Highlight on Garfield High School, Los Angeles
Principal Jose Huerta, Assistant Principal Rose Anne Ruiz, Dean of Students Aurora Mellado, Pupil Services Worker Gelber Orellano, and former Assistant Principal Ramiro Rubalcaba
When and why did you start implementing SWPBIS at your school?
Former Assistant Principal Ramiro Rubalcaba (Rubalcaba): In 2007, LAUSD passed a policy requiring SWPBIS as the alternatives to suspension and expulsion framework. At Garfield, we were a multi-track school, and we issued over 600 suspensions per year. So, we were mandated to go to training. We were hesitant at first, but once we got there and took the training, we saw that there was really something to this method. Additionally, I took a road trip around LAUSD and visited other schools implementing PBIS. I personally had an “aha” moment in 2008 when I went to a training with the Sheriff’s department that was focused on school violence. He showed a picture of a kid who had murdered his parents and participated in a school shooting. Under the picture was a quote from this boy that said, “I’d rather be wanted for murder than be wanted for nothing at all.”
How did you implement the new practices that you had learned at Garfield?
Rubalcaba: During the Spring of the 2008 – 2009 school year, Principal Jose Huerta, who selected me to be assistant principal and work with discipline, and I came back to Garfield from other assignments. We just ran with it. We put in place a moratorium on suspensions for the rest of that school year and explained to staff that we were no longer going to suspend students. Instead, we fully implemented SWPBIS. In 2009-2010, we implemented a computer based referral system. We became a data-centered school. Teachers had been referring students for insignificant things, and we couldn’t track all the data: who sent which student for what? Many times, students would just tear up the referral. We trained the teachers during the summer of 2009 on the online referral system and gave them a clear understanding of what we would be doing with the referrals and that we would be assisting those students and staff who needed the most help. We put a progressive discipline policy in writing. In this policy, we made it clear that safety and discipline were everyone’s responsibility. Before a teacher could send a student to the office, there was list of interventions that needed to be completed. That year, there were 150 suspensions for the entire 2009-2010 school year.
Additionally, we got students involved in governance. We had them make motivational posters about the school rules and present them at assemblies.
Assistant Principal Rose Anne Ruiz (Ruiz): We incorporated the three PBIS rules – Be Safe, Responsible and Respectful – into our three Expected School-wide Learning Results (ESLRs) that we had always used: Persons of Character, Communicators, and Critical Thinkers.
In 2010-2011, there was only one suspension; it was mandatory under the Education Code because a student brought a knife to school. In 2011-2012, we had one suspension, also mandatory under the Education Code. A male student with a disability grabbed a female student inappropriately.
How has the climate of your school changed since implementation?
Principal Jose Huerta (Huerta): Ten years ago, this used to be a school where students would get jumped into gangs in the restroom. We had a severe gang problem, which was apparent from all of the tagging (graffiti) on campus. There were also drug problems on campus. It was a chaotic environment, inside and out. We’ve come a very long way and have really shifted the culture. Our main focus now at Garfield High School is student academic achievement. Our teachers and staff believe that our students can achieve academically. We raised our API scores 115 points in the last three years. Our students believe in themselves and feel confident they can compete academically with any high school in our district. Additionally, when I hire teachers and administrators, it is critical that they can connect with the students; so we are staffed with great people who care about and respect our students.
Because of all of the work we have done since 2009 engaging the parents and the community around us, we don’t have the safety issues that we used to have outside of the school. For instance, we don’t have a gang problem anymore; the students don’t even dress the part because we have made it clear to them that Garfield HS is an institution for learning and not for mischief. It is about making everyone accountable for their actions. Many parents in the community support me on this and help me monitor student behavior and dress code. And, so far, during this school year (2011-2013), we have had no violent incidents and have issued zero suspensions.
Rubalcaba: A lot of the parent involvement started because we got creative about engaging the parents. Once we purchased polo shirts for them, more and more parents volunteered to supervise. Those shirts were about $500 total but we gained thousands of dollars in free supervision. Presence prevents problems. When we reached out to parents and let them know what we were doing, they would walk around the school and talk to kids and report things to us.
Ruiz: Principal Huerta has done an amazing job of engaging the community. This is part of the reason we have such great parent involvement now.
Huerta: The parent volunteers calculated the cost of free supervision. They provide about 7000 volunteer hours, which is worth at least $56,000. We want to keep our whole community healthy, I want as many parents here as possible. The parents are an important part of the Garfield team. I have coffee with the parents, and we brainstorm on how we can improve our school’s climate. They share with me the issues that are of concern and together we come up with ideas for resolving these problems. They understand that we value their input and they continue to be our eyes and ears.
There are a lot of students on this campus, what happens when two of them have a physical altercation? Or what happens if they bring drugs to school?
