HAVERHILL—Twenty-five teachers from South Africa's nine provinces packed Consentino Middle School's library Thursday for a lesson in the behavior-based approach Assistant Principal Richard Poor said has contributed to a nearly 70% drop in suspensions over the last two years.

Visiting Haverhill through an exchange program sponsored by UMass Lowell, the general-education, special-education and after-school instructors stopped into three fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms to observe American students hard at work on English, social studies and science lessons. They also took part in an interactive session led by Haverhill Public Schools English language learner Supervisor Heidi Perez.

Poor, who oversees Consentino along with Principal John Mele, took pride in sharing details about the school's Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program with the visiting teachers.

“Our school is improving because students are in school and students are in school because behavior is getting better due to a consistent program,” Poor said. “We're focusing on being proactive, catching students being good and rewarding students for making good decisions.”

According to Poor, the program — known as PBIS — aims to foster positive relationships between teachers and students by focusing on the social-emotional needs of learners.

The program was introduced at Consentino four years ago and has evolved over time to become more uniform in all classrooms, he said. The current iteration sees students receiving “points” for offering a thoughtful response to question in class, for example. Those points can later be exchanged for a prize, Poor said.

“The thought behind it is that if you're building relationships and rewarding positive conduct, you'll have less of a need to be punitive,” Poor said. “Kids stay in school and when they stay in school, test scores go up, and everybody's happy.”

Visiting high school English teacher Rodelle Govender, from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, said she was at first skeptical of the PBIS approach.

“When we first heard the theory, we didn't think it was going to work,” said Govender, who teaches in South Africa's third most populous city, and said classrooms may average as many as 65 students.

“Coming from where the classes are bigger, we're used to the traditional approaches to discipline—the old behaviorist theory. This is challenging us to change our mindset. It's important to recognize the social and emotional needs of children and (PBIS) does that through positive reinforcement.”

During the visit, Cape Town, South Africa, high school teacher Kelly McKenzie chatted with Haverhill Public Schools ESL instructor Maria Synodinos and found that school funding and violence were common issues regardless of a teacher's location.

“Our teachers have really bad circumstances. We are going to take whatever we learn here back to our teachers who are struggling,” McKenzie said. “I love the fact that (Consentino) was so warm and welcoming. The kids made a poster welcoming us! The (Haverhill) teachers really wanted to know what teachers are like in South Africa.”

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