Students excel in school’s new space

‘The Zone’ keeps Olga Brener kids on task

Leader Photo by Scott Williams School staffer Becky Dillenburg awaits her next students inside The Zone, an alternative learning space created this school year at Olga Brener Intermediate School in Shawano.

Leader Photo by Scott Williams Students visiting The Zone are given many tools to help them relax and refocus, including rocking chairs, coloring books and bicycle pedals for working out stress.

For students at one Shawano school, being sent to the principal’s office no longer means what it used to.

Olga Brener Intermediate School has carved out a new space — far away from the principal’s office — to try a new approach with students who are struggling to stay focused in the classroom.

It is called The Zone.

Olga Brener students wind up in The Zone not to receive punishment or discipline, but to decompress and recalibrate themselves so they can return to class.

School administrators converted former offices into the specialized space where a trained paraprofessional helps agitated or distracted students with tools that include coloring books, hand toys, music, rocking chairs and even a little calming lavender-scented air freshener.

Officials say the experimental approach introduced earlier this school year has proved so successful that some students go voluntarily when they sense they are losing focus in the classroom.

“Sometimes they just need to get away,” paraprofessional Becky Dillenburg said.

The concept is derived from a premise that students can learn to self-regulate their behavior when they become too angry, upset or distracted to function in the classroom. Once inside The Zone, students are guided through color-coded behavioral patterns until they return themselves to “green,” or the green light to rejoin their classmates.

A typical student visit lasts about 15 or 20 minutes and sometimes requires nothing more than a little extra help with a classroom assignment that had been causing frustration.

Olga Brener Principal Terri Schultz recently briefed Shawano School Board members on the arrangement and reported that students had been to The Zone a combined 276 times between September and December. The alternative approach to discipline not only is helping troubled students better manage their behavior, Schultz said, it is also allowing teachers to remain focused on the rest of the students.

“We have great teachers doing great things with kids,” she said. “But they have to be able to teach.”

Olga Brener serves about 500 students in third, fourth and fifth grades.

In years gone by, students creating a disturbance in class would typically be sent to the principal’s office for a stern lecture or possibly more severe discipline. They might only spend a few minutes sitting alone in the office before being sent back to class.

School board member Marcia Yeager said she could remember times when the principal’s office would become overcrowded with students, making it difficult for staff to manage. Yeager said the new approach with The Zone sounds like an improvement.

“This is a good process,” she said.

Although Dillenburg can accommodate several students at once, the process of assigning students to the alternative space is carefully structured to ensure that each visitor makes the most of the experience.

Mondays are generally pretty busy, as students struggle to readjust to school life following the weekend. Some students pop into The Zone on their own for brief visits, because they know it is a good place to catch their breath, Dillenburg said.

“A lot of time, they just need a break,” she said.

Schultz said other schools have embraced the idea of alternative learning spaces, but she is not aware of another that has dedicated an entire room to put the concept into. Olga Brener parents are notified when their children are sent to The Zone, she said, and the parents have voiced support.

Students also have discovered what the alternative space is all about, and many have learned to recognize when they need to spend time there, Schultz said. Knowing it does not mean they are in trouble, students often are eager to receive a helping hand to achieve the “green light” signal for them to return to class.

“This is a place where kids go to chill and get back to green,” Schultz said. “And they all know it.”