Program designed to boost harmony, excitement in schools has positive impact on student attendance, academic performance
by James Neal of the Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — While students are enjoying their summer break, Enid Public Schools teachers are working to implement a character development program they hope will transform students' experiences in the classroom.

Implementing a character development program was one of the tenets of the EPS strategic plan, which was completed and unveiled in May, 2015.

Last spring the district selected Great Expectations, a nonprofit "professional development program that provides teachers and administrators with the skills needed to create harmony and excitement within the school atmosphere," according to the program's website.

Jane Johnson, principal at Garfield Elementary School, served on the strategic planning committee that selected Great Expectations as the district's character development platform.

Before coming to Garfield, Johnson was the principal at Hayes Elementary, which has been a Great Expectations model school for more than 12 years. She implemented the program at Garfield after she assumed her new post three years ago.

"I'd wanted to bring Great Expectations to Garfield, because I knew what it had done at Hayes," Johnson said. "I knew what it could do for a school's culture and climate, and I wanted to implement that here."

The Great Expectations program focuses on classroom practices, life principles, and "eight expectations for living," all of which aim to create an environment of accountability, courtesy and mutual respect in the classroom.

Teachers who are new to the program attend a four-day training to introduce them to the program's core principles and techniques. Returning educators have a variety of two- and four-day programs available each summer for continuing education.

Johnson said she's seen firsthand the positive impact the program can have not only on classroom performance, but on the climate of an entire school.

"When teachers come back from Great Expectations, they're equipped with more tools and strategies to improve the learning environment in the classroom and make it a more positive learning experience for the students," she said. "It just affects the whole climate and culture in the school."

Johnson said the program helps teachers tie disciplinary issues to specific consequences, and make corrective action more productive.

"We want to help the children realize that for every action in life there is a consequence, and help them learn from that instead of just being punitive all the time," she said.

Johnson said full implementation of the program has led to fewer disciplinary referrals, and suspensions have been cut in half during the three years of implementation at Garfield.

"The students like coming to school, so the attendance rate has gone up," she said, "and I think the parents are happy with the teachers and what they're providing for their students."

Lyntel Murphy, principal at Hayes Elementary School, said the positive effects of Great Expectations stem from reintroducing some old teaching techniques.

"A lot of it, when you think about it, is just common courtesy and common sense," Murphy said. "It's just good, old-fashioned teaching practices."

Some of those old-fashioned practices are as simple as reminding teachers they need to be "out of their seats and on their feet," Murphy said. Other practices focus on reinforcing courtesy and respect.

"It teaches a culture of kindness and caring about each other," Murphy said. "And, that's something that could be transferred into any school or workplace."

She said that level of care often is missing from students' lives, and they react positively to personalized attention from the teachers, and from their peers.

"It comes down to kindness," Murphy said. "When you walk into a classroom and everyone is treating you nicely — that has a big impact on learning."

"It all translates into lifelong learning," Murphy said. "Learning how to be responsible, to accept others, and learning how to accept yourself — those are lifelong skills."

The EPS administration has taken note of the positive impact the character development program has had at the elementary level.

Doug Stafford, EPS assistant superintendent of secondary schools, said the district is working to implement Great Expectations in all its schools.

"What we know about Great Expectations is it has a positive impact on student attendance, and a positive impact on academic performance," Stafford said.

The district has high hopes the culture of mutual respect and accountability engendered in Great Expectations will help improve outcomes for at-risk students, Stafford said.

"We certainly believe it can reduce at-risk behaviors and improve the self-esteem of students who might possibly engage in those negative activities due to low self-esteem," he said.

Eight of the district's 11 elementary schools have implemented Great Expectations, to some extent, Stafford said. He said elementary schools will continue sending teachers to the character development training, and this summer two or three teachers will be sent from each middle school and five more from the high school.

That will leave the district still far short of its goal of having 100 percent implementation. The district still needs to train about 230 teachers on the program to achieve the strategic plan goal.

Stafford said the barrier to reaching that goal is a common one amongst Oklahoma schools this year: "We're in a bit of a budget crunch in the state."

He said it costs $500 per teacher to attend the Great Expectations training, and there currently is insufficient funding in the district's budget to fully implement the program.

"This isn't something we're going to be able to do overnight," Stafford said, "but we need to start somewhere."

Stafford said the district set a goal of training all its teachers by the end of the coming academic year, but achieving that would require seeking dedicated funds outside the district's regular budget.

"We're looking at all the different avenues where we can fund this," Stafford said.

He said that includes seeking "local donors who would be willing to help us sponsor this initiative."

In the meantime, while the district seeks funding to fully implement the program, Stafford said teachers who already have been trained will be spreading the Great Expectations lessons across the district.

"If we can get our staff onboard, and get them in line with the expectations," Stafford said, "that will help tremendously when we get the funding to implement Great Expectations 100 percent."