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You Are Now Free to Move About

How Mobility Helped Change the Culture of Discipline at Somerset

Somerset Academy looks how you’d imagine an A+ school might look. A single entrance leads down a long driveway, with lush vegetation to the left and designated Senior parking spots to the right. Each space can be decorated, so the road to campus is a perfect preview of the diversity and personality of the students themselves; brightly colored spots sit next to ones modestly painted with just a last name, soccer ball murals next to spaces full of flowers and a quote saying Believe you can and you’re halfway there.

Somerset’s campus is made up of three main building clusters, an elementary, middle, and high school. There are over 3,000 kids total, but driving up to the main entrance, you don’t feel like you’re approaching such a big school. The line of traffic—while long—is perfectly choreographed and surprisingly courteous. Students walk slowly towards campus on oversized sidewalks. Sometimes, an older sibling walks hand-in-hand with a younger one, escorting them to their building—a heartwarming sight, however early in the day. The buildings themselves enjoy the benefits of a South Florida location, with open, brightly colored breezeways and plenty of palm trees. Add in the perfectly manicured grounds, and you have a school campus fit for the big screen.

Somerset Academy, Pembroke Pines, Florida was founded in 1997, and has since become one of the best schools in the area.

Ovidio Sotomayor is the Dean of Discipline, and the one that opens the school in the morning, so he gets to see a side of Somerset that others don’t get the privilege of seeing—quiet, empty, still. He likes to get in about an hour before school starts, around 6am, to “get organized and have a little bit of down time.” After just one morning with him, it’s easy to see why.

The calm before the storm: an empty Somerset courtyard before the morning rush. 

Ovidio is called Soto. Not just by his close friends, but by everybody, students, strangers, and colleagues alike. The fact that he is widely known by a nickname is completely indicative of his personality—friendly, likeable, and incredibly enthusiastic. When he walks around campus, it’s a constant stream of student dialogue. “Hi Soto,” or, “Hey Soto, you coming to the game Thursday?” He has a presence that commands respect, but the constant smile on his face gives him an air of approachability . He didn’t have to open one door all morning; he’s just the type of guy that people hold doors open for, even if he’s 20 feet away.

Ovidio Sotomayor, Somerset’s Dean of Discipline, looking as proud as he is of his school.

(Not So) Rush Hour

The first scheduled discipline-related task that Soto takes care of in the mornings is processing tardy students after the 7:30 bell. Kids know that if they are still walking to class when the bell rings, they need to turn around and head to Le Café, a cafeteria where a check-in station is set up. (The front office is long and narrow, and therefore not very conducive to handling the morning rush.) Prior to Hero, Somerset used another stationary tardy system that was physically set up in the same corner of the cafeteria. The location worked well, but the hilariously dated system—which Soto would later demonstrate to us in Jim Carrey-ish act of physical comedy—did not.

It was slow, and the printer was constantly having technical issues or getting jammed. And one piece of hardware meant that only one person was able to man the station. This lead to a morning routine that took over an hour to process between 50 – 60 tardies, with lines out the door.

It is during this morning routine that another member of the Somerset cast plays an important role. Oscar Sanchez is Somerset’s Attendance Clerk, and Soto’s “right-hand man” during the tardy rush. He is more soft-spoken and reserved than Soto, but speaks thoughtfully and with confidence.

Oscar Sanchez, Somerset’s Attendance Clerk, getting ready to crunch some numbers.

In the morning, you will find both of them in Le Café. Soto, standing, taking the front lines against the building crowd of students, and Oscar, seated, casually calling for the next person in line. By 8:05, Soto and Oscar processed 53 students, and some of that time was spent with no one to check-in. Their ability to share the check-in responsibility, print passes quickly without wrestling with a yellowed dot matrix printer, and look up students within seconds prevented any real bottleneck, which substantially cut their processing time. Kids still come to school late—the single-lane entrance onto campus makes this a pretty permanent reality—but with Hero, they are not much later.

Thinking Outside the Rhombus

Soto then takes us to his office, which is, well, underwhelming. It feels like an afterthought of a room. Not quite rectangular, almost a rhombus, it seems to be carved out of a spare space underneath a staircase. Three desks line the walls—Soto’s, and two others reserved for student detentions. The walls are a classic shade of schoolroom yellow, and are decorated with three things—a framed award Soto received for “Most Likely to Ruin Your Day,” a poster of Mohammed Ali labeled “The Fighter,” and a clock from which he removed the minute and hour hands, leaving behind a second hand that ticks in place. (This is a psychological move on Soto’s part—he doesn’t want the students in detention to focus on time.)

Soto’s clock, on which the only hand left is the second hand, which ticks endlessly in place.

It is disheartening (yet not completely surprising, given the supply-and-demand of real estate on a campus like Somerset’s) to see such a big personality conducting work in such an unfitting space, far away from the action of the students. Before Hero, Soto spent most of his time here. He had to, since his reporting and record keeping relied on him being tethered to his desktop computer and stacks of files and 3-ring. If a student misbehaved, they were sent all the way to his office to have a consequence assigned to their action. An obvious disruption to class, taking away the amount of instruction time that student has.

