A Florida high school improves its culture by flipping its focus from misbehaving students to its high achievers.
Guarn Sims was born and raised in Boynton Beach, Florida, but when the lifelong educator became principal of his hometown’s high school last year, he realized he had the same misconceptions of Boynton Beach Community High School as many of the area’s residents.
“I had the perception there were school fights everyday,” he said. “I was so wrong.” The principal knew the school was a “high-needs school,” meaning that a large percentage of students were both low-income and minorities. What he didn’t realize until he started working at the school is that there are about 200 students who are behind in their academic achievement or not attending classes regularly, but there are 1,500 students who are doing well.
“We have kids taking honors classes and kids with dual enrollment taking college classes. What we haven’t done enough of is to recognize those 1,500 students who are doing what they should be doing. …(and) we’ve been trying to change that narrative,” he says.
Part of making that change meant adding a program which allows teachers to reward students for good behavior. Sims and assistant principal Presley Charles chose Hero. Within the behavior management program, teachers can assign points to students for various behaviors, ranging from getting to class on time to having their school ID to following the school’s dress code and participating in class.
While some teachers questioned why a student would be rewarded for doing what is expected of them, Charles understood the sentiment but said he knows that students, as well as adults, need praise. “I think it’s our responsibility to meet kids where they are in the world today,” he says. “If students need more praise, we need to give them as much praise as possible and Hero allows us to do that consistently.”
Boynton Beach has a list of incentives that students can earn every period of the week and students understand that if they are on task, they will be rewarded. Students can earn one to two points for each behavior, such staying on task in class or displaying random acts of kindness. Attending the school’s open house with a parent or guardian nets 10 points. “It’s not just about the straight A students,” the assistant principal says, “everyone who follows the rules gets rewarded.”
Getting Student Buy-In and Seeing Results
Although the program only started in January, the pair know they are getting buy-in throughout the school. Not only do students ask them to award points when the principals are in the hallways, but teachers are seeking to add new items to the program all the time.
The math department has created Math Bucks, a special set of points that students can spend in a math department-run store.
Both administrators realize that the prizes offered students are an important motivator. “You’d be amazed how much kids like cookies, but you can’t do cookies all the time,” Sims says. The school offers a monthly pizza lunch to students with more than 25 points. Right after the first such lunch, the assistant principal says 50 to 60 kids came up to him to ask how they could earn points. The school has even offered an ice cream social and free movie passes for students.
Charles expects to up the ante next year. He has plans to create a VIP lounge for students that will be a room where students can hang out, play games, and charge their phones. “We can’t allow it to become stale,” Sims adds. He’s even offered a mega prize where he cooks lunch for high point earners.
While students concentrate on prizes, Sims and Charles are interested in how the orderly behavior is increasing achievement. Comparing Hero to the school’s previous system, tardy students decreased from an average of 311 per day to 114 daily, the assistant principal says.
Boynton Beach is hoping to reap achievement rewards from the culture change too. The traditional community school edged its grade from a D to a C last year by a single point. Charles knows that the acts being rewarded by teachers, from getting to class on time to participating in class, will produce better academic results for both the students and the school in the future.
Sims says it can be hard for a new principal to get a veteran staff to embrace a new program because past failures have taught them to be skeptical. But not only are teachers using Hero, they are raving about its benefits to both Sims and Charles.
Teachers who admitted they were weak in classroom management say the positive behavior program has helped them establish a reliable routine in their classrooms, Charles says. Sims says he meets with every teacher one-on-one and in the last two months, 80 percent have said the program has had a “significant impact” on the school.
Part of the teachers’ acceptance comes because of strong buy-in from Sims. “I’m engaged, I’m out [in the hallway] giving points,” the principal says. “I recognize teachers who have given the most points in a month.”
But even more powerful than top-down management is the students’ bottom-up pressure, Sims says. When students get pizza, ice cream or other rewards for earning points, those who didn’t get recognized are putting pressure on their teachers to reward their behavior.
And while the program was created to help recognize good behavior, its meticulous reporting has helped the principals mete out discipline when needed. With the ability to call up records instantly on a cellphone, students wandering the hallways are quickly redirected, Sims says.
“We’re not letting people slip through the cracks,” Charles says. “We’re keeping our hallway traffic down. On most days, we win that battle.”
The program’s easy access to data is curtailing arguments, too. When a student complains the system is wrong, the administrator will pull up their information right on his phone. “They see that we’re serious with this,” the principal adds. “It’s not the same old way of doing business anymore.”
Even parents have approved of the program, especially because they can download the app and receive push notifications about their children’s behavior.
“It has definitely turned the tide for us,” Sims says. “We’re not where we want to be, but we’re in a good place.” And perhaps most importantly, they have the tools they need to keep climbing.
See Boynton Beach High in the news: Palm Beach Post