'Wonder' is happening at South Side

South Side Elementary Principal Casey Glusencamp makes a point Monday night during a presentation to the West Point school board.
Staff Writer

A popular movie with a timely message, a proven program that believes every kid is a leader, and a positive rewards program are combining to pay dividends many times over for a West Point school.

And that doesn't include the work of an extra pair of eyes, ears and hands.

Quite simply, in a world that spins around numbers, the results speak for themselves.

At this time last year, 381 third- and fourth-graders had been sent to the office at South Side Elementary School. Through the same period in this school year, the number is 261. That's a decline of more than 31 percent.

The number of school bus referrals is down even more dramatically, from 203 to 115. That's almost 44 percent.

"I can't explain it any other way. These things have come together to make a difference, a big difference. You can feel it in the school. And the less time I have to spend in here on those kinds of things means more time I can spend out in the hallways, in the classrooms," South Side Principal Casey Glusencamp says of the change.

The school has used the PBIS -- Positive Behavior Interventions and Support -- rewards program for awhile now. This year, the staff added the "Leader in Me" program that literally treats every student as a leader of some kind.

And the icing on the cake may be the book, "Wonder," the 2012 children's best seller written by Raquel Jaramillo under the pen name R.J. Palacio dealing with a student who is "different."

The entire school read the book in the first semester and on Dec. 5, a week after it opened nationally, all 470 students rented a theater in Starkville and went to see the movie, "Wonder," starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, that is based on the book.

"That has been our guiding light this year. We've been guided by the book and its message, we've chosen 'be kind' slogans and turned them into everything we do," Glusencamp said, showing off pictures of T-shirts the students made emblazoned with various forms of the slogan, "Choose Kind."

Likewise, the Leader in Me program, which is based on Steven Covey's "Seven Habits of Happy Kids," dovetails into the philosophy, building positive images, goals and responses.

Every student has a job of some kind and they apply every six weeks for new roles. While they can earn and keep their jobs, they also can be fired from them.

Parents got a chance to see the "Leader in Me" program in action during the school's recent open house and parent conferences. Students, not staff, led the program, acting as guides, escorts and other roles for parents throughout the school.

"All students are leaders in some way, not just those with perfect attendance or who are on the honor roll. It's not just the ones with leadership tendencies. Everyone can practice the seven habits," the principal explained, adding, "We want everything they see to be about leadership in some way."

While it may sound like a stretch, the process has a long-term goal, as does stressing acceptance and kindness every day.

"Coachability, leadership, collaboration, these are the skills employers are looking for today, the life skills these students will need to succeed one day. We have study after study that says if kids aren't reading by grade level by the fourth or fifth grade, there's a good chance they will struggle in the future. We believe the same thing applies to some of these kinds of life skills," Glusencamp stressed, showing off colorful banners, posters and bulletin boards that line hallways and ceilings reminding teachers and students of their mantras at every turn.

The final piece to the puzzle is the positive rewards. Teachers hand out "Wave Bucks" for a variety of good deeds, rewarding good behavior, whether large or small. Every Friday, students have a chance to shop at the school store to buy things donated by local businesses and the school's Horizon Partners.

"Who knew that keeping the store stocked with good merchandise could be such a challenge?" she asked, only half joking.

Two bikes have been in the store until a couple of weeks ago when the first one was bought by a student who'd been saving up the necessary 160 "Wave Bucks" to make the purchase.

"He had to be disciplined. While other kids were shopping every Friday, he was saving. He knew what he wanted," she said of the student, who picked up his bike the Friday before spring break.

While the programs may get credit, Glusencamp understands it takes people to really make it work. She recently thanked the school board for funding an assistant principal, Jon Oswalt, who splits his time between South Side and Churchill Elementary.

"Having that extra administrator makes all the difference. It allows all of us to focus more on the things we need to be focused on," she said of Oswalt.

And more than anything, teachers have bought it.

"Teachers already have so much to do and I know that," the former teacher said. "Some probably thought this was one more thing they were going to have to do. But I think as time goes on, they are seeing the results," she added, noting that while she tries to build a positive atmosphere, she occasionally has to find an old-school touch of toughness.

But she quickly slips back into the positive attitude.

"We only have them for two years. We want to make it two unforgettable years. We want to arm them with the life skills to change the cycle where it needs to be changed and to build on every opportunity they can," she stated.

While behavior gets much of the attention, the goals are the same, education, academics and achievement. But the behavior and attitude provide the atmosphere for learning. And the school knows that is its goal, after getting a disappointing "D" rating on the state's scorecard last year.

"We got our hearts broken," she said, her face crest fallen just talking about it.

Since then, the staff has taken mining data to a new level, looking for every misstep and more importantly, every place where they can help each child get better.

One problem, fourth-grade language arts, may have roots well beyond South Side. Instead of students not doing well, the test may have had some issues because it was one of only two areas statewide where results were down against the prior year.

But Glusencamp says that's the state's concern.

"We aren't making any excuses," she noted.

Teachers have been doing a variety of monitoring tests, implementing individual plans to help students learn from one step to the next. Pre-tests show encouraging signs.

Even in areas where students weren't struggling, the staff has made improvement a priority. For instance, on the most recent pre-tests, almost 100 percent of the fourth-graders were proficient or above on multiplication.

Testing is six weeks away. And then it'll be summer at the earliest before South Side's staff gets preliminary results.

Either way, they'll do what they do every other day.

"We spend a lot of time thinking about other people's children," Glusencamp concluded.