When Jeremiah Mason joined Kirby Middle School in sixth grade, he admits he was getting in a fair amount of trouble. “I didn’t know anyone, and I argued about work and I was fighting,” reflected Mason, currently in eighth grade. “But now, it’s just calm.” Kirby Principal Marian Williams notes that the difference is marked: “In the past, Jeremiah had gotten into several verbal and physical fights with other students and was frequently off task, and defiant with adults. This year, he hasn’t been in much trouble at all.”
Williams credits much of that change to a behavior incentive system called Cougar Cash. “[Jeremiah] has been extremely invested in the Cougar Cash system,” said Williams. “Previously, we shared ‘standards for behavior’ at the beginning of the year and we never revisited them. This year, they’re introduced, discussed, and leveraged through this point system in Cougar Cash. Students are getting real time feedback, and it’s fun for them.”
Mason explains how he and his peers can earn Cougar Cash: “You have to be active in class, participate, and be respectful.” Students who earn a certain threshold of Cougar Cash are invited to participate in activities on Fridays, including games, sports, and contests. “I care about Cougar Cash because I want to do fun things on Fridays, and I want to show teachers that I care about making good grades and being motivated in life,” said Mason.
Williams says there’s a positive shift away from seeing who’s breaking rules to who’s contributing to a stronger school community. “Kids can feel the shift, and it’s making them much more mindful of their behavior,” attests Williams. Thanks to Kickboard, the web and mobile platform they use to track Cougar Cash, parents can feel the shift as well. Parents can log into the app and track how much Cougar Cash their student is earning. “We have students who come to our school with pages and pages of previous referrals and behavior issues, and parents are amazed how well this works [to improve that],” said Williams.
Williams got the idea for Cougar Cash when she was a teacher in South Memphis. After her first couple of years teaching in a traditional school, she took a teaching position with a high performing charter school in the same neighborhood. She pinpoints the use of a school-wide incentive system as a major agent in the positive and learning-focused school culture: “I used to chalk up poor behavior to the kids, but [that school] showed me the power of high expectations and holding students accountable to them.”
She’s seeded the same culture at Kirby, and Mason’s turnaround is evidence that it’s working. “When grades come out, me and my peers compete to see who has better grades,” said Mason -- a far cry from the student Williams remembers entering Kirby as a sixth grader. Mason already has his eyes set on college, and aspires to attend the University of Memphis after he graduates high school.