system at Brunswick school
BRUNSWICK — Lisa Botshon's son, a second-grader at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, came home from school earlier this fall singing a chant he had learned about the proper way to walk through the halls.
While it may have just been a catchy tune to her son, Botshon considered it a disturbing form of "mind control."
Combine that with a couple of experiences she had when visiting the school, including one where she wasn't allowed to walk her son to his classroom, and she said the school started to seem controlling and institutional.
"These are small things by themselves, but they contribute to this larger sense of isolation and concern," Botshon said.
"Not that I think that large numbers of small children should not be controlled in some way," she added, "but I am concerned that some of these measures are very extreme."
Botshon is not alone, and parent concerns about the behavioral management system at Stowe prompted the School Board to hold a workshop on the topic on Nov. 30.
Formally known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, the PBIS program provides teachers with a framework for thinking and talking about student behavior.
None of the 11 teachers on the school's PBIS team, which developed the program at Stowe, wanted to speak on the record about the program. School Principal Jean Skorapa did not return several emails and phone calls.
But Wende Sairio, the school's librarian, wrote in an email that parents are always welcome to visit HBES, and said the PBIS team is always open to feedback.
Pat Red, the state coordinator for PBIS who was not involved with implementing the system at Stowe, said usually a school's PBIS team takes feedback from other teachers to develop guidelines for student behavior.
The end result is a matrix that outlines the three expectations – being safe, responsible, and respectful – that are the heart of the PBIS system. The matrix also explains, in a positively stated way, how students can embody these expectations throughout the school.
For example, students can be respectful in the cafeteria by having the correct number of students at a table and speaking in a whisper or "inside" voice. They can be safe in the stairway by keeping to the right and taking one step at a time. And in the bathroom, they can be responsible by keeping water and soap in the sink.
Rewards are also a core part of PBIS philosophy, to let students know they have met expectations, Red explained, although she added that they can be a "sticky wicket."
"We already have rewards for academics," she said. "What we need is some way to be able to give feedback to students so that we can create ... social confidence."
At Stowe, children are rewarded for following expectations with Bobcat Awards, which hang in the hallways.
But on a visit to the school earlier this fall, School Board Chairman Corinne Perreault said she was disturbed that students were being rewarded predominantly for being quiet.
Dana Bateman's son, a second-grader at HBES, complained to Bateman about the same trend.
"It felt to me like they were frequently sort of at risk of getting in trouble for being too loud," Bateman said. "Of all the things I would like my kid's school to emphasize, I would like them to emphasize academic effort ... and being a good friend," not quiet and obedience.
Red said that behavioral expectations are not handed down to teachers by PBIS, so concerns about over-emphasizing quiet likely had to do with how the system was specifically implemented at Stowe.
"The framework is the only piece that's (from PBIS)," she said. "After that, every school creates (a matrix) based on their own culture."
But a parent whose children attend an Iowa school that uses PBIS had similar concerns as some Brunswick parents.
Chris Liebig writes "A Blog About School," and frequently critiques PBIS in his posts.
In a recent post, Liebig described a losing battle to keep kids quiet during lunch time.
"With PBIS ... came the Perpetual War on Lunchroom Noise. We have a lunchroom, so we must have lunchroom expectations, and we must make them clear and insist that they be followed. ... This entails frequently yelling at the kids to be quiet, and usually turning down the lights to make the point."
Nearly all the parents interviewed in Brunswick noted a similar experience at Stowe at the beginning of the school year.
Bateman said that at an Oct. 17 meeting between Stowe parents and Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski, one of the most frequently mentioned concerns involved bus drivers, who also serve as lunch aides, yelling into microphones for students to be quiet.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Greg Bartlett said Wednesday that administrators addressed that concern by having at least one teacher in the cafeteria along with the driver/aides.
Parents agreed that the atmosphere in the lunch room has improved.
At the Nov. 30 School Board workshop, third-grade teacher Andrea Wilson said the emphasis on quiet, in the lunchroom and elsewhere, was more important at the beginning of the year.
"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."
Now, Sairio, the librarian, said in her email, "the school is rarely 'quiet,' but it is no longer chaos."
While the behavioral system is worrying for some parents, others, none of whom would speak on the record, said they've never had any concerns about it and weren't surprised that teachers would start out strict and lighten up as the academic year continued.
And even those parents who criticized the behavioral system said they had no complaints about academics at Stowe.
“I don't have any problem with our son's teacher or anything like that," Botshon said. "She seems like a very warm person."
"The academic side of things is really great," Bateman said. "The difficult parts of the day are cafeteria, playground, those sorts of times ... seem to be the tougher parts of the day."
Some said the size of the school and number of students, more than 660, makes a behavioral system like PBIS necessary.
"You've got 660 kids, you have to have some routines and structures to make sure things go well," Bartlett said.
He also said it has been difficult for teachers, staff and administrators to transition to a new school, especially one that is is much larger than any of their previous elementary schools.
"I just don't think the public or many people really understand how complex and difficult it all was," Bartlett said.
School Board member Rich Ellis, who also expressed concerns about PBIS on Nov. 30, agreed.
"The stress some parents may be attributing to PBIS may actually be the result of this multitude of changes across the entire system, and while the reason for their kids' stress could quite possibly include PBIS, it is by no means exclusively limited to this one change factor," he said in an email.
When asked if she thought the new behavioral system bothered parents more than it does the students, Botshon said she had considered that possibility, but rejected it.
"The reason why I believe that our feelings of discontent are legitimate is there is a huge disconnect between the culture of the school this year and the culture of the schools last year," she said. "Even if it doesn't make a difference to the kids, the fact that it makes a difference to the parents is important."