How one school uses positive behavior reinforcement to decrease tardies by 86%.

Anyone up-to-date on current events is aware of the financial crisis that has befallen the Chicago Public School System. Tight budgets are a common complaint of publicly funded schools, but the current situation exacerbates that baseline situation tenfold. As a result, Chicago schools are struggling more than ever to keep teachers on staff and supply closets stocked.

Regardless of where the funding comes—or doesn’t come—from, schools need to find ways to stay the course. Aspira Early College High School in Chicago is one school that, despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them, continues to thrive and bring positivity to their students and community.

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Aspira Early College High School in Chicago, Illinois.

Challenge accepted

Francisco Torres started at Aspira during the 2015-2016 school year, and is part of the Administration Team as their Dean of Students. An ironic position, since he confesses to being a disruptive student in his day. During one particularly unruly day in high school, a teacher suggested he teach the lesson—a challenge he gladly accepted—and what was likely an attempt at punishment ignited a lifelong passion within Torres. He fell in love with teaching that day.

When Francisco began as a college freshman, he quickly realized the academic disparity between himself—a product of a Southside Chicago Public School (CPS) system—and his peers, who were educated in the suburban areas of Chicago. This disadvantage translated to Francisco taking twice as long to get his college degree, but at the end of the eight years, his path was clear. He decided to dedicate his career to leveling the playing field for kids in the city.

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Focusing on the positives

It’s difficult to understand the true impact a positive behavior program can have on a school like Aspira without first realizing the unique challenges they are up against. Chicago is a selectively dangerous place, rife with gang activity and violence that can permeate every facet of the community, all the way into the classroom. So when a school in this type of an environment begins a positive behavior reinforcement program, it does so in hopes of reducing minor disciplinary issues (like tardiness) and some pretty major ones too (like gang affiliation). Aspira Early College High School’s motto is “focusing on the positives,” and they use a PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) program in conjunction with strict intervention policies to combat their discipline issues, big and small.

The Participation Ripple Effect

In order for a positive behavior program to be effective, it needs to be adopted by the students. Mr. Torres likes his school’s PBIS program because it allows and encourages participation from the entire student body by reinforcing simple things like “being early to class” and “proper dress code”. The kids that are academically self-motivated were the first and fastest to catch on to the program, but even the more “troubled” kids were encouraged to participate, once they realized earning points was within their reach.

Aspira’s PBIS program started off like a lot of Hero Schools. They wanted to reduce tardiness, so they reinforced the opposite behavior, and began giving points to students who arrive to school early, thereby reinforcing that good behavior. (With Hero they scan their student IDs upon entering the building, making rapid capture and points distribution to the 400 students possible.) The points they earn can be redeemed at the “CHAMPS store”, a cabinet that is filled with snacks the Aspira students can’t resist. (Jarritos and Takis, to be specific.) Once a few students redeemed their snacks, it caused a ripple effect, and more kids started showing up to school early so they could earn their Takis, too.

“They wanted to reduce tardiness, so they reinforced the opposite behavior, and began giving points to students who arrive to school early.”

Aspira’s positive behavior program extends into the classroom, with teachers distributing points for behavior like participation and homework completion. The incentives have also evolved to include benefits that cater to Aspira students’ specific needs, like “reserve a scientific calculator for a week” and free school supplies.

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From left to right: the CHAMPS store, a chart showing some of Aspira’s other behavior incentives, and a student common area.

The power of objectivity

As a tardy-tracking system, Francisco loves the objectivity and accountability afforded by Hero. With handwritten passes and inconsistent consequences, students can feel personally attacked when being tardy earns them a detention. Manually written passes can feel like they are at the discretion of the person writing them, even when they’re not. But with Hero, the students’ exact tardy history is all saved, so a detention is given only when a detention is earned, as dictated by the school’s specific matrix. It takes any bias—imagined or otherwise—out of the equation. This accuracy and accountability, combined with reinforcing the opposite behavior, is the key to Aspira’s tardy reduction success. As an added bonus, Francisco feels the pressure is off of him as an Administrator, saying, “They get mad at the computer now instead of me.”

Positive behavior reinforcement works

The data shows that Aspira’s positive behavior program has been highly effective at decreasing negative behavior. During the 2015 school year, tardiness decreased by 86%, and total minor disciplinary issues decreased by 70%. Major disciplinary events have decreased, as well, with Mr. Torres citing an 86% decrease in out-of-school suspensions over the last year (around 700 to roughly 100).

Intangibly, Francisco has seen a big difference in his school by shifting their discipline strategy. By “focusing on the positives,” Aspira is keeping more kids in class, which is the ultimate goal in a city with potentially dangerous alternatives.

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In every school, every day, there are educators who selflessly dedicate themselves to making the next generation smarter, more prepared, and stronger than they were. And in some communities, outside factors may make this may seem like a formidable task. But, just like back in high school, Francisco Torres is up for the challenge, and continues to help Aspira students stay on the right path. When asked what his dream was, he answered, “to make a big impact in education based on what I saw with my experience.” And judging by Aspira’s success, that is exactly what he is doing.

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