It’s been a rough year for Rutherford High School in Panama City, FL. They were greatly impacted by Hurricane Michael when it hit the panhandle in the fall of 2018, bringing hardship and uncertainties to the community. Despite these trials, the educators and leadership team at Rutherford High have banded together to rally around doing what they can for their students, and something truly special has happened as a result.
Andrea Banks is an Assistant Principal at Rutherford High School who has always had a passion for students. She says she was “that troubled kid.” But some special people in her life encouraged her, which in turn made her want to give back to students, empowering them to become the best versions of themselves. What makes her school, Rutherford High, unique is that students from all types of backgrounds attend the school, including IB students, low-income students, and many English Language Learners.
Of all the challenges that her diverse student body faces, what’s especially concerning to Banks and her leadership team are when students miss out on educational opportunities because they’re physically not present, regardless of whether the student is tardy, skipping, or chronically absent. She’s heartbroken “when a kid comes in and tells me they’re living in their car. Or they can’t come to school because they’re the only ones working in their family, because their parents lost their jobs, and they’re now the primary provider for the family.”
It’s these situations that motivate Banks the most, she says, describing a recent conversation she had with a student who is only two classes away from graduation. “She said she has to quit school because she has to work. Knowing what the kids are going through is what keeps me up at night.”
In June of 2018, Rutherford High turned to Hero. Using the student behavior improvement tool, administrators felt they could improve student tardiness and issues with skipping – ultimately to ensure that students don’t miss out on educational opportunities. “There was an urgent need to transform the culture. We were looking for interventions for students…something that would allow us to get the the root cause of the issue,” she explains.
Rutherford High is using Hero to track positive (participating in class, for example) and negative (cell phone violation) student behaviors and to intervene when behavioral problems arise. Students are recognized with points for behaving positively, and they can redeem those points for incentives like treats, t-shirts, and gift cards. And to address their attendance issues, the teachers at Rutherford High made the commitment that they’ll provide a positive point to every single student who comes to class on time. When a student is late for class, the teachers close their doors, and the hall monitors scoop up the kids who are late, giving them a tardy slip. Every tardy instance then shows up in a student’s Hero behavior data.
Rutherford High is nearly a year into using Hero. “Students are no longer excessively tardy,” she says. And tardiness in general, whether students are late to school or class, has reduced dramatically.
With Hero, they’re able to see behavior patterns and intervene. “Our leadership team has problem-solving team meetings every Monday,” she explains. “We pull the infraction reports and discuss each individual student. We create a plan for them and figure out how to correct what’s happening. We’re talking to the kids about why they’re tardy, or why they’re skipping, so we can figure out the root of the issue.”
In addition to providing behavior data, Hero has also helped Banks and her team with family engagement. “We don’t have a lot of parent involvement here,” she says, which is why her leadership has configured Hero’s communication tools to send positive notes home, reinforcing when students are on track with the school’s goals. Banks knows how impactful families themselves can be on attendance results, and her “families have been appreciative that they’re communicated with about what’s going on at school.”
Banks believes there’s another reason her school has seen such improved attendance. Hero – as a positive reinforcement tool that promotes multiple opportunities for supportive feedback throughout the school day – is helping teachers build positive student/adult relationships campuswide. “I’ve really established relationships with the kids prior. Does Hero make it better? Absolutely,” she says. “Does it make it better for teachers who don’t have that relationship piece? Yes. It’s been good. Or those teachers who struggle with classroom management? Absolutely.”
Since teachers are using the program with such fidelity, students feel the discipline culture at Rutherford High is more objective and fair, Banks believes. “I think that the students were really craving that structure before. But now, the students are responding to the positive points and the immediate rewards. We’re trying to encourage students to have that intrinsic motivation, but sometimes they need that extra push.”
As with attendance, discipline across the board has improved post-Hero. At this time last year, the school had 133 out-of-school suspensions on the books. This year, they’ve seen only 34. And discipline referrals in total are down by 88%.
While the numbers are encouraging, Banks is most excited for the overall direction her school is headed. “Even as a Title I school, even if we’re underperforming today, I know that once we have the structures in place, we can become an ‘A’ school,” she says. Knowing “you can’t teach them if you can’t reach them,” Banks feels that Hero is helping get her students back in class – and that added instructional time will make all the difference in student outcomes.