“We asked for these students, we went out and recruited for such students — and they came.”
That was Executive Director Dan Calzaretta’s message to Willow Public School’s board of directors at last week’s board meeting.
The Walla Walla charter school, which is educating sixth- and seventh-graders this year, was developed on the premise it could offer an engaging learning experience for any sort of learner. It was understood that families of children who have struggled in traditional schools could be attracted to Willow, Calzaretta has said many times.
Included in that demographic are students who have faced frequent consequences for poor behavior at previous schools, he told board members Wednesday.
The usual suspensions and expulsions for rule breakers have not worked in the past for those students, meaning Willow’s leaders needed to adopt a different discipline system, Calzaretta said.
Now that is coming to fruition, he said.
Willow’s model uses a four-tier approach, pulling in the components of trauma-informed practices that recognize a child’s emotional health is impacted by home life, family income and community environment.
“That, and understanding what works best with middle school kids,” Calzaretta said.
The first layer, which Willow calls the “sand” level, are the minor behaviors easily addressed in the classroom, Calzaretta said.
“These are about 80 to 85 percent of all incidents,” he noted, listing off things such as tardies, loud voices, arriving unprepared for class.
Those problems are usually solved with redirection and a reminder of the rules, and they don’t end up getting reported to the office.
Next comes the “pebble” level, such as a student not following procedure, sleeping in class, disrupting the whole class. Those situations demand more teacher intervention and perhaps an office referral to talk with Calzaretta.
Even then, he said, the conversation revolves around fixing rather than failing.
The third layer, “rocks,” addresses behaviors that could damage the culture of Willow, including throwing items, walking out of or skipping classes, visiting an unauthorized website at school and vandalism. Such violations can result in a call home and a consequence.
“Boulders” are the most serious infractions, affecting the whole campus, Calzaretta explained, listing examples such as bomb or shooting threats, possessing illegal substances and sexual harassment.
Other offenses in this category include cyber bullying, arson and hate speech.
Boulder behaviors are the ones likely to invoke suspension or expulsion from the school, he added.
So far one Willow student has been suspended for fighting, Calzaretta told the board.
Spanish teacher and board member Nelly Pilares pointed out Willow students are taking note of the new discipline system, and teachers are feeling supported.
In general, rather than emphasizing the negative, the idea is to work together to repair the harm done, then keep a child ensconced in his or her school community.
“It’s always ‘we,’” Pilares said. “It’s always, ‘How do you think we can fix that?’”
That’s one example of how this discipline approach veers off the usual road, Calzaretta said, acknowledging it will take time to convince some of Willow’s students the sky won’t fall when they make a mistake.
He has ideas, he told his board, including adding a parent to the board of directors, calling parents when everything is fine, and using “gotcha” awards in the classroom — handed out from teachers when a student is caught being good.
“Those are part of infusing joy into what’s happening at school,” Calzaretta said. “Part of shifting school culture.”