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Casey Christie / The Californian

Ihsan Ahmed, 11, in Jariann Hudson's 6th grade class at Franklin Elementary School corrects a fellow student's spelling test Friday morning during class. He recently attended a Bakersfield City School District board meeting to get his picture taken with the entire board as part of a new reward system the school has implemented. He is one of the top students in his school.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

After finishing his spelling test early, Ihsan Ahmed reads in Jariann Hudson's 6th grade class at Franklin Elementary School Friday morning. After receiving a "good referral" in class, Ahmed attended a school board meeting to have his picture taken with the entire board.

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Courtesy Bakersfield City School District

Ihsan Ahmed, a 6th-grader at Franklin Elementary School, has his picture taken with the school board as part of its positive referral program.

Just about every parent has experienced that moment of dread when the school's phone number shows up on caller ID. Generally it's one of two things -- your child is sick or injured or has done something wrong.

Either way, it can't be good.

But in the Bakersfield City School District, that call just might be cause for celebration.

This year, the district is doubling down on efforts to recognize children when they've done something right, and to document and track it.

It's an outgrowth of BCSD's Local Education Agency Plan, a three-year master plan for general district improvement adopted in September. Among other things, the plan lays out goals and strategies for reducing discipline problems.

Beginning this year, BCSD is electronically tracking referrals to the principal's office to get a better sense of who's getting in trouble for what and how problems might be tackled more strategically.

But that's just half of a two-pronged approach.

Based on research on positive reinforcement in education and business circles, the district has concluded that one of the best ways to cut suspensions and expulsions is to praise students for being good.

To that end, in September it started a two-month pilot project to track both positive and negative referrals at three schools: Franklin Elementary School, Munsey Elementary School and Walter W. Stiern Middle School.

The program is being rolled out districtwide this week.

"It's still early, but we got some good feedback," said Director of School Support Tim Fulenwider. "Kids always want to have positive acknowledgement from adults. They love it. But we've never had a way to track it and see what the most effective course is before now."

The district has developed a bubble form that teachers can fill out and scan into a computer on the same equipment used to grade answers on standardized tests. Instructors periodically put in the date and a student identification number, then check one of five so-called umbrella behaviors -- respectful, cooperative, responsible, safe or ready to learn -- as well as what kind of recognition was given.

That could be a call to parents, sending a note home, presenting the child with a formal certificate or giving him or her a privilege such as moving to the front of the lunch line or choosing a small prize from a treasure box.

The district worded the incentives on the form vaguely to give individual schools the flexibility to pick their own rewards.

At Munsey Elementary, new Principal Marshall Dillard carried over a tradition from his last job called "Popcorn With the Principal."

Children who do something extraordinary get a coupon and are publicly recognized on a wall in the cafeteria. Every week, all of the students honored with a coupon are entered into a drawing, and 12 are selected to eat popcorn together in the principal's office.

Lorena Mabueno, 31, is the mother of two boys who got to eat popcorn with the principal the same week.

Angel, 9, was recognized for sitting quietly and attentively when others were talking in class, and Andre, 7, was standing up straight in line while nearby classmates were goofing off and getting out of line.

"It was pretty awesome," Mabueno said. "The boys were really excited about it. They love interacting with the principal, anyway, and the popcorn is just a bonus."

Mabueno volunteers at Munsey sometimes, and said she has noticed the program motivates not just the children who are well-behaved, but others with less stellar track records.

"I see the kids who are having trouble, and they're out there doing good things, helping others, picking up trash on the playground, and I'm like, 'Wow,'" she said.

That is, of course, the point.

Stiern Middle School math and history teacher Mike Long said he goes out of his way to find some sliver of good to praise in even youth who are known troublemakers.

"It's really easy to feel defeated if you have some self-control issues or things are going on at home that aren't evident at school," he said. "We're reaching out and giving these kids something to boost their self-esteem."

At Stiern, so-called "super sharks" get certificates and are entered into a drawing for books and other prizes. They can also get a pass to the front of the lunch line with a friend. And the school is getting approval to show films on campus so it can treat exemplar students to movies.

It's working, said Stiern math and science teacher Katie Hollman, because the same impulse that drives bad behavior can also drive good behavior.

"Oftentimes the ones who are misbehaving are doing it to get attention," she said. "So if they learn that they can also get attention for being good, that behavior can be redirected and they start seeking attention in a different way."

Teachers like the program, too, because the bubble sheets are quick and easy to fill out and track referrals more efficiently, said Stiern Principal Julie Short.

"If it's a negative referral, that piece of paper might get lost on the way to the principal's office, and when it's on paper it's harder to compare year-over-year," she said. "But this way, the teacher can fill it out and get immediate feedback online on what the consequence or reward is once the child has been to the office."

At Franklin, polite and thoughtful students can earn a certificate or a little trophy to rest on their desk, or a gold medal to wear around their neck. They're also eligible for prizes.

And always, there's a call home.

"We don't want our only contact with parents to be negative," said Principal Carla Tafoya. "It's important to get some good news sometimes, especially when it's a child who is in trouble a lot."

When administrator Fulenwider presented the findings of the pilot project to the BCSD school board last month, Franklin invited its most recent honoree to attend the board meeting and say a few words.

Sixth-grader Ihsan Ahmed, 11, was selected because he was recognized twice just a few weeks apart, once for helping a classmate with his math and again for picking up someone else's trash.

Ihsan called to mind a Hollywood star at the Oscars as, decked out in a necktie, dress shirt and slacks, he thanked his parents and his teacher for helping him learn and grow.

Asked how it felt to get not one but two "Golden Behavior" certificates, the boy grinned and admitted that he had posted both on his bedroom wall, "so I can look at them every day and feel good about my good behavior."