Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos got a first-hand look Thursday at a “community building circle” in Angela Snyder’s first-grade classroom at Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School.
As students gathered in a circle at the front of the room, DeVos sat near the alphabet rug with them. They decided on a greeting of the day — a fist bump and an “hola” to the person on their left.
Snyder asked students to speak about a time someone had been kind to them this week. One student said a person played with them when others wouldn’t. Another said someone helped them when they were crying.
It’s an example of a national technique called Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, the program DeVos and Federal Commission on School Safety members came to Anne Arundel County to see Thursday. The visit was the first of several field trips planned for the commission and included a tour of classrooms, presentations and panel discussions.
DeVos’ arrival was met with a protest outside the school led by Ben Jealous, a Democratic candidate for governor, and members of the state teachers union. DeVos, who has faced protests at schools elsewhere, has drawn criticism for supporting taxpayer dollars following children to private schools. She has also been critical of teachers unions.
While DeVos was inside Hebron-Harman, a small group of protesters was outside calling for more money for schools.
“Getting serious about school safety requires fully funding our schools … requires more counselors and psychologists and supports students need,” Jealous wrote in a tweet after the event.
There was a discussion of school resource officers during the visit, but primarily the commission heard about school climate and building relationships with students.
If students feel a connection to school they’re less likely to harm that school, School Climate Specialist Kathy Rockefeller said, adding that harm could mean a number of things, including cheating or fighting.
At the meeting officials talked about three tiers of support in PBIS schools — things to help everyone, things to help at-risk learners and individual interventions for specific students. Setting three to five behavioral expectations for students is also stressed. At Hebron-Harman, the expectations are respect for self, others, materials and for learning.
In one room cameras and attention were focused on DeVos and students as they read a book about Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. The teacher asked the students to write down how they would feel if they were in her situation — some answered sad, one answered mad.
PBIS expert and University of Connecticut Professor George Sugai asked students in other groups what they were doing. Waiting our turn, they responded. Sugai asked what the expectations are at school — the students repeated all four. Sugai said PBIS — those common values and a support system — typically lead to fewer referrals, less bullying and better health as an organization. Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said they’ve found success with the approach. According to the system’s website, 78 schools and two special centers in the county use PBIS.
Hebron-Harman offers passes for students to use if they need a break, such as going to see a trusted adult. They also have buddy classes in which they pair older students with younger students to build relationships across grade levels.
At Bates Middle School, students are assigned mentors, Assistant Principal Casey Hunt said. They check in with students and focus on grades, behavior and attendance, set goals, and create a plan to meet those goals. They also check in with guardians at home.
At Old Mill High School they created an elective for the school’s most at-risk learners, school psychologist Angela Bernholz said. The curriculum includes team-building and lessons on resolving conflict. At 22 students, it’s a small class environment. One student she didn’t expect to graduate will on June 7 because of the extra support, she said.
“These are kids that were not connected who became connected. But it took us doing something,” Bernholz said. “You can’t just send an attendance letter home.”
Officials discussed restorative practices that began with the 2016-2017 school year. The circle discussion in Snyder’s classroom was an example of a restorative practice, meant to create an environment where everyone has the space to speak and listen. That could be to build trust by talking with others, or it could be a means of resolving conflict and having students reflect on the affects of their actions.
Before leaving, DeVos greeted students and staff members in the front office.
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“I loved joining the community circle to see how the students are helping build positive, supportive environments that create a safe school climate,” she said on Twitter.