When Cynthia Zurchin became principal of Pittsburgh's Shaeffer Elementary in 2007, 93 percent of its students lived below the poverty line and more than half were suspended for behavioral issues.
“A lot of things just weren’t working at the school,” she said. “One day I asked myself, ‘What can we do to really change the culture here?’”
What sprung to mind for Zurchin was a book she learned about during a leadership training conference titled Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships.
The book, written by management expert Ken Blanchard, discusses how the positive reinforcement techniques animal trainers use to train killer whales at SeaWorld can increase productivity in the workplace.
Trainers at the theme parks use praise, rather than punishment, to instruct the animals.
“I read the book one night and it dawned on me that we could use these techniques to save the school,” said Zurchin.
Zurchin, who in January was as the assistant superintendent, hopes to bring the Whale Done mindset to her new school district.
Besides Zurchin's 25-year career as an educator, officials at Moon Area looked to her experience transforming the troubled Crafton Heights-area elementary into a model school.
After a series of roundtable discussions with teachers and administrators, Schaeffer Elementary started the first Whale Done Schools Program, which works to create a positive learning environment and build trust within the school community.
Within three months of the program's implementation, Zurchin said she saw change among Schaeffer Elementary’s students: Reading and math test scores soared and the number of suspensions teachers issued plummeted.
Each day, students, teachers and staff gave each other "Whale Dones," which are documents of written praise that acknowledge good behavior or achievements.
Zurchin hopes to make Moon Area a Whale Done district, too.
“We started a Whale Done district committee and have gone through several training sessions but hope to fully implement the program in all of Moon’s schools by next school year,” she said.
It's already catching on: Some staff members have fully embraced the idea, putting the Whale Done mentality into action, said Zurchin.
“One staff member at the high school has already given everyone he works with a 'Whale Done,” she said. “It’s so important for adults to be able to recognize positive things in one another and to re-direct negative energy.”
Zurchin has received several Whale Dones herself, including Pittsburgh City Council recognition for her work at Schaeffer. Now, she is co-authoring a book titled Whale Done School.
“Our goal is to create a Whale Done workplace where people trust each other and re-direct each other in a positive way,” she said. “We want to develop a culture in which we build upon people’s strengths, rather than their weaknesses or bad behavior.”
Ultimately, Zurchin hopes that Moon Area School District serves as a model for the community.
“Schools are a reflection of society, so if we can make our schools a positive place, everyone will want to partner with us and come and see what we’re doing here.”