Tacoma School District, UWT unite to help kids feel safe, rewarded and whole

There are no surprises in teacher Lisa Leen’s class.

Before she asks her Tacoma fifth graders to act, she tells them what’s coming. She reminds them how to behave. She coaches them as they move between tasks. And when kids respond, she compliments them.

Listen in on a recent morning in her Larchmont Elementary classroom:

“I’m still waiting for desks to be cleared,” Leen tells students as they prepare for a math game. “If you don’t know what to do, look at your neighbor. Help your neighbor by just touching their desk and giving them that gentle reminder, please.”

Students know what to do, because they’ve practiced. Leen knows what cues to offer, because she and everyone else who works with Larchmont kids have trained to use a system known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

“Less disruption, more instruction” is the catchphrase Leen uses to describe her new classroom climate.

“We have a model of what it looks like to be safe, responsible, respectful,” she adds. “All our staff members speak the same language.”

Kids get a consistent message, no matter who’s talking to them — from classroom aides to bus drivers to lunch ladies.

PBIS isn’t new; it’s used in schools around the country. But the idea of spreading it to every school in the city grew out of Tacoma’s Whole Child Initiative, a joint venture between Tacoma Public Schools and the University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools.

Greg Benner, director of the UWT center, calls the 10-year initiative “an unprecedented partnership to transform Tacoma Public Schools.”

The school district is investing in that partnership. Last year, the district paid $100,000 for the center’s services. Earlier this month, the Tacoma School Board approved a three-year, $300,000 agreement with the university to continue its work through the 2016-17 school year. That work includes training school employees, following up to see how the training plays out in the classroom, and analyzing data on school discipline.

Benner said the objective is to “create safe, orderly, positive, healthy learning environments in every single school.”

A total of 13 Tacoma schools, including Larchmont, began the work last year, with 13 more added this year. The aim is to eventually bring all schools into the fold, but to give each school a choice about when to begin.


The Whole Child Initiative began as the germ of an idea more than two years ago. Benner credits the late Debra Friedman, then-chancellor of UWT, with providing the spark.

“She gave me the green light,” Benner said. “She said, ‘I don’t want you to write another paragraph about problems in schools. I want you to go fix them.’ ”

“The goal was to create a shared vision for Tacoma Public Schools, and to get the district, community leaders and UW Tacoma on the same page with that shared vision,” Benner said.

It’s called the Whole Child Initiative because of the belief that kids can’t have academic success unless they feel safe and rewarded at school. When kids graduate from Tacoma schools, they should be ready not just for college or careers, but for life.

“It is about ensuring that every child become a whole child,” Benner said. “Not only academically, but socially and emotionally.”

He said it’s important to create the same supportive climate in every school. Poverty and family circumstances in a school system like Tacoma’s mean kids are often on the move. Some change schools several times a school year.

“We have a lot of mobility in the city, a lot of vulnerable kids,” he said. Creating the same behavioral backdrop in every school gives kids a familiar safety net, no matter where they land.


PBIS offers schools a framework, but each school develops details to suit its environment. A school with a lot of Spanish speakers might post behavior guidelines in both English and Spanish. Kindergarten teachers use pictures instead of words to illustrate what good behavior looks like.

At Truman Middle School, kids came up with a reward system. When teachers catch students doing the right thing, they earn Titan Tickets. Tickets are exchanged for rewards — a piece of candy, a day to dress in “civvies” instead of the school uniform or a pass to go to the head of the lunch line.

At Mount Tahoma High School, the code of behavior is called the T-Bird Way, after the school’s Thunderbird mascot. Guidelines urge students to walk away from negative situations, take the shortest route to their next class and to stay to the right during hallway passing times.

One student wrote a catchy hip-hop song to promote the T-Bird Way.

“Kids have to own it,” Benner said. “The more kids take the lead, the more it’s going to stick. It becomes their thing, not just a teacher thing.”


At Larchmont, Leen tells her students that it’s her job to teach, and it’s their job to manage themselves so they can learn. When they do, they’re rewarded with freedom and choices. When they don’t, they sacrifice the first five minutes of recess time so Leen can re-teach them the rules. She said that doesn’t happen very often.

Principal Cindy Horner reports fewer discipline referrals to her office since the advent of PBIS at Larchmont: “The whole point is that kids are in the classroom, learning.”

Benner offers some promising statistics:

• At Mount Tahoma, where students got advice on navigating the hallways, the number of tardy slips dropped from more than 5,900 in September 2012, to just more than 2,000 in September 2013.

• In schools that tracked the data before the start of PBIS, office discipline referrals dropped by 25 percent — from more than 1,200 incidents in September-to-December 2012, to just over 900 in the same period a year later.

• School bus incidents were also down for PBIS schools last year.


Benner is a PBIS enthusiast who believes it can expand beyond the classroom. He’s already offering training to staff at places including the Boys and Girls Clubs around Tacoma.

He said the Whole Child Initiative will depend on buy-in from the whole city.

Benner met with community groups to help form the initiative. Among them: Vibrant Schools Tacoma, families of students in foster care and groups representing students with disabilities.

Jonathan Johnson, of the Tacoma Branch NAACP’s education committee, said the initiative is a good concept. But he believes “the real magic will be transferring the potential energy into sustained, long-term — not just behavioral change — but culture shift.”

“It will take the entire Tacoma community and every one of the planned 10 years to begin this important cultural shift,” Johnson said.

Woody Hodge, who helps lead the Black Collective’s education committee, said the initiative has been well-crafted. But he believes factors such as race and poverty, and how they impact kids in schools, need to stay at the forefront as the initiative proceeds.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education released data showing that students of color — particularly male students — face school suspensions in disproportionate numbers.

Hodge also believes teachers need to commit to doing the extra, difficult work of changing the entire school district’s culture.

Changing behaviors is just the first step, Benner said. When school climates improve, he believes, that will set the stage for improving academic performance for all kids. But he acknowledges it will take time.