By JONATHAN BISSONNETTE
LINCOLN – Having taught at William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School for 22 years, Christina Cipolla has seen how the school has changed over time. But while she’s witnessed many physical modifications, it’s the interpersonal shifts in communications and relationships that she feels has made Davies Tech one of the most successful high schools in the state.
For Cipolla, these changes started when the high school implemented PBIS – Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports – a program where students and faculty members work together to enhance social, emotional, behavioral, and academic supports.
Cipolla described PBIS as “a framework where we use evidence-based prevention and intervention practices” for all students at the high school.
“We’re trying to develop the whole child, make sure our students are ready socially and emotionally for the world that they’re going to be entering into after graduation,” she said.
A reading specialist and consultant at Davies Tech, Cipolla leads the PBIS committee, which establishes systems to help the school meet cultural initiatives and goals.
While PBIS is a nationally-implemented framework that has been seen in schools across the country for more than 20 years, it wasn’t until 2012 when the system was put to use at Davies Tech. But since its implementation, Cipolla said Davies Tech has seen reductions in major disciplinary infractions and bullying, and increases in academic achievement and engagement with accompanying improvements in school climate.
“All these things have happened over the past eight years…” Cipolla said. “PBIS at this school has really increased the overall positivity of the building, teachers are using more restorative practices.”
“I’ve been here 22 years, since 1997. The school has always been receptive to student needs, but the approach was discipline for misbehaving and that was it,” she explained of life at Davies before PBIS. “Now it’s more of a restorative practice, getting to know the students, understanding why there’s a problem, working to find solutions and supports for the student. It is a shift from years ago, much better today than it was when I first started.”
Through the framework of the system, there are 82 advisory teachers who are available to students of all grade levels across the high school, to “see what kids really could use some additional help.”
“Every student at Davies experiences PBIS strategies,” Cipolla said. “Everybody gets the same amount of intervention and supports, but some may get a little more than others. We do have an advisory system and the students go to their advisory teacher every day, there’s about 10 to 12 students in each advisory and the advisory teacher talks to the students about social, emotional strategies. They also see if students are struggling through conversations they have with them. These students can be sent on to the right path, whether it be they need to talk to a guidance counselor, a nurse, a social worker.”
“The advisory system is there to establish relationships with the students so if the students need support academically, socially, emotionally, we can get the students to that contact person … It’s a way so the students have at least one adult in the building that they can trust and they can rely on to help them get the help that they need,” Cipolla added.
Cipolla said that using PBIS and social- and emotional-geared strategies does make a difference across the entire school in “developing a climate so the kids feel safe and they’re ready to learn.”
“It all begins in the classroom, it’s what the teachers are doing in the classroom that makes PBIS a success,” she explained. “It’s every teacher putting in 100 percent to really work with the students to love them, take care of them, and educate them so they’ll be productive members of society. We’re all in this together.”
In addition to the PBIS framework, Davies Tech utilizes other methods of ensuring student engagement in a positive climate. This week is “No Name-Calling Week” at the high school, and next week is “Kindness Week.”
“We encourage students to think before they speak. We celebrate kindness because it’s a way to state it positively. We are saying we’re going to talk to people with kindness, compassion, and consideration,” she said.
During next week’s Kindness Week, students will check off good deeds they’ve accomplished, with a raffle at the end of the week using the “good deed sheets” as raffle tickets. Among the good deeds that students will be accomplishing could be something as simple as sitting at a lunch table with a new friend or saying a compliment to five people, to calling a loved one they haven’t spoken to in years.
“Students are receptive, they want to participate,” Cipolla said. “They want to be a part of this, they really do enjoy these activities, signing pledges, thinking about social and emotional awareness and self-care.”
That is also apparent in the school’s Making Caring Common club, the student voice behind PBIS. The club, which consists of “five or six very committed members,” provides Cipolla with insight and information about what’s happening in the school and what may need to change.
Through this club is a group of freshmen mentors who helped incoming students acclimate to the Davies environment last summer. They shared strategies on how to be successful at Davies both academically and socially and wore brightly-colored orange t-shirts at the start of the current school year so new freshmen could recognize someone to talk to if they were lost or had a question.
“The shift is now with more of a positive community, we’re not working in isolation, we’re working together to promote this positivity and that’s the difference, it’s more of a school-wide drive to make this happen…” Cipolla said. “It’s very positive around here and we really all care about each other.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette