Remember all those movies from the 1980s and 1990s where some edgy principal or teacher would come in and turn around a gritty school with a serving of tough love?
Well, a real-life version actually happened recently at Allen Elementary School in Marion, Indiana.
There are some big differences though.
This story involves not one hero, but a whole team of heroes, many of them Ball State Cardinals with education degrees from Teachers College.
And, most importantly, no one walked around patting a baseball bat in the palm of his hand, or sat backwards in a chair, or chained the doors closed. Instead, these educators and administrators used a gentle but more effective approach. They developed an alternative-to-suspension program called New Beginnings.
Allen Elementary is a pre-K through 4th grade school in Marion Community Schools with about 350 students.
While New Beginnings has been in place since 2014-2015, public interest in the program has exploded since last year when The Today show highlighted Allen Elementary on its website, complete with a 5-minute video.
Representatives of more than 50 schools from 35 states have visited Allen to see New Beginnings in action or reached out to seek information. The Indiana Department of Education has showcased New Beginnings as an example for other schools. And, principal Anthony Williams has presented on the program at state principal conferences and national conferences on alternative education and Title I education.
“We could have continued with the status quo,” Williams said. “But we came together and we decided to try something different. It’s teamwork. We have a great staff that understands that relationships drive education.”
A caring approach
New Beginnings is based on kindness, trial-and-error experimentation, and research-based intervention methods, according to Williams.
Williams graduated from Teachers College with an elementary education degree in 2006 and a master’s in educational administration and supervision in 2012
The results speak for themselves.
The 2013-2014 academic year was Williams’s first as principal at Allen Elementary. In that year, the school racked up an impressive 212 suspensions, resulting in thousands of lost instructional hours.
“We were sending kids home and they were coming right back with the same behaviors,” Williams said. “It was a lose-lose situation.”
With New Beginnings in place, the next academic year resulted in just 16 suspensions.
Perhaps even more impressive, between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 the school climbed from an “F” academic rating by the state of Indiana to a “B” rating.
The New Beginnings brain trust included two others with Ball State elementary education degrees, Jo Messner, ’82, MAE ’88, then the behavioral interventionist, and Lendon Schwartz, ’03, then the assistant principal.
Messner, who also earned a master’s of elementary education from BSU, is now assistant principal at Allen, and Schwartz has become principal at Riverview Elementary, which is also a part of Marion Community Schools.
While alternative-to-suspension programs are common in secondary education, Allen was the first school in Indiana to give it a shot at the elementary level.
In New Beginnings, students who receive a referral for misbehaving are sent to a room where they work with an interventionist to address the problem. This could include teaching the student calming breathing techniques or having the student role play a situation to find a better outcome.
“New Beginnings lets the kids know that we care,” Williams said. “We even care to the point that we might put academics secondary to talk about the social, emotional and behavioral aspects of their lives.”
The best job
Suspension is still a possibility for Allen students, but, it is a last resort, reserved for those with a long-term, documented list of behavioral problems.
With the worst of its problems behind it, Allen educators are now able to take a more proactive approach toward behavior, helping students before they get in trouble, Williams said.
At Allen Elementary School, the halls are orderly and quiet, the students are learning, and the principal’s office is empty, no longer a revolving door for students in trouble.
New Beginnings’ approach doesn’t conform exactly to the old Hollywood trope. Williams is unlikely to see himself portrayed on the big screen. And that’s fine. He’s just happy to be an educator.
“I may be biased, but I don’t think there’s another profession like it,” he said.