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St. Stephen's keeps punitive measures out of focus

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 3:36 p.m.
Special Education teacher Rhonda Gresock works with students Isaac, left, Alexis, and D. J. at St. Stephen's Lutheran Academy in Zelienople Friday, March 28, 2014.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Special Education teacher Rhonda Gresock works with students Isaac, left, Alexis, and D. J. at St. Stephen's Lutheran Academy in Zelienople Friday, March 28, 2014.
Special Education teacher Robin Lindey works on a smart board with her students at St. Stephen's Lutheran Academy in Zelienople Friday, March 28, 2014.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Special Education teacher Robin Lindey works on a smart board with her students at St. Stephen's Lutheran Academy in Zelienople Friday, March 28, 2014.

Elementary teacher Rhonda Gresock prepared her small class to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle at St. Stephen's Lutheran Academy in Zelienople one recent morning.

“Why do I like Eric Carle's art?” she asked the three students.

“He uses tissue paper, but it's never perfect,” one of the students answered. Then Gresock asked him why that was important.

“Because you feel you have to be perfect, but you really don't,” he said.

“You can be ‘fantabulous' and beautiful and cool without being perfect,” Gresock said.

Aiming for good behavior without having to be perfect is one of the goals of St. Stephen's, which implemented the School-Wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system four years ago. It is part of the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, a division of the state Department of Education.

Even though St. Stephen's doesn't expect perfection, the school had a perfect score of 100 percent on a PBIS evaluation from the Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV, which covers Butler, Lawrence and Mercer counties. The school will receive a recognition banner at the Department of Education's School-Wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports Implementers Forum next month in Hershey.

“We're proud of our teachers; it's really their passion,” Principal Amy Williams said.

More than 40 public school districts in Butler, Allegheny and five other Western Pennsylvania counties refer students to St. Stephen's, some because they exhibit difficult behavior. About 90 of the students live on campus; the courts refer some residential students. The school operates a system for students along the autism spectrum.

School districts pay tuition for the students they refer to St. Stephen's, which Williams said is “on a mission to learn, grow and heal.” St. Stephen's has operated since 1993 and has 270 male and female students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Some remain with us four or five years, until graduation,” Williams said. “Others start transitioning back within a year.” Administrators discuss a student's progress and Individualized Education Program with representatives from his or her home district on a regular basis.

“Our main focus is behavior and helping (students) modify their behavior and be successful in their neighborhood schools,” Williams said.

The PBIS system calls for rewarding good behavior rather than punishing unruly actions. When students exhibit any of three behaviors — accountability, safety and kindness — teachers award them points that can be redeemed for field trips, “Jaguar bucks” that can be spent in the school store or snacks. Students who want to play sports must earn 90 percent of available points.

“These students struggle every day,” said Ted Orlowski, assistant director of family support and clinical services for St. Stephen's. “We try to get away from punitive measures.”

Assistant Principal Keenan McGaughey said that because the frequent goal of unruly students is to be suspended so they don't have to come to school, educators end up finding suspension ineffective. “We rarely suspend,” he said.

St. Stephen's is operated by Glade Run Lutheran Services, but is a private, not parochial school; it conducts no religious classes or rites. It is loosely affiliated with adjacent Passavant Senior Services, another Lutheran Services institution where St. Stephen's students visit for holiday and service events.

Randy Harrison, supervisor of behavioral services at St. Stephen's, said the PBIS system was “easy to implement.”

“How you treat the staff — that's how you want the staff to treat the students. Once you buy in from the top, it makes it very easy to implement.”

Last week, Williams promised ice cream for each classroom where no one had to be physically restrained that week.

Expecting a positive result, “I bought 250 ice cream bars,” she said.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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