A Positive School Culture
By Mr. Tom Lancaster, VHS Assistant Principal

Resilience is an obvious theme of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which tells the story of Louis Zamperini and his unfathomable experiences in World War II. Mr. Zamparini was unquestionably resilient, yet it was his willingness to ultimately focus on the positive and to have lived a compassionate life committed to supporting others, that is even more remarkable. Despite enduring horrific brutality, Mr. Zamparini chose to create opportunities to support people and help many find paths to success. His choices not only helped individuals, but they also offer an exceptional example of how positive supports can strengthen a person’s ability to overcome impediments. The benefits of positive supports are continuing to expand in education, which is creating strong, collaborative efforts to help each student navigate his or her way through high school with a belief that he or she can enjoy high school and pursue even greater success beyond it.

Verona High School is now partnering with New Jersey Positive Behavioral Supports in School (NJPBSIS), which is a collaboration between the New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and The Boggs Center, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center, to create positive supports for each student, to continue to strengthen Verona High School, and to promote a healthy, comfortable environment. The team, which includes multiple teachers and will include students, uses data for analysis to create supports that meet the needs of each student. This proactive approach emphasizes what should be done and guides students through potential challenges.

While a lack of discipline can breed unhappiness, especially in children who may not grasp the long-term impact of their decisions, positive support can spark confidence and promote success. Many people believe “character refers to something innate and unchanging, a core set of attributes that define one’s very essence” (Tough, 2012, p. 59), while others argue individuals are affected by “setting and thus capable of change” (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 10). We believe the ladder and, as a result, are committed to utilizing all of our available resources to maintain a healthy environment that promotes success for every student. One of the critical components of this venture is establishing an identity that aligns with the school district and the community. Consequently, Verona High School is using “Verona Values” as the name for our PBSIS endeavor and the core values are respect, responsibility, and integrity. The team consists of teachers Ms. Michelle DellaFortuna, Mr. Nathan Scott, Ms. Allison Quick, Mr. Matthew Swajkowski, Mr. Robert Hill, Mr. Patrick Bresnan, counselors Ms. Jennifer DaSilva and Ms. Jennifer Gadaleta, and the Verona High School administration. The team will expand to subcommittees that will include additional teachers as well as students. Together, all of our students and our staff will focus on continuing to support every individual at Verona High School.

The focus on the positives and the desire to support everyone extends into other areas of our school. In September 2017, Ms. DellaFortuna proposed creating an award that would celebrate students and staff who have demonstrated a desire to treat others kindly. As a result, Verona High School honors two students each month and one staff member with a Kindness Award. Teachers and staff are encouraged to nominate students and members of our Verona Values team select two recipients. Our Student Council selects one staff member each month. These awards are helping us highlight outstanding role models whom we believe others can emulate. The Kindness Awards offer a glimpse of what we see from numerous people at Verona High School. Simple acts of holding a door, offering a greeting, waiting patiently for assistance, and treating another person with respect can be seen throughout each school day. These acts not only maintain the healthy environment that we all want, but they offer each student insight into the behavior and thinking that are essential for happiness and success.

Teamwork, another key component of success, quickly develops in an environment that promotes kindness. One of the great challenges that teams confront is creating effective communication. Teammates have different points of view, which should be an asset. Listening to a different point of view and analyzing it without allowing bias to tarnish it requires maturity, curiosity, and respect. Sharing a different point of view requires courage and trust. All of these qualities feed off kindness. While history offers countless examples of individuals, organizations, and societies who have benefitted from considering multiple points of view, there are a comparable number of examples who have suffered because they were unwilling to participate in healthy communication. We are pleased that our students and teachers communicate and collaborate so each student can grow.

Communication flows throughout the building, yet its most evident within our classrooms. Each school day, students analyze potential business ideas, investigate chemical reactions, offer actionable feedback through writing conferences, debate the role of government, and explore solutions to problems in an environment built on a commitment to working together to prepare each student for the opportunities he or she will pursue in the years ahead. These endeavors require leadership, which is evident in many forms throughout our school.

Teachers combine their passion for a subject with their genuine commitment to guiding and supporting each student to create opportunities that spark interest, prompt exploration, and build greater understanding in our students, while also constructing roads that allow students to drive lessons that promote greater neurological development and, inevitably, offer each student tools that he or she can use to survey remote components of our society to forge wider highways that offer even more travel and development. These arduous tasks become less daunting when the environment encourages participation. While there is risk in exploring, our collective belief in creating a healthy environment that offers positive supports for our students is designed to encourage each student so he or she will not only grow, but enjoy the journey. Passion can be infectious and “evolve through learning and exploration into something far deeper, more sustainable, and trustworthy – purpose” (Wagner, 2012, p. 29). By sustaining an encouraging environment and fostering all of the elements of teamwork, each student has the opportunity to pursue his or her passion and, eventually, discover a purpose.

A building filled with students who have discovered a purpose will prompt even greater benefits that will strengthen the environment. Wagner notes that an “engaged student who feels there’s a purpose to his or her school day is invariably a student who is learning and retaining factual information along the way” (Wagner, 2015. P. 47). Without a healthy, encouraging environment, students would not find their purpose so easily. This is why we emphasize the need for positive supports. Simple acts of kindness are essential for creating greater opportunities, so we are committed to recognizing them and building upon even the slightest attempt to help a student find his or her way to happiness. Although it can be challenging to document, we would argue the benefits are immeasurable.

Like Mr. Zamparini, we all have the opportunity to show compassion and support others as they navigate through life, which may promote communication that helps us consider different ideas, analyze potential solutions, and organize our collective effort to clear a small, section of a metaphorical wooded area that may eventually, after enormous sacrifice, become a path that others can build upon. Positive supports can lead a school to what some may incorrectly deem unimaginable progress. Such growth allows us to enjoy the journeys we choose to take and to dream of what may come after us.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Tough, Paul. (2012) How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. New York, NY: Mariner Books.
Wagner, T. (2012) Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. New York, NY: Scribner.
Wagner, T. and Dintersmith, T. (2015) Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. New York, NY: Scribner.