With the mobility that Hero affords, Soto now spends most of his day on-the-go. He patrols around campus. He’s engaged. Even as we’re walking and talking, he pauses to have quick conversations with students about attire, or to remind them to “serve their detention before the Senior Trip on Saturday”. He’s constantly on the move (and has the daytime spike in fuel points to prove it). All he needs for this mobility is his iPhone and Bluetooth earpiece, although he carries around an iPad, too. When an issue comes up with a student, Soto receives the call (routed from his office to his in-ear mic), and makes a decision—he can go to the student’s class or have them come to him, depending on the infraction.

Soto in his natural element: patrolling the halls.

During our visit, we saw a few minor disciplinary issues play out. One student was reprimanded for disrespecting a teacher, and Soto met him at his class and escorted him to the cafeteria, where the student had to sit and write an apology letter. While we were walking around, Soto was also consulted about a few other students who were caught violating the uniform-only dress code. It was a cold day (by South Florida standards) so some of the students were bending the rules under the auspices of staying warm. But each incident was addressed and documented on-the-spot from Soto’s iPhone. None of the students violating the dress code policy had enough infractions to warrant any type of consequence, but if they had, Soto could print out their detention slip remotely, too. With his Hero pass printer clipped onto his belt, passes and slips are just a tap away.

Will Work for–Cookies?

Somerset is not a school that needed to make a huge cultural shift towards the positive. It is already a really good school filled with really good kids. When Soto was asked, “where would you love to see your school in five years?” he responded, “I’d love to have zero tardies or dress code violations.” This answer could only be given at a school where minor incidents are the only major problem, and this fact is not lost on Soto. He feels lucky to work at such a great school.

Somerset: a great school, no matter how you look at it.

Even though Somerset was at a great place to begin with, Soto has already seen the benefit that a “formal” Positive Behavior Supports Program (PBS) has had on his school. Last year, each teacher had his or her own method of recognizing and recording good behavior in their classroom. Some used wall charts, others used Excel, but most used candy as the reward. If you remember trick-or-treating as a kid, you can imagine how this plays out. The houses that give out the full candy bars are always the ones you are most excited for. The same works in the classroom. With an inconsistent (and candy-based) incentive system, students are going to behave in the classes they want to behave in. It would be no surprise if Mrs. Jones, giving out the full Kit Kats, had more “Acts of Kindness” in her class than Mr. Smith, who’s handing out Necco wafers. It’s not a scalable or reliable system.

What Somerset has really done with Hero is turn their PBS system into a School-Wide PBS system, or SWPBS. There are set incentives and point structures that have been put in place to be upheld campus-wide. So “Active Participation” in Mrs. Jones’s class will get you exactly the same number or points as “Active Participation” in Mr. Smith’s. The incentives are the same and campus-wide, so it’s consistent. The incentives? Well, some things don’t change—the Middle School students still seem to be highly motivated by the cookies. But he does struggle a bit to find rewards that the High Schoolers will care about. He’s done a great job reaching out to local businesses for donations, from which he’s received gift certificates to restaurants and movie tickets from a local theater. A nearby car dealership even donated an iPad.

So far, it seems to be working. While we sat down with him for lunch, several students came up to ask him how many Hero Points they had. The time of day suggests they were hoping to have enough for an after-lunch snack, but there also seems to be a bit of a competition factor. One girl, after finding out she had more points than her friend, harmlessly bragged for a few seconds. Neither one of them had enough points for that cookie, but they seemed to genuinely enjoy the friendly competition. Soto also shared a few stories of students asking him (seemingly in a state of frenzy), “what can I do for some Hero points?” One student even offered to pick up trash from the entire cafeteria after a lunch. This was unprecedented and called for a new category, “Campus Beautification.” With PBS now woven into the fabric of the entire campus—not just individual classrooms—the students are becoming more engaged citizens of Somerset.

Getting to the Root of It

After lunch, we asked Soto his general philosophy on discipline. Like any true optimist, he thinks that all kids are innately good kids. Maybe they fall into trouble to get their friends’ attention, to show off for a girl they like, or are acting out because of problems at home. He feels that, whatever the root of the problem, one-on-one early intervention is the best way to combat the issue. Being able to see student trends has given Soto a disciplinary advantage. He sees, and tries to address, bad behaviors before they get worse. He does this with equal parts authority and empathy, talking with the students, with believable concern for their side of the story. As he puts it, “They’re learning. They’re going to fall. We just have to pick them up, not put them down.”

Soto, excited about showing off his expert-level use of Hero.

Throughout the day, we got to know Soto a little bit. We saw how he worked, how he interacted with his kids. He is really passionate about Hero, about how it helps him “organize his day,” and how it “makes things easier.” But, from an outside perspective, Hero has benefited him (and Somerset) in a way that’s a little less obvious or tangible—it has changed their culture of discipline. Hero has allowed Soto to get out his office and be a real presence in the school. Without the burden of time-consuming, antiquated procedures, Soto is free to fall into a pattern of leadership that seems more aligned with his personality. He is now empowered to be the type of leader he was meant to be, and Somerset—and its students—are better off because of it.