Philadelphia, PA

Seeds of Success with Social-Emotional Learning

John Wister Elementary

Despite the hardships of being an underfunded school with a majority of students living in poverty, John Wister Elementary shines a light on the good, bringing out the best in its community. The relatively small school (350-plus students) with a big heart is located in the historic Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its much-loved principal, Mrs. Donna Smith, has worked tirelessly for the past 12 years to create a positive place where her students—or “babies,” as she calls them—can learn. Her own three children are now grown, but she incorporates her parenting philosophy into her practice. “My grandmother always said, ‘You get more from honey than from vinegar,’ which I found to be true as a parent, then as a teacher, and now principal.”

Mrs. Smith is a big believer in positive discipline. “Kids need something positive to look forward to,” she says. With all the negative news constantly being reported, and the very real trauma that many of her students suffer, Smith says she wants to make sure they experience something good when they come to school. She and her staff have created a bright and welcoming entrance, a thriving art program, robust technology initiatives, and a successful PreK program, but most significantly, Smith has worked with the district to put systems in place that promote what she’s named the Three Bs: Be safe. Be responsible. Be respectful.

Putting the Right Supports in Place

While some schools have zero-tolerance policies that concentrate on bad behavior, Smith is among a growing population of educators who prefer to incentivize good behavior. “Some schools in our district give monetary rewards for good conduct,” says Mrs. Smith, “but that wasn’t going to be financially sustainable for us. Fortunately, I found that celebrating good behavior with recognition is more intrinsically rewarding.”

Specifically, Smith uses Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as the framework for defining and reinforcing appropriate student behavior, coupled with the Second Step program to teach students the social-emotional skills they need to prevent problem behaviors. Smith also made some structural changes to reform behavior. She improved visibility from her office to the main hallway, where fights had been breaking out, and she hired a “Character Building” teacher and adjusted the schedule. Now every student rotates through Character Building class once or twice a week during teacher prep time, just as they would art or P.E.

Every teacher has a Second Step kit to reinforce the lessons being taught. For example, when empathy is the theme of the week, students learn kind words and how to share them appropriately with others. Constantly throughout the day, week, month, and year, students are reminded of expectations and guided through scenarios with videos, reenactments, role-playing, and class discussions. Every class also has a designated area where children can go to cool down if their emotions are running hot.

“The students’ norms for survival may not align with our expectations,” says Smith. One of the greatest challenges of her job is overcoming the street culture that has been established in some of the homes and the neighborhood. “These predetermined survival skills oftentimes get in the way of what we’re trying to create on school grounds.” By teaching children explicitly what safety, responsibility, and respect look like in different situations, Smith and her staff are helping the children understand how to succeed. “The Second Step videos are especially powerful to start conversations about real situations that apply to what’s happening in students’ lives. They’ll often go home and continue those conversations with their parents, which really helps,” explains Smith.

Making Steady Progress

Before adopting Second Step schoolwide, Smith says she routinely broke up fights and dealt with extreme behavior. Now staff and students use the same terms to describe feelings and problem-solving steps and have incorporated constructive habits into daily interactions. One day, for example, a student with several severe emotional and behavioral diagnoses was chasing someone down the hallway when Smith called out to him to stop. He did, but when she tried to engage him to find out what was going on, he didn’t respond. She recalls being concerned when he didn’t reply, but then pleasantly surprised to find out he wasn’t responding because he was counting each breath to calm down, just as he had learned in Character Building class.

Every month, students are given data about their attendance, attitude, and academics. All students start out as members of Smith’s “A Team” and, unless they fail to meet behavioral expectations, are rewarded for good behavior. Students look forward to being acknowledged with certificates, positive letters home, public shout-outs, and fun activities, such as game days and special outings. Every student also gets to start fresh each month because Smith believes in second chances. “Everybody has a bad day now and then, and I want the kids to know that it’s okay to make mistakes; that we still value them and won’t give up on them.” That faith is paying off.

When Smith first came to John Wister Elementary, she issued about 50 suspensions a year. Kids brought BB guns and knives to school, but not anymore. The number of suspensions has dropped down to the decimals. “I do my best to keep kids in school learning. If someone is really out of line, instead of making them stay home, I first send a letter home asking the parents come to school with their child so we can figure out what’s going on and work together to make a plan,” says Smith, who has earned a reputation as someone who genuinely cares about the kids by knocking on doors, making phone calls, and routinely going out of her way to help.

“I really believe it does take a village to make a difference,” says Smith. Children are resilient, but they need to be nurtured. Smith compares children to seeds, saying they are planted by some, watered by others, and shined on by many more. Student improvements at John Wister Elementary are outpacing the district, and Smith is ever-optimistic: “In the future, we will see these children grow into something beautiful.”