2013-02-08 / Community

Man on a Mission - Principal and Innovator at MS 53

By Katie McFadden

When Shawn Rux became principal of MS 53 in Far Rockaway in 2011, he entered what he called “the worst possible educational scenario.” Principal Rux accepted the challenge and over the course of two and half years he implemented many strategic systems and structures to transform the middle school into a more ideal educational environment.

Rux took on MS 53 after a school year that ended with 280 suspensions, and 22 teachers and an entire staff office quitting. “People kept telling me how crazy I was,” Rux said. However he took the negative input and turned it into motivation to turn the then “F” rated school into a better place.

One of the major problems facing the school was low attendance rates. The attendance was around 85% for the year. Rux set a goal of 90% and brainstormed to come up with ways to motivate the 394 kids at the school to show up. He thought about what 6th to 8th graders might really want and then he introduced a fun way to encourage kids to keep up their attendance with an incentive program. He started handing out raffle tickets at 7:30 a.m. to kids who show up early. At the end of the month, those raffle tickets are used towards prizes that students want. Most recently, a lucky student won an XBox, which Rux paid for out of pocket.

Although spotty attendance was a challenge, a bigger problem involved behavior issues. With 280 suspensions in the previous year, Rux knew he had to create a safer MS 53. Instead of punishing students for bad behavior, he decided to take another approach. He implemented PBIS, or positive behavior intervention systems.

Rux developed his own currency called “Rux Bucks.” He issued these fake bills to staff and encouraged them to hand out to students who display good behavior. “Whenever we see students doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we hand them out,” Rux said.

Rux Bucks can be used towards things like coats, hats, ice cream, pencils and other goodies at the “Swagger Store,” which is strategically open on Mondays and Fridays, as these are the days that attendance is usually lowest during the week.

Swagger may be known as a term that means “cool” in the hip-hop world, but at MS 53, swagger has a different meaning. It’s an acronym for “Students Who Achieve Good Grades Earn Respect.” “The coolest kids at MS 53 are the ones doing the right thing,” Rux says. The biggest Rux Bucks prizes, worth 5,000 Rux Bucks include things like a one-on-one basketball game or a $150 shopping spree with Principal Rux. Rux Bucks are also an educational tool. They teach kids how to count and set a budget so they can save up for the prizes they want. They also teach teamwork as entire classes can use Rux Bucks towards things like class dress down days or a class party.

This good behavior motivator seems to be working. “Kids are eating it up,” Rux said. As he walked around the halls of MS 53, he explained that the kids used to roam around as they pleased. Now, the kids are only found inside class rooms.

Even some of the classes that are offered are made to motivate kids to come to school. As part of a new arts program, 6th grade students are able to attend classes like martial arts, African drumming and even a class in which they can record their own music album.

While students get a chance to express their creative side, 6th-grade teachers have a 90-minute block to meet together to discuss teaching strategies, prep for their classes and grade student work.

Principal Rux’s tactics seem to be working. MS 53 now how has a “C” rating, up from the “F” in 2011. This school year started with 91% attendance in September and increased to 92% in October.

Then Sandy hit.

The storm “took the wind out of the sails,” Rux said. “We got punched in the face by Sandy.”

MS 53 didn’t get flooded but with the electricity and heat out for several weeks, the students were forced to relocate to a school in Brooklyn, which put a huge dent in the progress made in attendance. “Four to seven students showed up on the first day. Fifteen showed up the next day,” Rux said.

The students were finally able to return to MS 53 on November 12th. “November and December attendance was climbing but it was tough to get it back to where we want it,” Rux explained. “We’re still in bounce back mode.” In January, the attendance rate was back up to 88%, but for Rux, that’s not good enough. His expectation is to reach over 90% again, but his real goal is 95%. Rux does all this for MS 53 and steers conversation away from the fact that his own home in Arverne was greatly impacted by the Storm. "I truly believe that the more you give, the more you get in return and I made it my priority to do whatever I could to help others in need." Rux is continuing to come up with strategies to improve attendance, behavior, the quality of the staff and even state test scores at MS 53, but he knows that it “won’t happen overnight.” He’s been told repeatedly that it will take three to five years to fully transform MS 53 and he uses this as motivation.

“I smile when I think about the story I can tell about MS 53 five years from now,” he said. Rux is determined to make it a good story. “I believe in this school, I believe in this community, I believe in the students and I believe in myself,” he said.

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