Featured School :: Okaw Valley Elementary School

Okaw Valley Elementary School Principal Heidi Vander Burgh is a firm believer in the power of connection. During her twelve years as a Kindergarten teacher, Vander Burgh found that her students learned best when they held a strong relationship with their teacher. Mutual trust and respect between pupil and educator built an environment where the children were willing and excited to learn. When she became Principal of Okaw Valley, Vander Burgh set out to find a curriculum that would enable adults schoolwide to form these types of positive connections with the students. From this research, the Bethany, Illinois school’s relationship with Choose To Be Nice began.

Vander Burgh and School Counselor Paula Coffer set out to bring Choose To Be Nice to Okaw Valley Elementary School in a big way – from the janitors and cafeteria workers to the librarian and classroom teachers, every adult in the school community received a copy of the curriculum to incorporate into their daily routines. Teachers present the curriculum in class. Small groups work with Coffer, reading the stories and reinforcing the lessons taught in class. Custodial staff model the theme of the month in their interactions with each other and the children. It is an “all in” approach, and it is working wonders with the 160 students in the K-4 school.

Since the introduction of the Choose To Be Nice program, discipline referrals have gone down. Realizing that they are the ones who make the decision about how they treat others has empowered the students, and they are relishing in the act of choosing kindness.

Choose To Be Nice can be seen all over Okaw Valley Elementary School!

Each month, a student from each of the ten classrooms is celebrated for embodying the Choose To Be Nice word of the month, and they receive a special honor – lunch with the principal. In the younger grades, these children are nominated by their teacher, whereas in the older grades – students nominate their peers for their dedication and commitment to kindness.

The Choose To Be Nice Mice are the theme of a monthly schoolwide coloring contest, and the winners proudly pose for pictures with their artwork, which is displayed prominently in the front of the school.

And, perhaps the most anticipated event of the year – the ABC Countdown.

For the last 26 days of the school year, the school community holds a Choose To Be Nice themed countdown to summer vacation. Each day, a different word is the focus.

A few of the highlights!

A – Appreciate. Students wrote a letter (or drew a picture) of appreciation for someone within the school, letting them know about the positive impact they have made. Teachers were blown away by the love that their students expressed!

Q – Quilt Day. Each person in the school draws a self portrait, and these portraits are connected together to form a beautiful mural around the words:

“We are each unique and special. Together we are one community, CHOOSING TO BE NICE.”

A visual representation of The Choose To Be Nice promise each person at the Okaw Valley Elementary School made to themselves and each other as they make their community a kinder place – one smile at a time.

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