How Philly schools are cutting out bad behavior and improving academics

Eighth-grade teacher Carol Marion teaches a lesson about health and wellness at Hartranft Elementary, a school that has implemented Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports with great success.

For a time, Hartranft Elementary School wrestled with student behavior problems — children disrupting class, fighting, and walking the hallways of the North Philadelphia school. There seemed to be no consistent rules, and academics suffered.

These days, Hartranft is soaring. Student achievement is steadily progressing, but most of all, the school is a citywide model for climate and culture.

Credit a reboot of student discipline and a system of school operation that teaches kids how to behave in every scenario and rewards positive behavior. Rather than only negatively reacting to misdeeds, every adult in the building creates clear expectations and goes out of his or her way to honor good conduct as a way of preventing trouble.

“We were able to remove so many obstacles because we had this in place,” principal Jason Lytle said.

It’s called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a federally backed, research-based program operating across the country and in a number of districts locally. For a time, it existed in only a handful of Philadelphia schools; with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, it’s expanded to 50. Officials would like to grow it even more.

At Hartranft, a 500-student school at Seventh and Cumberland Streets, discipline used to work the way it worked in schools for years: Kids were expected to behave, and if they didn’t, they were punished. Positive behavior supports is a proactive strategy: It’s about teaching students very specifically what good behavior looks like in the hallway, in the cafeteria, in the schoolyard, and then reinforcing it with rewards. (At Hartranft, kids earn Panther Paws, which they can redeem for trinkets or buy experiences like pizza parties or field trips.)

“It’s more about showing and teaching kids how to behave. Punishing doesn’t teach kids,” said Jody Greenblatt, the district’s deputy chief of school climate and safety. It’s not soft, Greenblatt said, it’s behavioral science.

PBIS came to Hartranft in 2012. The shift was slow, but it gained steam when Lytle came to the school four years ago. The school’s credo — Be safe! Be respectful! Be responsible! — is everywhere, and even the youngest student can tell you exactly what that means.

Camera icon RAYMOND W. HOLMAN JR. / Freelance
Hartranft Elementary Principal Jason Lytle says PBIS has improved the school, both in climate and academically.

It’s not a magic wand. PBIS is not a discipline system, Lytle emphasizes, and there’s still a place for discipline. But punishment is needed far less often than it used to be.

For some staff members, PBIS represented a sea change, and at first, it did not come easily.

“You have to be intentional in looking for the good in students; sometimes the bad is more obvious,” said Lytle.

But after the school got basic behavior in check — think lots of repetition, lots of specific praise — it started branching out. PBIS is, in a very real way, a violence prevention strategy. But Lytle has found that it’s also a way to boost academics; when kids are calmer and more focused, they’re able to learn more effectively.

The proof is in the numbers. Hartranft’s suspensions and discipline referrals are down. Attendance is better, and so are academics. As measured by the district’s own internal metric, the School Performance Report, the school jumped to scoring a 42 on a scale of 100 in 2016-17, from just a 7 in 2014-15. Lytle credits PBIS in large part for that change.

The same kids who ran the hallways are now using high-level thinking skills in class, the principal said.

“Students embrace and initiate and take ownership for their own behavior, and now their own learning,” Lytle said. “It is now part of the fabric of our school.”

Hartranft is a PBIS model school; every year, it does more with the program. Lytle and his team have become ambassadors, presenting at conferences on the subject.

The school has an eager supporter in the 76ers.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Eighth-grader Naki Henderson (right), 13, goes for a layup past Sixers dunk squad member Joseph “Liquidelphia” Ingram during a basketball clinic at Hartranft Elementary.

Soon after Amy Hever became the Sixers Youth Foundation’s first director in 2015, the team’s nonprofit arm began looking for ways to advance its mission: using the power of sports to cultivate kids’ innate skill sets.

PBIS, with its roots in research, was intriguing, Hever said. “We were taking a risk, because it wasn’t something that we’d done before, but we felt like it was a good alignment,” she said.

Now, the foundation spends about $100,000 supporting PBIS at Hartranft and four other schools in Philadelphia and Camden, and dedicates more when in-kind services are added in. It provides plenty of rewards for students — game tickets, for instance, and events like the recent skills clinic offered to students who earned a certain level of Panther Paws. Sometimes, the team might record a video shouting out a particular class that’s excelled.

The Sixers foundation has also introduced SCORE, a program that encourages healthy habits — good nutrition, exercise — as another way for students to earn swag.

Never said the foundation was delighted with the results it’s seeing at Hartranft.

“We never want to go in there and say, ‘Sports is the way to solve all your problems,’ ” Hever said. “We’re one piece of the puzzle to cultivate these kids in fostering positive behavior.”

Students watch classmates play against Sixers dunk squad members.
Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Students watch classmates play against Sixers dunk squad members during a basketball clinic at Hartranft Elementary.

Pausing from tossing basketballs with the Sixers Dunk Squad in the gym, eighth grader Akeyla Pierre said her school has changed for the better in the last few years. She likes the prizes, Pierre said, but mostly, it’s about classes that are calmer and more focused.

“At Hartranft,” Pierre said, “being safe, respectful and responsible — it’s our thing.”