The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

When the Water Tastes Good, the Horse Will Drink it!

on October 5, 2015

It’s been 15 years since I was a school principal, and I realize that things have changed a lot since then.  But I still believe that it’s possible to involve students so deeply that they believe “This is my school, and I am an important person here.” I wrote the piece below as an Op-Ed for our local newspaper a few years after I had retired, and it received many positive comments.

Reading the articles in our local newspaper about the epidemic of student absenteeism in Oregon schools, especially at the middle school level, and the strategies being used to combat it, I couldn’t help thinking of the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Nor could I help adding my own saying, “When the water tastes good, the horse will drink it.”

As the principal of two small rural schools–one elementary and one middle– from 1988 to 2000, I remember clearly that student absences were not a problem for us. I have no way of substantiating that claim now except by referring skeptics to teachers who worked with me at the time. But I can substantiate with data I still have that our test scores in reading and math were strong, even exceptional, when we looked at student growth from third grade to fifth grade and then, from fifth grade to eighth grade.

Our attendance area included not only stable middle class families, but also residents of a trailer park, and some families living in broken down shacks or crowded into small houses with relatives. Over time poverty grew, and eventually approximately 50 percent of our students were on free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches.

The teachers and I were never big on punishing kids or hounding parents about absences or misbehavior. Instead, we pursued a number of measures to make school a desirable place for students to be. Although I cannot detail all of them here, I can provide a list and describe the most powerful motivator for our middle school students: No. 10 below.

  1. Small class sizes
  2. Trained instructional aides in every classroom for at least two hours everyday
  3. Middle school sports teams that welcomed all comers and found ways to let everyone play some time in a game
  4. Integration of special education students into regular classrooms full time with assistance from a special education teacher or a trained aide
  5. Teacher collaboration facilitated by common planning time for teachers of the same grade level during the school day
  6. Drama and music events that that found room for all students who wanted to participate
  7. An emphasis on building community in every classroom
  8. School  projects, such as “Adopt a road,” recycling classroom and lunchroom debris, and planting and caring for flower gardens and a  vegetable garden
  9. Discipline focused on having students repair any damage they had done and change their negative behavior to positive actions, rather than on punishment.
  10. A middle school “Jobs” program that provided work and tangible rewards for about 50  students.

This program allowed students to work 20 minutes a day before or after school, during the noon hour, or in study hall time. If a regular worker was absent, a substitute did the job. We paid workers with “points” that could be used to bid on desirable items at a special end of the year auction. The more points a student earned, the better were his or her chances of winning a valuable item. Yet, all items were desirable, down to bags of candy. We financed the program by soliciting donations from local businesses and using about 1500 dollars of school funds.

Becoming a worker or a substitute included submitting a written application, providing references, and being interviewed by the teacher in charge of the program. Once a student was hired, he or she was required to sign in and out of work every day, and satisfy a teacher supervisor with regular and timely attendance and quality work. Some typicle jobs were serving food or cleaning up in the lunchroom, setting up and taking down gym class equipment, cleaning up trash in the playground after school, checking out books in the school library, delivering mail or supplies to classrooms, and collecting and sorting classroom debris for recycling.

I recognize that not all schools can do the same things we did. Our small size, rural location and constituency made certain activities possible and manageable. Still, the heart of the matter was devoting our thinking, actions, and resources toward making our school a place where students wanted to be and were looked upon as contributing members of the school community. In addition to improving student attendance our plans also improved behavior. Many times I heard one kid say to another something like, “Don’t throw that candy wrapper on the floor; I have to clean it up!” And the other kid would apologize and pick up the wrapper.

2 responses to “When the Water Tastes Good, the Horse Will Drink it!

  1. Nancy Belkov says:

    What a wonderful way of helping students take ownership of their school, learn responsibility, and enhance your community! I enjoyed teaching under your leadership in Madison and would have been happy to be working with you at this school too!


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