A Philly schools program draws international praise

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Second-grade teacher Jennifer Ciampaglia gives a thumbs-up to a student during a question-and-answer session at McKinley Elementary School in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (TRACIE VAN AUKEN/For The Inquirer)

It was a big day at McKinley Elementary. A delegation of international visitors was coming to North Philadelphia to learn how students and teachers are managing to keep their school calm and peaceful.

That 13 teachers and education officials from South Africa trooped to Philadelphia on Tuesday to learn lessons from a district often better known for financial trouble and other dysfunction was not lost on Marilyn Carrion-Mejia, McKinley's longtime principal.

"We are so, so excited," said Carrion-Mejia.

The South African delegation came to McKinley to learn about Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, a program that sets up a schoolwide system of rules and consequences, a way to embed good behavior in a school's culture rather than only punishing troublemakers after the fact.

In the Philadelphia School District, 24 schools officially use the proactive program now, with six more in the pipeline this year. A grant will allow 20 more schools to add it.

McKinley, a K-8 school on North Orkney Street, is in its third year of using PBIS. A grant gave the school initial training and continued support.

Lead teacher Michelle Eckert said the program has made a marked difference at the school, which educates about 500 students, all of whom are considered economically disadvantaged.

"Our suspensions have gone down," Eckert said. "Our serious incidents have gone down."

Each PBIS school looks different, but at McKinley, students know their credo as the three "R"s - ready, respectful and responsible.

Students are taught how to behave in specific situations - in the hallway, on the playground - and those who commit serious infractions must check in multiple times daily with an adult.

And everyone buys in, from teachers to the cafeteria staff. Any staffer might hand a student caught being good a ticket, and there are periodic rewards for those who earn enough points.

With the South African delegation looking on, Jennifer Ciampaglia's second grade class marched into the McKinley lunchroom Tuesday for a lesson in cafeteria behavior.

Nearly every hand in the class went up when Ciampaglia asked what the three Rs looked like at lunch.

"Push the trash down!" shouted one little girl.

"Use manners: please and thank you," a boy added.

"Use your inside voice," another boy volunteered.

Posters on the walls in every space - bathrooms, classrooms, hallways - reinforce the messages.

Later, a group of students met with the visitors to answer questions.

How has McKinley changed since everyone started talking about the three Rs? Quiamere Peay, an eighth grader, considered the question.

"Kids can focus on being respectful," he said. "Before, we just didn't know how to act all the time."

Eighth grader Angelica Martinez, 13, said she appreciated that the McKinley focus isn't just on bad behavior.

"It's not like, 'Oh, get it right or you get suspended,'" Angelica said. "That just makes you mad. The 3 Rs narrow it down - you know what to do, and you know how to be good."

The visitors, on a weeklong trip that will also take them to Washington D.C. and Virginia, were impressed.

Lucy Moyane, of the South African Department of Education, snapped photos of the thing she saw: the smiling children, the posters that helped remind them what the rules were.

"This is a good idea," said Moyane. "The children are really living it."

Moyane said she was particularly interested in exploring dropout rates and how approaches like positive behavior supports might positively affect them.

"Quite amazing," pronounced Moses Simelane, who works in the South African Department of Basic Education. "There are a lot of lessons we're taking with us."

kgraham@phillynews.com

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