Less than two months into the RISE program, Bowie Middle School Principal Paul Fulce and his teachers say they feel they are making headway.

Along with Bowie, Burnet Elementary School also is a RISE campus. RISE stands for Rapidly Improving School Effectiveness program and it was implemented this year because the schools are designated as F under state accountability ratings.

The program is based on Dallas ISD’s ACE, or Accelerating School Excellence, program. Because it has been successful, ACE was contracted out to other districts.

Funds tied to the program cover a longer school day, materials and supplies for additional activities, targeted tutoring and more. Under RISE, teachers have to meet certain criteria.

Bowie has roughly 1,060 students in sixth through eighth grade this year. Fulce noted that the sixth grade class has about 100 fewer students than usual. But Bowie has almost 400 seventh graders and 400 eighth graders, which is “more or less normal.”

“We’ve spent the first six weeks really focusing on culture and expectations. And obviously, that is something that we’re going to do all year long. We will occasionally have to hit a stop and a reset,” Fulce said.

For example, the campus has hit supply chain issues that have delayed efforts to spruce up the school. A book vending machine is on its way, courtesy of the Education Foundation, that the school will be able to use for student incentives.

To make the transition to middle school easier, sixth graders are in pods with their own hallway and restroom and the teachers stay with them.

“We don’t separate them entirely. There’s lots of interaction …,” Fulce said.

The campus also is divided into houses that have friendly competitions with each other to earn points. The house names are of West Texas universities, so there are banners for each one.

Fulce said the schools also have sent pennants and other swag.

Bowie Middle School Principal Paul Fulce speaks about the first six weeks of school since the school has implemented the RISE Program during an interview Thursday at Bowie Middle School. (Jacob Ford|Odessa American)

“We have their permission to use their images and so on. They’ve actually been great. They keep sending stuff for the kids, which is fantastic. We have the Falcons, the Lobos, the Buffaloes, the Red Raiders, and the Rams,” Fulce said.

Each house has a barcode on their IDs.

“When they do something above and beyond, the teacher scans their ID and it adds to their house points. Every week, we highlight the winning house. So as you can see, the flag flying under the Texas flag (outside) is the ASU Rams. So last week, the Rams won. Every week, we hang the winning flag. The next week, they also get some sort of incentive — an ICEE, or an ice cream sandwich or something along those lines,” Fulce said.

As the year goes on, they will add more incentives, not just for house activities and competitions, but for attendance, for example.

“We’ve given a lot of thought to the incentives that kids want and that will inspire them to be present and do the right thing,” Fulce said.

He added that progress in the classroom is linked to the culture and the belonging students feel in school. Fulce said this is a big shift for the campus — showing students that they are not alone and are part of a larger group.

Handbooks for the houses will be compiled and hopefully last in perpetuity, Fulce said.

Bowie Middle School posted Angelo State University flag on it’s school flag post to celebrate the previous week’s winning house of a house system designated by colleges Thursday at Bowie Middle School. College’s include in the house system include Angelo State University, Texas Tech, University of Texas Permian Basin, Sul Ross, and West Texas A&M. (Jacob Ford|Odessa American)

“The next time you come visit us, I hope we will have Harry Potter-style banners hanging and whatnot. The kids right now, they’re all color coded. … They’re color coded by class and they’re color coded by house. So the sixth graders were purple; the seventh graders were light blue; and the eighth graders were heather gray. That makes it really easy to figure out where someone is …,” Fulce said. “The teachers love that. But then their houses, the lanyards that they wear, and they also have rubber bracelets if they want, but the lanyards that they wear are the color of their house. The Falcons have orange lanyards and so on. It’s just a way to … build that camaraderie that we haven’t ever had.”

He added that one of the goals of RISE is to eliminate as many barriers to student success as possible. That’s why students get a super snack, backpacks and school supplies. That way, no one had to buy either.

“We provided all of that. It’s why we’ve dedicated some of our budget and gotten additional funding for uniforms because not all of our students are in the same place. …,” Fulce said.

The district implemented a social-emotional learning curriculum called Seven Mindsets. Fulce said Bowie started that during its initial retreat.

Fulce said the social-emotional piece is desperately needed because everyone has gone through the collective trauma of the pandemic and the students are tired and the teachers are tired.

With restorative justice for discipline, they focus on the positive and repairing relationships rather than punishment and consequences. There are some exceptions if an incident is violent, or involves drugs or alcohol and the police have to be called.

