Willmar elementary school tries to 'change the narrative' of a call from the principal


— Every Friday morning,

Roosevelt Elementary School

students show up at the school office with their golden tickets.

Students are given STAR tickets for positive behavior, and they can use them for lots of things. Every Friday more than a dozen or so line up for a positive call home.

Principal Lori Lockhart and Assistant Principal Jim Mitteness start making calls about 8:30 a.m.

The calls help "change the narrative" about what a call from the principal is all about, Lockhart said on a recent Friday morning.

Some parents hesitate at first, when they hear the school is calling, she said, but that goes away quickly.

Adults who give children tickets write brief notes on the back, and the notes are read to the parents. The tickets come from classroom teachers or others — a music teacher, cook, custodian, bus driver or any other adult at the school.

Kids can be recognized for working extra hard in reading or math, for being a good friend or participating more in class. Some are teacher's helpers. Others are praised for learning better ways to handle their emotions.

"Work hard and be nice," Lockhart said. "It kinda sums it up, doesn't it?"

"It's all about catching them being good," she added. "And rewarding it."

The comments vary:

For Layne Cruz: "He's an excellent student; he's always curious; he asks great questions; he's respectful and kind, so others can learn, too."

For Sudeys Ali: "He is kind to everyone and shows a lot of respect."

For Maclynn Beckman: "She is always focused on her job, working hard and growing her brain."

For Stephanie Maldanado: "She is always working hard and is helpful in the classroom."

For Kaylee Martinez-Rivas: Recognized by her reading teacher "for making some great gains in reading and really being on task and trying."

The phone calls close with the principals telling parents how proud they are of their children.

Parents are invariably pleased to hear happy news from school. They and their kids are so proud.

Some are a little surprised. "I've had parents cry," Lockhart said. Others are effusive in their praise for the school and the hard work of everyone who works there.

Before sending the kids back to class, Lockhart has a few words for them. "Good job," she'll say, or, "proud of you, way to go."

They call every number in school records to try to reach a parent. If parents can't be reached, a grandparent might get a call.

"I will look for another name, just to make contact," Lockhart said, "because they are standing there, and they want someone to pick up so badly."

If no one picks up, "I have to leave a message, and the kids are kinda deflated," she added.

After the principals talk to the parents, they hand the phone to the kids. Some are happy to talk — "Hi, mommy," "Hi, dad."

Some, especially younger ones, are tongue-tied, so shy on the phone they speak in whispers.

In those cases, there may be a little coaching. "Say, 'I'm a superstar,'" Lockhart whispered to one child, who repeated it into the phone.

After a call, the kids get a selfie taken with the principal. They pick out a rubber bracelet with a positive message and a piece of candy. They also get a red pencil with a star-shaped eraser.

Schools in the district have cultural liaisons who translate if a student's parents are more comfortable speaking Spanish or Somali. If a parent speaks Karen, the district office has a translator available.

"No matter the language, there's no barrier," Lockhart said.

The calls are fun for the kids and adults, "a great way to start our day," Lockhart said. "I think Jim and I benefit more than they do."

Fourth-grade teacher Kari Michelson said the tickets are a big deal in her classroom and even more important for her own kids who are in younger grades. Kids can spend their tickets on small things, like a pencil from the office, or save up for something more.

Kids can trade them for a chance to sit in a principal's or teacher's chair, to have pizza or cookies and cocoa with the principal or to read a book to a kindergarten class. If they save a lot of tickets, they can buy a popcorn party for their classroom.

The positive calls can make them want to earn more tickets — "They do love it," Michelson said.

"It's fun for the parents to receive a positive phone call," she said. "For some, they maybe don't expect to get a positive phone call for their child."