Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. On Monday, Kelly spent some time at Lowell Elementary.
The playground scene bordered on the surreal at Lowell Elementary when the bell sounded to end recess.
More than 200 kids who'd spent the period rollicking in the snow, climbing through the massive wooden fort at Project Playground and skipping merrily on the pavement, suddenly came to a standstill, hands on their hips.
They were at strict attention down to the last kid, mostly motionless except for the ones still breathing heavily from exertion.
"This really helps them calm down before they go back to class," said principal Brian Bessette, as he watched his teachers begin counting heads and handing out little slips of green paper.
The students who were quiet, attentive and followed the rules of this ritual were given "Bobcat bucks," the playground currency that can, like its U.S. Treasury equivalent, be stowed away or spent on things of tangible value.
Like a popcorn party. Or extra recess time. Or use of the teacher's chair for a day.
The "Bobcat bucks" program is unique to Lowell (though a similar one exists at Chief Charlo), an idea dreamed up by teachers and staff as part of the school's adoption of the Montana Behavioral Initiative, a statewide effort to get kids to end bullying, teasing, rough play and other forms of misbehavior.
It does so not with punishments, but with incentives.
In Lowell's case, the goals are specific: Be nice, be safe, be respectful, be responsible. And the incentives are many. They are printed on a "Bobcat bucks reward menu," a one-sheet catalog of things children can "buy" with their "money."
A half-hour of game time is 25 bucks. Leading the school chant at the assembly? That'll cost 'em 30. And 50 bucks will get their name on the school's marquee.
Clearly, the schoolchildren are learning about value, the discipline of saving and even the importance of a steady, reliable supply of money in their "economy."
But they're also learning to be nice kids.
"When I get out the ‘Bobcat bucks,' they automatically come to attention, and then realize what they should be doing," said Lowell third-grade teacher Melissa Notti.
Notti is head of the school's MBI team, eight teachers and staff who meet regularly to discuss ways to encourage Lowell's children to behave well.
"Bobcat bucks" are but one strategy. Another is the monthly school assembly, where the two or three dozen children chosen as "students of the month" are singled out for praise from their peers, and get their pictures on the wall.
It's led to a nicer school in a very visceral way, said Notti.
"It's kind of part of a whole climate change to become more positive," she said.
Bessette, in his second year as principal at Lowell, said the MBI program was already in its initial stages when he took over last year, but is a program he fully supports.
Lowell, the century-old Westside school, has the Missoula County Public Schools district's highest percentage of children qualifying for the "free and reduced lunch" program - a staggering 80 percent.
And children from impoverished homes sometimes have behavioral problems.
"Families are struggling to make ends meet, and there's a lot of stress at home," the principal said. "That stress can carry over to the kids sometimes."
The "Bobcat bucks" system was just implemented at the beginning of this school year, but it has already paid dividends.
Fewer students are being sent to Bessette's office, a statistic the school tracks as part of MBI.
Bessette doesn't want any child to be sent to his office, but even the ones who show up at his door are encouraged to do better, not punished for a single offense.
"Rather than reprimand the one who's misbehaving, you catch another doing the right thing and reward him," he said. "It feels a lot better for me as an adult, too."
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.