There are still “logical consequences” like if a student doesn’t have their ID, which everyone has to wear every day, and they get a temporary one, that means they don’t get to participate in recess because they weren’t responsible, Fulce said.

“… That’s a different feeling to a student then you’re being punished because you didn’t do what you were supposed to do. The result is the same, but the framing and the conversation” are different, he said.

Fulce said he’s hoping they can talk with the district about having a little more control over the consequences of some infractions, such as if it’s a student’s first offense.

In some of these cases, it could mean a student can’t be on the football team, which is what was keeping them in school in the first place.

Fulce said things like devious licks are being treated seriously. Technically, he said the term lick means you’ve stolen something and a devious lick means you’ve taken something that belongs to the teacher of sentimental value, broken a toilet, ripped a stall door off the wall, or broken a mirror. This is a viral challenge on TikTok.

“We’ve been really lucky. We’ve only had a few incidences. I mean, they’re so all over the place. But those influences, as you can imagine, the kid gets nothing from it. There’s no benefit. They’re literally filming themselves committing a crime. Because that’s what it is …,” Fulce said.

As an administrator, Fulce said most of the feedback he gets is negative.

“We have been really lucky in the last few weeks to get some really great feedback from folks that are in the district or visitors about what they see as the difference in the feeling in the building and the culture in the classroom,” he added.

That has lifted people’s spirits.

“We’re not where we need to be; in six weeks nobody would be. The kids walked into a building with different staff and different expectations, and different resources, but they’re the same kids that walked out in May. If we could solve all our problems in six weeks, I’d be on the news right now for all the right reasons,” Fulce said.

Dr. Gina Eaton, who is an instructional assistant principal and leads math, has many years of teaching experience. She came to Bowie from Cleveland State University. She said it was Fulce that drew her to Odessa.

Eaton said RISE is fast paced and has tons of accountability.

“I think it challenges us to stretch ourselves to become our very best to support students to become their very best,” Eaton said.

If RISE stays consistent and the campus stays the course, Eaton said, it will work in the long run and produce favorable outcomes.

Bowie Middle School sixth grade students read in Amber Olson’s English class Thursday at Bowie Middle School. (Jacob Ford|Odessa American)

Sixth-grade English teacher Amber Olson is in her fourth year at Bowie.

“I’ve absolutely loved the change with the RISE program; the change in the culture, the change in perspective and outlook has been so positive, not for just staff but the students and parents as well,” Olson said.

Olson has introduced flexibility to her classroom, including where and how students sit, whether it’s on a sofa or a gaming chair.

“It’s like a fresh start,” Olson said. “… Just the flexibility to sit where they’re comfortable to learn has been an amazing experience to watch.”

Eaton added that she’s always been a fan of non-traditional opportunities for students. Sitting where they want allows them to be comfortable and adults don’t often think about that.

“… Allowing them to tap into the human aspects of who they are and finding their comfort levels and comfort zones should help them to excel, as well,” Eaton said.

Olson said students self adjust and make changes on their own when they realize something isn’t working for them.

“One of the things I’ve said in years past is how can I help adults change mindset? And I’ve always been stuck with that. This year, I haven’t had to. That mindset is … catching like wildfire. It’s an experience I’ve really never had before where you walk into the building (and) it may have been the worst evening you’ve ever had, but when you walk in the door (and) you see that one person and they’re excited about something going on in their room, or something they saw with a student, it catches (your) attention and it rubs off,” Olson said.

Olson also got sixth graders in her house to pick up trash in front of the school at lunch by giving them points.

“And that was only our house. But I’m telling you what, they found it and they came to me and they were getting points like crazy. Well, the other houses started noticing. Ms. Olson’s giving points; Ms. Olson’s giving points. They were coming to me, Ms. Olson what are you giving points for? Before recess was over, the entire area up front was spotless. And they’ve done it every single day this week …,” Olson said.

The points have since been reduced greatly from 20.

“… We’re down to five today (Sept. 23) and then the next week it’s going to be about one or two because I want them to just do it naturally,” Olson said. “But it’s been amazing how much it catches on from house to house. That’s the other thing is the new house system, it’s effective. If it’s used in that manner, it works,” Olson said.

She added that the students are learning to trust that their teachers and administrators do what they say they’ll do.

Fulce said they are planning to bring back the National Junior Honor Society and Student Council.

Eaton noted that the students are curious about the college mascot names and where they are.

“So they’re having those collegial conversations at a much earlier age,” Eaton said.