When Joan Hanson, a teacher at Thoreau Elementary School, realized that some of her students were misbehaving simply because they were hungry, she found parents were eager to help.
"At about 11 o'clock, when kids begin to have behavioral issues, it seemed to me like perhaps they were having a hard time staying on task because they were hungry," she said. "A wonderful parent volunteer brought up the issue and the next day she went out and bought me $250 worth of healthy, nutritious snacks for my behavioral office."
Behavioral problems, particularly bullying, are a problem in schools across the country, but in a time of recession and budget cuts, the resources devoted to addressing them are stretched especially thin. Thoreau Elementary, for example, has lost a number of special educators, and the principal, Elizabeth Fritz, expects the budget cuts to hit harder next year.
Teachers at Thoreau, therefore, are developing creative ways to deal with bullying despite a lack of resources.
Take parent involvement at the school, for example. Thanks to appeals by teachers, Thoreau's 53 staff members are bolstered by a group of parent volunteers who visit the school every day. Among other things, they monitor the lunch room and the playground, notify staff in cases where assistance is needed, help out in classrooms, work one-on-one with students who need extra help, run social awareness groups like the Girl Scouts, and raise money for learning materials.
"The parents are inspirational," said Hanson. "In a time when there are budget cuts, these parents have stepped forward, and they're not doing it because they want to micromanage the school, but because they want to give back to the community."
Some volunteers, however, have a different explanation for their involvement.
"I think bullying is a horrible issue at the school," said Michelle Booker, parent of a fifth-grade student. "Even parents that volunteer at the school get bullied! … Many parents are volunteering just to protect their children."
Regardless of their motivations, such parental involvement is a crucial ingredient of effective anti-bullying programs according to Amy Bellmore, assistant professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She cites the 'whole school approach'-which stresses involvement of the entire school community in combating bullying. The community gets together to set clear, consistent behavioral expectations, which are then upheld in and outside school.
"This isn't something you just target at bullies and victims," she said. "You target a whole school, all of the students, all of the staff members, all of the teachers, even parents. So you get everybody to buy into it."
In addition to parents, teachers at Thoreau Elementary are trying to get the community at large involved in tackling bullying at the school.
The Golden Cone program, for example, gives students incentives not to fight during line-up for recess. Based on their performance, one class is awarded the 'Golden Cone'-a decked-out playground cone-an honor that entitles them to lunch with a University of Wisconsin-Madison athletic team. One class spent time with the women's track team. Others learned about teamwork from the women's volleyball team. Another has posters signed by all the members of the football team.
"It was wonderful," said Leane Tyska, mother of three Thoreau students. "The UW volleyball team set up an assembly about play-fighting and playing on the playground. They talked about how they work together, and how they use teamwork when they play."
In addition to athletic teams, AmeriCorps volunteers and fraternity members from the university also spend time at the school.
Efforts to include the community in combating bullying have been effective, said Fritz.
"Community groups make sure that all children are included. They give the children the chance to get to know each other."
The school has also implemented a number of district-wide anti-bullying measures, such as the Classes on Personal Safety (C.O.P.S.), which is a semester-long course taught to fifth-graders. In these classes, students get to work closely with a Madison police officer on issues of personal safety.
"It's very effective," said Fritz, "because it helps the children develop a positive relationship with a police officer. The children look forward to the police officer's visit. Often the officer will have lunch with the children, and that's a highlight for our students."
[Student 2] also thinks the C.O.P.S. program has helped alter student behavior, particularly with respect to bullying. He recalls an incident where he observed a student applying the 'own-it' strategy taught to them by the police officers-if someone else makes fun of you, 'own it,' and turn it into a joke.
"One time my friend was walking down through the hallways, and this guy came up to her and said: "you smell funny." And then she said: "Well…I haven't taken a shower for three weeks!" And they both laughed and walked away. Otherwise there would have been a fight."
To further address behavioral issues, the school recently also added 35 hours of behavioral support, which were picked up by two current educational assistants.
"The school is working on community building, but their template doesn't work"
Despite Thoreau's creative efforts, however, some parents feel the school falls short on its commitment to community-building.
"The problem is a lack of community building," said Booker. "The school is working on community building, but their template doesn't work."
Another problem is the inconsistency with which punishments for bullying are applied at the school. [Student 3], a third-grader, for example, thinks the administration has allowed some bullies to get away unpunished.
"They aren't always punished properly," she said. "[The principal] is good about it sometimes, and sometimes is not so good."
This lack of consistency is particularly problematic from the perspective of the 'whole school approach' described by Bellmore, which emphasizes consistent behavioral expectations.
Additionally, parents question the extent to which their children are actually learning at school. Booker, for example, worries that the trade-off for an anti-bullying program may be the quality of the education at the school.
"I think educationally, the kids miss out on a lot, because they're doing the C.O.P.S. program, they're doing other programs for bullying," she said. "The whole focus is on how to stop kids from being bullied. But where's the educational component of that? When are we learning our math and our reading?"
Yet, despite the fact that many of the families at Thoreau Elementary could afford to send their children to private school, most of them are sticking it out for now.
"There are so many benefits to having your kids go to the Madison Public Schools," says Tsyka. "There's such diversity, and so many opportunities to connect with the university and the community. … You have to keep positive and keep looking at the big picture."