This article originally appeared in the Vernal Express.
By Maureen Spencer, Vernal Express Writer
Joseph Hackford doesn’t take up too much room in a classroom.
As a Davis Elementary second grader, the dark-eyed Joseph probably could go unnoticed in a large group of his peers. But his short essay telling about his experience with the Positive Action (PA) program being tested in the Uintah School District carries a big lesson learned.
On Friday, February 27 this year, Joseph wrote in his essay,
“Yesterday this kid wasn’t positiv. he was doing nagitive things and I said your doing nagitive and I helpet him say positive things and do postive things.”
Positive Action teaches two very basic concepts. “When you do bad…you feel bad!” If you have bad thoughts and you follow up those bad thoughts with bad actions you will have bad internal feelings. “When you do good…you feel good!” If you have good thoughts and act on those good thoughts with good actions, you will have good internal feelings.” It’s a concept attributed to Abraham Lincoln. In its third year of use by classes in the Uintah School District, Positive Action is deceptive in its simplicity. It is also having such a profound impact on students that representatives from the local program and schools are finding themselves in demand to explain why Positive Action is changing the lives of both administrators and students.
Stated concisely, Positive Action is a drug-education, self-esteem, character-education curriculum for schools pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Created by Dr. Carol Allred in 1982, it has been in 10,000 schools nationally and internationally in the past 23 years. Program administrators estimate that the lives changed by the program are now in the millions.
Not only does PA focus on students, but includes a family kit and community kit. When implemented community-wide, the program has the potential to affect everyone in a community. A wide range of life’s facets are covered by the concept, including academics, prevention, school climate and discipline problems. The grass roots student program is also listed as one of the top three programs in the nation by the United States Dept. of Drug-Free schools, as well as being listed as a model program.
Teachers and students are discovering after several years of exposure to the concept, that more time has been created by dramatically reducing the number of discipline referrals and by increasing academic achievement. The daily implemented lessons deliberately teach conscious patterns of thinking that allows students to solve problems in a way not done before. As Positive Action Grant Field Coordinator over the 11 schools in Vernal, Kris Gerber says, “We can’t cover every problem they’ll face. Instead we teach them a process for solving their problems.”
“There are always consequences,” says Gerber and students big and small can learn that their actions always have consequences. “It’s empowering,” she says with a bright smile. The age-appropriate daily activities, i.e. songs, stories and activities, are coordinated throughout each school so that everyone is learning the same thing at the same time.
“Students get to ‘tattle’ about good things they see. They are encouraged to look for the good in each other and recognize the ‘heroes’ in their school.” Students are able to write their observations down and drop them in an “I See You” box sitting on teachers’ desks. The elementary curriculum has puppets, keys to the castle and super heroes while the middle school works with a radio play and drug education. In high school PA projects, “lives on the line” play and role playing, capture the attention of older students.
In addition to self-concept, positive actions for the body and mind are taught. This includes eating nutritiously, exercise, rest, personal hygiene, keeping a home and vehicle clean, curiously learning new things, creating, decision making, problem solving and positively resolving conflict. Managing money, talents, time, energy, possessions, thought, actions, feelings and resources comes next. The principle of treating others the way you like to be treated, with emphasis on love, empathy, respect, cooperation, treating others kindly and fairly and communicating positively underscores PA. Taking responsibility for personal actions is taught as part of being honest with yourself and others. Personal strengths and weaknesses are learned at this point.
When Gerber first learned of the PA program she says she thought, “I want this in the community where my kids will be raised. We needed it desperately.” Both Kris and Gary Gerber have a personal interest in the community that goes beyond their children. Gary is from Ballard and Kris’ parents are former Vernal residents, Valoy and Ellie Eaton. She and husband Gary had worked for the Positive Action company for several years, traveling several of those years throughout the United States. Since both are former teachers, Gary being a former administrator and principal, they understood well the impact such a program has on school behavior, learning and attitudes. In Vernal, Kris spearheaded the writing of a U.S. Dept. of Education Drug-Free Schools research grant to be able to bring Positive Action to the Uintah District. These efforts placed fifth in the nation for grant writing. Out of the 39 grantees, only five were able to get started doing this research. Uintah tied with Missouri for being the top such research programs in the nation. Both Larry Klein and Dixie Allen had used PA in the district before. The grant covered the $450 kit per teachers, janitors, bus drivers--everyone in the school “climate.”
Vernal’s program has since become nationally known as a “model” study. Gerber began by surveying all 11 schools and every student, recruiting PTA volunteers and trained all teachers to be ready in the fall of 2003. “There is incredible support in this community,” she acknowledges. She also surveyed every parent, every Uintah School District employee and did it in three weeks. She recalls the 16-hour days were “a nightmare”, as she conducted a baseline survey to assess the community’s views and opinions on character education issues. Gerber is grateful for the 55 PTA/community volunteers that freely assisted for over a month in the initial baseline and subsequent following annual PA surveys.
All of this was done before starting to teach the program. In March a re-survey is conducted to establish if changes have been made in those opinions or values. Teachers must respond to a questionnaire each week. Because of constructive comments by teachers, many changes have been made to the process of implementing this grant. “We need hard, cold facts, and know it worked. This is not just hearsay,” Gerber adds. The U.S. Department of Education grant funding this study requires facts by which success of future programs may be measured.
Locally, Kris has seen the program grow to include classes for parents of troubled youth and training for at-risk families. Lori Fitchette directs the Positive Action parenting classes on the west side of Uintah School District while Kris Gerber and Paris Anderton cover the family classes in Uintah County. There are also 35 volunteer trained family class facilitators that assist in both parenting classes. Dixie Allen says of Positive Action, “This is a wonderful program, built on a good philosophy. The teachers are very enthusiastic and we’re getting good results.” Allen is the district director over Gerber’s research grant. A.J. Pease directed the program for two years at the beginning of the research grant project.
Last year, over 80 anecdotal stories were turned in to share life-changing studies from teachers. They told of bullying situations stopped in elementary schools--of senior students not dropping out of school--of acts of service--of youth stopping smoking--of grade point averages going up. Jacky Gray says of the program, “One of the students in our PA group is suffering from a mental illness that isolates him, emotionally. His behavior has been very difficult in the classroom…He was one of the few for which we had little or no hope of socializing. “When we began the PA program, he was resistant and very agitated during our sessions. Very disruptive…I am not sure when the change occurred…I just realized, one day, the contribution he was making. “His involvement became deeper and he was soon sharing some very neat things with us. Shortly he became a leader for the group. It wasn’t long before he made other changes in his life. “He stopped smoking, greatly improved his attendance and is maintaining about a 3.8 GPA…It is a wonderful delight to have him in class, for all of his teachers.”
Singly, each child doesn’t take up much room in a classroom. Singly, each child in the Uintah School district is being affected by Positive Action.