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Ben was a high-trauma child. He came to Irving Middle School as a sixth-grader scared of school and not trusting adults. His behavior kept him out of the classroom more than he was in it.

Four years ago, a student like Ben might have faced suspension or expulsion, and his future success would have been questionable. But students like Ben have been able to assimilate and become productive members of their school community at Lincoln Public Schools, including Irving Middle School.

As a matter of fact, Irving has been able to decrease out-of-class time in the past four years by significant amounts. This year alone, there was a 31 percent decrease in office referrals and a 52 percent decrease in out-of-school suspensions. These numbers are in addition to significant decreases every year since 2014.

If there is one reason Irving won the 2018 Inspire School Award, this is it. The Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools offers this award every year, celebrating the best of the best, with a cash prize of $5,000 sponsored by Allstate. Along with a school, the annual Inspire Awards honor one student and one staff member from each school community.

Ben is now an eighth-grader, attending and staying in his classes as a model student -- a leader. To top it off, he is an enthusiastic learner. The exciting news is that he is not the only one. This kind of transformative change makes a difference not only for individuals but also for entire communities.

This sea-change didn't happen overnight. Four years ago, when principal Jason Shanahan came to Irving with fresh eyes, he realized that changes needed to be made to cut back out-of-classroom time for students with behavior issues. That first year, there were more than 4,600 out-of-class movements due to behavior. Shanahan began a process that culminated in a tremendous decline of behavior referrals and an increase in academic success. It includes The Learning Center as well as a change to the school’s PBiS (positive behavioral interventions and supports) model by incorporating the Boys Town behavior model. According to numbers from last year, just under 3,000 students were referred, and the numbers are improving, even more, this year.

Kyle Headley, a special education teacher in the ED (Emotionally Disturbed) program at Irving, knows how much of a difference this makes for students who are on the edge.

"Instead of the 'pipeline to prison' model where kids are kicked out, we started to identify the function of behavior, providing replacement behaviors for students to keep them in class longer,” Headley said. “Instead of rewarding class avoidance, students learned they had to face their behavior and stay in class." That was a game-changer, according to Principal Shanahan, and was in part due to training teachers received at Boys Town. Shanahan had been exposed to this model when he taught at Bellevue.

"Students learn about boundaries, structure and accountability, along with empathy and grace, which helps them be more engaged and motivated and allows learning to occur," said Headley. He also noted that through this program, teachers can form stronger relationships with students.

Science teacher Sarah Gergen feels supported by the school community and says it has been a team effort. She has seen a positive change in school culture.

“I felt it right away at the beginning of the year,” she said. “I didn’t have any kids during the day that were so off-base they couldn’t fit into the group. They were calmer."

Another game changer was The Learning Center at Irving, started by Pete White and now run by Carey Murdock, who took over last year. It is a classroom where students who struggle academically can catch up, learn skills and behaviors, and be successful. There is a lot of one-on-one time with Murdock, and the idea is to matriculate students back into their normal classroom settings when they are ready.

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"I think this program is highly needed," Murdock said. "Our youth are searching for an identity. They doubt themselves, at home, they don’t have structure. It’s added assistance academically, personally and socially.”

The Learning Center has been working with Gallup’s CliftonStrengths Discovery program, which has helped students see their potential. Murdock works with classroom teachers and students to make sure assignments are completed. "Then we spend time to celebrate and reward," he said. More than 4,357 assignments have been completed in the center this year that would otherwise have been missed.

Now, struggling kids have smaller settings, a consistent teacher, and expectations. “There is a thread of continuity to work on specific behavior or academic goals,” Gergen said. “The outcome is that the work keeps trickling in. By and large, they are doing the work. Talk about support. This is so much better than 'see me after school.' The Learning Center -- that’s a difference maker."

Shanahan is excited for the coming year.

"We will use award money from the Inspire School Award to further this work," using Gallup's testing to train educators and help students understand their strengths. "We will roll out Gallup's Clifton Strengths Discovery to all sixth-graders next year, and eventually all grades will have access to the program."

Shanahan plans to work with the Foundation to fund this program moving forward.

"This work speaks directly to the mission of the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools," said Wendy Van, president. "To wrap our arms around students so they can be the best they can be -- through our generous donors, we provide the magic in the margins that allow programs like this to continue and thrive."

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