How one school reduced their suspensions by 80% with RTI, PBIS, and Hero.

Crystal Lake Middle School

Sabine Phillips became an educator rather serendipitously. She went to college to become a medical doctor, but—like many prospective doctors before and since—she was permanently dissuaded by organic chemistry. She graduated instead with a degree in English, and returned to her hometown in Miami-Dade, began substitute teaching, and fell in love. She was about to start working as a teacher full-time when another wrench was thrown in her professional trajectory; Hurricane Andrew. The storm was devastating to South Florida, and caused a hiring freeze that forced Sabine to look to neighboring Broward County for work. She has been there ever since, and is currently the principal of Crystal Lake Middle School, a dual magnet and S.T.E.M. school in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Principal Sabine Phillips

“The kids are the best part of the job.”

Ms. Phillips is the type of person you wish was your principal. She speaks thoughtfully, with a strong, calm demeanor that you can see benefitting her in a chaotic school setting. She worked at the high school level for seven years, but prefers her spot at the middle school level (which her friends call her crazy for). But Sabine feels that middle school is a pivotal time for a child, and the best time to truly make a difference in their life. She describes it as being able to “catch a kid before they fall through the cracks” and genuinely enjoys seeing the tremendous personal growth children experience while under her roof.

“We all have good and bad days.”

Principal Phillips’ administrative style focuses on building relationships with the students. She genuinely cares about them, and makes sure that is conveyed consistently, whether the student is being reprimanded or praised. She believes the foundation of a well-behaved campus is formed once a student learns that you’ll be there for them—no matter what. She has found that implementing a PBIS program has also helped her forge strong relationships with the students, since the school has shifted to looking at the positives.

Crystal Lake’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program recognizes students for the positive things they do everyday, like wear their student ID and arrive to class early. Positive behaviors are kept track of within Hero, and a digital tally is kept of the students positive points, which can then be used for incentives like Movie Day or a raffle ticket for a Target gift card. Focusing on positive student behavior encourages more of it, and implementing a PBIS program is usually a snowball effect of good behavior. Crystal Lake was no exception, and today, they are fortunate to have a pretty well-behaved student body. In fact, “99% of the kids on campus are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” says Ms. Phillips.

“Always put a positive spin on things.”

Assistant Principal Ben Reeves is another important player at Crystal Lake Middle School. He is very active in all matters discipline, and is an enthusiastic proponent of PBIS. He also seems to have an endless cache of tips and tricks when it comes to running a successful positive behavior program.

Assistant Principal Ben Reeves

One of the most innovative is the way he designates which behaviors to track, and how he communicates that to his teachers. He knew that rolling out a PBIS program to teachers (and having up to 10 behaviors to track) could seem daunting and overwhelming. So, to remedy this, he created a calendar. He chooses two behaviors to track per day—one during first period, and another during a randomly selected period throughout the day. The first behavior, dress code adherence, is always the same, but the second behavior changes daily. He believes this helps keep kids “on their best behavior, since they never know when or what they will be awarded points for.” He creates and disseminates these calendars quarterly, and makes sure teachers keep them private. It’s a great idea that has proven to work quite well for them—they are one of Hero’s top schools in terms of daily positive points awarded.

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“Let’s put in a few interventions BEFORE you write that referral”

When it comes to negative behavior, Crystal Lake (and all of Broward County) use RTI techniques to help curb suspension numbers. RTI—Response to Intervention—is a tiered approach that tries to remedy bad behavior before immediately doling out a suspension. RTI requires training, so usually such initiatives are district-mandated and written into the School Behavior Plan, like Crystal Lake. A commitment to use RTI is really a commitment to work with a student and redirect their behavior, not just suspend them and hope the behavior rights itself.

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The combination of RTI and PBIS have been extremely powerful for Crystal Lake. In just two years, they reduced their in-house and external suspensions by a staggering 80%. That’s incredible, and given the current national backlash against suspensions, they are truly ahead of the curve on dealing with behavior in a more holistic—and beneficial—way.

Ms. Phillips is inspired by seeing her students happy, positive, and, just, “being themselves.” Luckily for her, with the positive environment being cultivated at Crystal Lake Middle, there are plenty of happy students.

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