A ‘PAWSitive’ learning environment

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Messenger photo by Dedra Cordle
Buckeye Woods Elementary superheroes Wonder Paws (Jill Carlisle), Judge Bee (Jenniffer Kauffeld), Lady Bug (Sarah Rush) and Virtue Woman (Rebecca Molnar) celebrate after their school’s recent designation as an Exemplary High Performing National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. While schools are chosen for their strong academic performance in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups, the superhero staff believe it was their character-based education program that left the strongest “PAWS”itive impression on the selection committee.

The expression ‘A little kindness goes a long way’ is proving to be true at Buckeye Woods Elementary School.

From the moment students enter the building in the morning to the moment they exit in the afternoon, they are doused with kind words and kind actions by the administration, the supporting staff, and even their peers.

While it is not out of the ordinary to find small acts of kindness at other school buildings throughout the nation, what makes their infusion of reciprocal decency so unique is that it is baked into their foundation, said school officials.

“It is our motto, our daily reminder, that one has to show 100 percent kindness with actions and words,” said Principal Jenniffer Kauffeld.

Since joining the staff at Buckeye Woods nearly a decade ago, Kauffeld said it has been her mission to make that motto a living and breathing entity within the building. However, she did admit it has taken some time to take off.

“It was a gradual buy-in,” she said.

But now that it has, the constant influx of kindness hasn’t just captured the attention of those within the building and the community – it has also garnered the attention of those at the federal level.

Sept. 24 started out as a typical day for Kauffeld, or as typical as one can get overseeing a school learning in the hybrid model. During a brief moment when she was able to peruse her electronic inbox, correspondence from the district caught her eye.

Featured in this email was a link to the U.S. Department of Education’s website that announced all of the schools who were to receive a designation as a National Blue Ribbon School for 2020. Founded in 1982, the National Blue Ribbon Schools award is given to public or private institutions based on that school’s overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. It is additionally granted as an affirmation of the hard work of educators, families, and communities in creating “safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging and engaging content.”

Upon opening the link, realization came to Kauffeld.

“I knew right away that our school had been selected,” she said.

Eight months ago, in a different email, Kauffeld was notified that Buckeye Woods had been nominated as a National Blue Ribbon School by the state board of education for exceeding performance benchmarks. She said she did not know if the school would be selected – after all, only a few hundred are chosen each year – but she did think it would be deserved.

“Everyone here works so hard to do their best, to be their best,” she said.

But now that she had confirmation that they did receive the designation as an Exemplary High Performing school, it was time to celebrate – with some more kindness, that it.

“This federal recognition could not have been achieved without these great students, this great staff, and this great community,” Kauffeld said.

For many years, Buckeye Woods, which is the largest elementary school in the South-Western City Schools District, has been making strides in its academic achievements. Their attendance rates have been at 96 percent throughout the past five years and the student body has repeatedly been within the top 15 percent in academic performance in reading and mathematics. According to Kauffeld, office referrals have decreased each year and students complete their homework on time – and don’t complain as much when they get take-home assignments.

She credits these benchmarks not only to the dedication of the staff, the parents and the students for that turnaround, but also that gradual buy-in to make their motto that living and breathing entity.

In 2016, and as a way to compliment the modeling of good behavior, the staff created a character-based program called P.A.W.S, which has a number of “laws” to follow.

“It teaches them how to cultivate a positive mindset, accept responsibility, make wise choices and show kindness,” said Rebecca Molnar, who teaches a second and third grade split.

Since coming to the school in 2014, Molnar has been portraying Virtue Woman, the leader of a cast of characters who perform character-driven skits during school assemblies.

Written primarily by Molnar and her fellow educators Jill Carlisle and Sarah Rush, the skits take the students through age-appropriate scenarios that speak of the importance of making wise choices. For instance, one skit took place during a study session where one character, Froggie, decided to consume mass amounts of soda and sweets. His friend Lady Bug (normally played by Rush) chose to do the opposite. The scene then transitioned to the next day where Froggie is decidedly groggy due to a lack of sleep.

“The message during that skit was the importance of making wise choices, especially on a school night,” said Rush, a first grade teacher. “I think that is something we can all relate to.”

In another skit, an educator, primarily Kauffeld, plays a troll with neon blue hair and larger than average ears. Because of her differences, she is made fun of by others and thus enters Virtue Woman and her assistant Wonder Paws (Jill Carlisle).

“It’s to remind them that while we are all different, the one thing we all share is the desire for people to be kind to us,” said Carlisle, who teaches fourth grade.

When these skits wrap up, the lesson continues. Thanks to teacher-based team meetings, the foundational messages in the skits are then brought to each classroom for deeper instruction. In turn, those messages of kindness, or the P.A.W.S Laws, are reinforced every day throughout the school year.

“Having that foundation of kindness makes this a wonderful environment to be in as a student and to work in as an educator,” said Molnar. “We support each other during the tough times, and we celebrate and continue to support each other during the good times.”

Kauffeld said the school will continue on the path toward 100 percent kindness, proving that just a little bit of it can go a long way.

“These are not lessons that are just staying with the students or with the staff when they’re in the building,” she said. “It follows us when we go home, it follows us in our communities, and it follows us throughout our lives.”

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