When Constance Burnes saw her efforts to improve student behavior and performance at Wilkerson Middle School pay off, she listened to the students when it came to deciding on a reward. She invested in a high-tech game room that is a powerful student motivator. Included: A description of this school reform effort.
Adolescents intense attachment to electronic games -- and many schools aversion to them -- inspired one middle-school principal to leverage teens craving for high-tech fun.
So when Wilkerson Middle School principal Constance W. Burnes received a monetary reward from the state of Alabama for dramatic improvements in her school, she invested the money in an adolescents dream: a game room with video games, big-screen televisions, arcade games, a pool table, and an air hockey game, among other amusements. Admittance to the game room hinges on good behavior and solid classroom effort and performance.
Its like a pay day," said eighth-grade reading and language arts teacher Vivian Waller. They know they have to do things so they can get to the game room."
Students suggested a game room when Burnes asked them how to spend a $90,000 reward the school earned for meeting accountability measures two consecutive years. Youngsters often asked to bring their own electronic games to school, which Burnes does not allow because the devices might be stolen. Many of our students have games and computers at home, but this [the game room] is a step above," she said. The attraction seems to be that the game room is similar to an arcade." Students can use the game room after school if there is supervision -- which is provided by school staff -- but the real treat is earning time during the school day.
A lot of the games also have an educational focus, noted Lawrence Joseph, a seventh-grade science teacher. Certain games require reading, math, science, and social studies skills," Joseph said. While playing the Wii golfing game, participants have to learn to adjust their swing and plot their angles for a successful shot. Part of life is making adjustments," he added. This also teaches them to set a goal and reach for it -- if their behavior changes, they are rewarded."
Middle-school students in particular respond to rewards, Burnes said, so she is always trying to devise new enticements. The best way of involving students is simply to ask them what they want -- believe me, they will tell you," she said. Sometimes something as simple as a scoop of ice cream will help motivate middle school students. They love to socialize -- dances and parties are always saved for the big reward of doing well in academics and conduct. The game room has just taken the enticements to a new level."
The game room, though, is not the sole component of the schools behavior management program. It is the complement to a comprehensive and largely successful effort on the part of Burnes and other staff members to improve student performance, behavior, and instruction. (If you are looking for a big, time-consuming challenge, be a middle school principal," Burnes joked.) Once a failing school, Wilkerson now is meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP). This year Wilkerson was named Model Middle School by the International Center for Leadership in Education and a Torchbearer School by the Alabama Department of Education.
But when Burnes arrived at the Birmingham school five years ago, Wilkerson was a low-performing, dangerous place. Fights were rampant and police were at the school all the time when I took over as principal," she told Education World. I knew that if this school was ever going to survive, much less succeed, that I had to gain control. The teachers wanted a change, so they were willing to do whatever I asked in order to regain control so they could teach effectively."
As part of her vision for the school, Burnes stressed rules and expectations and enforcing them consistently. I think that one of the key factors was convincing the students that they were in a safe environment where they could walk the halls without having to have an armed guard, where they could learn in classrooms where order was demanded, not just expected; and where rules were established and enforced on a daily basis -- without exception," Burnes told Education World. Once expectations were established, the majority of the students expressed a sense of relief and acceptance."
The students have changed tremendously," noted Waller. Teachers also saw more instructional opportunities open to them. We can do more with the kids now that they behave better," Joseph added. If they think learning is fun, they want to do it."
To improve the effectiveness of instruction, administrators met with teachers and reviewed different learning styles and suggested strategies teachers could use to meet those learning styles. I required that my teachers use multiple methods in delivering material to the children -- meaning that lectures are kept to a minimum of 15 minutes and that hands-on activities are part of the day-to-day classroom structure," Burnes said. Time was built into the day so teachers could meet in teams to discuss test data and instructional strategies. A teacher also was hired to work with at-risk students, some of whom had been retained twice, to prepare them to move on to high school.
When recognition of the staffs efforts and the schools progress began coming in, including the cash award, Burnes said she had no problem investing in a game room. What better way to reward students for student achievement than by using state rewards money?" System administrators have toured the game room and their response was overwhelmingly positive, she added. In fact, most could not believe the quality of the facility and the features of the game room."
Innovative learning opportunities are not limited to the game room. All grades this year participated in a Christmas Around the World project. In addition, the school offers a drama program, some gender-based classes, and is constructing an outdoor classroom so students can observe nature first-hand, said Joseph. These allow kids to see life is more than an urban setting."
Among the lessons Burnes has learned, and wants to pass on to other educators, is that change always is possible if you are willing to commit to it -- and it doesnt require a high-tech game room. The rewards of consistency and providing incentives can work to turn a failing school around in a short period of time," she noted. Never give up on children -- or a school."