Huerta: Once in a while, there is a verbal/physical altercation between two teenagers, but instead of suspending them; our number one goal is keeping both students on campus where they can receive the support they need to get them through their problems. Additionally, in the rare case that a student is caught with some drugs on campus, we immediately contact parents and refer them to a drug counselor in our community. Our students know that they are here to get an education, and we aren’t going to send them home on a suspension. They are instead, going to stay in school and receive counseling. After all, they are our students and all of their problems are our problems; we don’t pass the buck.
Dean of Students Aurora Mellado (Mellado): Let me give you a more specific example about the interventions that we provide that help resolve problems and address the issues instead of just suspending students. I am trained in conflict resolution, so if two students get into a fight, I separate them. I take testimony on both sides and investigate the situation. Usually, the students come clean about what the fight is about and usually, it’s about Facebook or a girlfriend/boyfriend situation. Then we come together, and I have the students talk about what they told me. Usually, they both decide that their fight was silly and inconsequential.
Unlike in the traditional model where the Dean just suspends when a referral for discipline comes to them, I look at attendance, grades, and everything because a student doesn’t just start acting up out of the blue; there are triggers and signs. Additionally, any punishment we give, like a detention for using a racial slur, is an educational opportunity. In that case, we would have a teacher teach and facilitate a discussion about why slurs are harmful and unacceptable at our school during the time that the student is in detention. So, the detention is a time for reflection and discussion and to talk through the problem.
Ruiz: We also take a lot of preventative measures that are part of the proactive steps that PBIS lays out, so that rules and policies are consistently and clearly communicated to the entire school community. We have assemblies with our small learning communities (SLCs) where we review rules, dress code and policies. Our school police officer presents the laws about sexual harassment, weapons, and drugs. We also have a lot of trainings that one person from the administrative team does with parents.
We also offer a lot of services to deal with student issues that arise and come onto campus, including drugs. We don’t kick students out or send them to another school when we see that they are struggling with a drug problem; we try to help them. For instance, Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) is a non-profit that offers drug counseling on campus, after school. Circle of Help, is an outside non-profit organization that works with Garfield to offer drug testing, counseling, and meetings with troubled students twice a week. For these services, we make sure that the parents are supporting these efforts at home, including sending drug tests. We have a physician who works with our youth on medical wellness and health, including treatment for STDS. Next month, we will have a full-service clinic on campus that will offer vaccinations, tuberculosis vaccinations and treatment for all staff, pregnancy services and mental health services. This clinic will be run by LA BEST, an organization that has these types of clinics everywhere.
Social Worker Gelber Orellano (Orellano): Let me give you another example. Currently, we are dealing with a little bit of a bullying problem at the school. Instead of suspending, we have sessions with the bullies and the bullied to teach what bullying is, what it looks like and why it is unacceptable.
Part of keeping suspensions at zero is making sure you document everything that is happening with the students and that you are completely consistent. For instance, all adults in the school can make a referral to our Coordination of Services Team (COST) for a student having a problem, behavioral or otherwise. The COST referral form is extensive and ensures that a student gets all of the interventions and services s/he needs. After the referral, we always follow-up and make sure to keep open lines of communication about everything that is happening with the students. The COST team has a meeting every Thursday to follow-up on all cases that have been referred.
Huerta: Suspensions and expulsions don’t deter bad behavior, what we’re doing does because students don’t want to deal with all the adults who will become involved in their lives when they step out of line. A student who misbehaves is going to have to meet with Ms. Mellado, Mr. Orellano, his or her parent, maybe visit a counselor, and maybe talk to me. They don’t want to do that.
Rubalcaba: There was a student who was behind in his work. He then acted out in class and was rude to a teacher. We took away his lunchtime privileges so he had to eat in the Dean’s office and catch-up on his school work. After one day of this, he asked to be suspended. Clearly suspension, which is really a break from school or dealing with the issues, is preferable to losing socialization time, so why would we give that to them to punish them?
Ruiz: It’s a lot of work but the results – improved climate, better student achievement, increased community involvement – are why we are always having meetings and collaborating.
What advice would you give to school leaders who want to implement a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support system at their schools?
Huerta: Here, in East LA, we service a very low socioeconomic community. All students qualify for free and reduced lunch. We use the Title I money that we receive to hire additional support staff to address both academic and behavioral needs. For instance, we hired a psychiatric social worker (PSW), pupil service and attendance counselor (PSA), and additional academic counselors. Additionally, we reach out to the many community resources available. We have a very good relationship with our LAUSD School Police and the Sherriff’s department nearby. They help us patrol the area at the beginning and end of the school day to make sure our students are arriving and leaving safely. People now realize that this school is a sacred place where students are safe and can succeed academically and have a great future. Many of our students have been accepted to many Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities.
Orellano: You really need to make sure that you have a strong, flexible team. We all know that we can rely on each other and what our jobs are so that if something comes up and we can’t help a student, we know who can. Also, bring your walking shoes, you won’t be in your office too much because you need to walk around and get to know your kids.
Ruiz: We don’t have all the answers, and we are okay with asking each other and talking about things. We constantly collaborate.
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Garfield High School
5101 E. Sixth St
Los Angeles, CA 90022