When I became principal at Downingtown Middle School, it surprised me to find a heavy emphasis on end-of-year academic awards. At the end of the year, a student could win eight different awards simply for making honor roll. Over 80 percent of the student body qualified for honor roll. Each of those awards were a large engraved wooden plaque. I stared in amazement as many eighth graders walked out of the auditorium carrying eight heavy plaques. And an overabundance of special education students and economically disadvantaged students fell into the 20 percent that walked away empty-handed.
I thought to myself, Is an award that eight out of every 10 students receive really an award? What bothered me more was that these awards were all solely based on grades. Middle level education isn’t just an academic journey. The social, emotional, and behavioral components of a middle level education is as equally important as academics. Parents challenged every single grade that their child received that wasn’t an A. Why? Because you could only win the “distinguished” plaques with straight A’s. Not a week went by where I didn’t engage in a debate over a B on a clay art project or a C on a soufflé in family and consumer sciences. It was exhausting. One thing was for sure: we had to make changes.
We waited two years to change anything, and our first adjustment was simply ordering smaller plaques. We also moved the award ceremonies from the evening hours to the school day and stopped having all students attend the assemblies, which prevented the 20 percent of students who weren’t receiving awards from alienation.
In my fourth year as principal, we converted the marking period awards to paper certificates and eliminated the plaques. During my fifth year, we created new awards called “The Love of Learning Awards.” Each core and elective department chose students who embodied a deep passion and commitment to their subject area. It was not tied to grades or test scores. It was an anecdotal award where teachers voted for students based on qualitative factors.
Around this time, our entire sixth grade was moved from the middle school into a separate new Sixth-Grade Center. We used that opportunity to entirely phase out the award for three straight years of making honor roll. Every remaining award was converted to paper certificates, and we eliminated the distinction between regular honor roll and distinguished honor roll. The only plaques that remained were for the “Love of Learning” awards. Further, we adopted a schoolwide Positive Behavioral System centered on the motto: “Be Respectful. Be Responsible. Be Resourceful.” Through this lens, we developed ways to recognize students each day for being good citizens and helping one another.
Over seven long years, our gradual changes set the stage for a final transformation. Our administrative team and teaching staff knew we were ready to morph completely during year eight. We opened the year by sending the following letter to our entire school community:
I gritted my teeth and waited for the inevitable backlash. But alas, none came. As I reflected on this, I realized that I need not have worried. With every subsequent change, the complaints decreased. Our community embraced our vision and the direction we were moving because we prepared and eased them into the changes.
Our excitement was palpable as we prepared for the first recognition ceremony. The administrative team sent out a Google Form and had each grade level department nominate a student for the three categories of Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness. The department teachers also had to share the “why” for each student they nominated.
During our first recognition ceremony, I delivered a short opening address that discussed how we are using this night as an opportunity to recognize and reward students’ social, emotional, and behavioral accomplishments. From there, our keynote speaker spoke about respect. Then, we introduced each student. Teachers and guidance counselors shared the “why” behind each student’s selection. It was small, intimate, and meaningful. Here’s a sample of some descriptions about our students:
- “Riley is new to DMS this year and has made a very positive addition to our homeroom. She greets me and her peers each morning with a smile, and she always says ‘thank you’ and wishes me a nice day before leaving. She approaches all activities with a level of enthusiasm that really stands out among her peers!”
- “Dalip has proven to be hardworking and resourceful while here at DMS. Dalip has earned the role of Lumiere in our musical and has asked our French teacher to work with him to improve his pronunciation. Dalip puts forth effort in order to grow and improve personally while also providing an excellent role model for those around him.”
As the event ended, just about every parent came over to tell us how meaningful and special this recognition was for their student. The students walking back to class beamed with pride. By all measures, it was a success. Later that day, a teacher emailed me a short clip of footage from the camera that videotaped the event. The video showed a mom and dad talking to their student after the program had just ended. The mom had tears in her eyes and the dad had his arm around his son’s shoulders. While rubbing his cheek, the student’s mom said, “We are so proud of you. Your character is what matters in life. Your teachers and your school know how special you are. I hope you appreciate this as much as we do.”
I can’t be 100 percent sure that the eighth grade boy understood what his mom was saying fully. But I certainly appreciated every word. And I knew that by choosing to recognize students for their social, emotional, and behavioral accomplishments, we were building a new culture in our school community based on what was important to us.
What are your experiences with student awards and recognitions?
Nicholas Indeglio, EdD, is the principal of Downingtown Middle School in Downingtown, PA. He is the 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @DrIndeglio.