Southport Middle School is located south of Indianapolis, Indiana and is the school home to more than 1100 7th– and 8th-grade students. Matt Bush (@mbush36 on Twitter) is the Dean of Students for the 8th grade. He has implemented a system of positivity at Southport, which has helped to create a positive school atmosphere.
“When I came to Southport in 2010, our office discipline referrals were more than 2700 per year,” says Bush. “Our school has a student population of 1000-1200 kids each year, and the ODRs were outpacing the number of students we had. Something had to change.”
For Bush, that meant working to create a better school environment.
Expectations, Not Rules
For many of the students at Southport, the seven hours they spend at school may be the only positive factor in their entire day. Bush wanted to change the way they viewed their time at school and give them a sense of belonging.
“Instead of giving them a set of rules to follow,” says Bush, “we presented them with expectations – what we expect from them, and what they can expect from us. This involves the whole school, from students to teachers to support staff.”
One of the expectations centered on showing respect. For school staff, this included speaking to students as young adults. “We address them as ‘sir’ or ‘miss’ and use respectful language – modeling the way they should speak to us and one another. Another important factor is to identify triggers that can affect their attitudes and actions. For some students, that can be a certain tone of voice or facial expression. But the key lesson we are trying to teach is that in order to get respect, you have to give respect.”
By modeling expectations, teachers help to create opportunities for student success. The positivity doesn’t just come from the staff to the students, however. Bush challenges the students to bring positivity to the school environment, too. “The month of February can be tough in most schools. I challenge the students to be positive during that month. That can involve simple actions like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in their everyday conversations. At the end of the month, they can see how small actions can lead to big rewards.”
Greet Students with Positive Attention
To help foster a sense of belonging, Bush greets students every morning as they come into the building. He also makes his rounds in the cafeteria and during hallway duty, giving high fives and fist bumps. Some students want to give him a hug. “I’m not a hugger by nature,” he says. “But if a student wants to give me a hug, I figure they must need one, too. So I let them hug me.”
He also encourages the students to get to know him. As the eighth grade dean, Bush is in contact with a large number of students throughout the day. “I talk to as many as I can each day. I ask them, ‘why are you here?’ A lot of them will answer ‘because I have to be’ but I make them go deeper than that. What is their motivation? I ask them to focus on one word that will drive them throughout the year. What is that word? What do they want to accomplish? Who do they want to be? It’s hard to boil it down to one word, but if you can do that, it gives you something to focus on.”
Student Success is a Team Effort
Because the student body changes from year to year, Bush and the rest of the Southport staff must try different ways to reach students. The school motto is “Student Success is a Team Effort” and the staff focuses on this motto at both the beginning and end of the day. Student success involves not only the staff and students but extends to the students’ home life, as well. “We try to extend the positivity outside the school campus. I challenge the teachers, before Christmas and summer breaks, to each write five positive postcards that we send out to students at home. We want the parents to know good things about their child, and a postcard is an easy and inexpensive way to do that.”
The Southport staff works to show unconditional love to students while they are at school. In addition to the positive postcards home, students receive a birthday card on their special day. “In talking with some students, I learned that sometimes birthdays don’t get celebrated at home,” says Bush. “No cake, no special dinner, no gifts – nothing. That birthday card from school might be the only acknowledgment of their birthday that some of them will receive. We don’t have any control over the 17 hours they spend away from school, but we want them to feel unconditional love during the seven hours they are here.”
A Marathon Instead of a Sprint
Creating a positive school environment is a year-round effort. Says Bush, “I tell the staff, this is a marathon.” Teachers and support personnel must be consistent in modeling expectations as well as communication. In order to see progress made, Bush sends teachers a regular “Dean’s Corner” email. Filled with data and other information, these emails help teachers to see how the school environment is changing for the better.
Perhaps the most telling data is the reduction in office discipline referrals. Bush’s PBIS-style program has helped to reduce the number of office discipline referrals by half. Less time spent in classroom disruption and in disciplinary action means increased instructional time.
As the students at Southport Middle School transition to high school, they carry success forward with them. The simple act of someone taking the time to show they care has changed school for many of these students.