Grice Middle School students (front) Jahkai Stokes, (middle) Dahmir Mason, Maurice Williams, Emmanuel Peguero, (back) Robert Glover, Samuel Gadie and Armany Rodriguez attend the Feb. 5, 2018 Renaissance Rally. They were honored for their volunteer work. (Staff photo by Laura Pollack.)

The day after the Super Bowl, students at Grice Middle School were still cheering and screaming. But while the rest of the town was abuzz about the game, children at Grice were cheering for their classmates.

The students gathered in the gym Feb. 5 for a Renaissance Rally, a celebration held in conjunction with the school’s Renaissance Program. As a Renaissance school, Grice officials created an educational incentive program designed to reward students who demonstrate academic improvements. These improvements can be made in a wide variety of areas — grades, attendance, homework assignments, among others.

And the students at Grice had a lot to celebrate.

“We’ve done this for three years now, and we’ve noticed that our attendance has increased, our discipline has come way down, and we’re noticing more and more students are making honor roll,” Principal David Innocenzi said.

Rather than only punishing students for poor performance — frequently missed homework assignments, tardies, low grades — the Renaissance Program rewards students who make strides to improve their academic standing.

Innocenzi said at the end of every marking period, teachers and faculty check students’ attendance, grade, and discipline records. If a student has shown an improvement or excelled in a particular area, they’re given cards they can trade in for rewards. These rewards range from smaller perks — the ability to skip ahead to the front of the lunch line — to larger rewards, such as forgiveness for missed homework or being named a comeback kid.

“It’s an incentive to promote a positive climate, to promote academic achievement,” Innocenzi said.

Grice is the only middle school in the district to implement a Renaissance Program, and school officials’ efforts to promote a positive climate are paying off. Grice had a 95 percent daily attendance rate the year before they became a Renaissance school. Now, they have a 97 percent daily attendance rate, according to Innocenzi. Out of school suspensions have also decreased since the program began. From September to November 2016, there were 15 suspensions, and during that same time period in 2017 there were 10.

Teachers and faculty believe the program is successful because it affords students the wiggle room to make mistakes. One of the most popular rewards among both the students and teachers is the “oops card.” If a student forgets their homework, they can give the card to their teacher and the missing assignment won’t count against them.

“If you have a good kid, the card allows them to make a mistake,” teacher Lauren Niglio said. “I’ve seen that sheer panic of forgetting something go away.”

“Let’s face it, this is middle school,” Innocenzi said. “We’re adults. We know the students are here to learn, but middle school kids, they wanna fit in. They’re going to make mistakes, they can only learn if they make mistakes. The Renaissance Program gives kids a chance to make a mistake and bounce back.”

Teacher Evan Price leads Grice Middle School’s Renaissance Rally in the school gym Feb. 5, 2018. (Staff photo by Laura Pollack.)

Honoring the children who bounced back was a major theme of the Feb. 5 Renaissance Rally. The school honored the comeback kids, who were nominated by their teachers for making a remarkable improvement in their academic standing. Each student was called down and presented with a certificate honoring their achievement, as their classmates cheered and chanted their names.

While honors programs focus on students who earn exceptional grades and behavioral programs are in place to help struggling students, the Renaissance Program was designed to encourage all students to make realistic improvements based on their own academic standing. Instead of competing against their peers, they’re focusing on bettering themselves.

“It’s not just for the straight A students,” teacher Courtney Lawrence said. “It’s for the middle of the roads kid too.”

At the end of every marking period, teachers plan a school-wide rally to celebrate their accomplishments. The rally is designed to fit Innocenzi’s “work hard, play hard” mantra.

“If you work hard all year long and work hard during the marking period, then we play hard during a pep rally,” he said.

In addition to honoring the comeback kids at the Feb. 5 rally, the dance team performed for the school, and teachers and students played a wide variety of games. Teachers planned real life versions of Hungry Hungry Hippos and Mario Kart balloon races, where students in the school’s Pride House competed against those in the Spirit House. Throughout the rally, which lasted roughly two periods, music played and students were encouraged to cheer each other on and celebrate the day.

‘It’s one of the best things I’ve been a part of [at Grice].’

At the end of the year, teachers also plan a field day celebration for students. The first field day celebration was small, but school officials have partnered with local businesses to bring in more prizes for students. Innocenzi said in the past, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton bought the comeback kids lunch, Trenton Thunder has donated tickets to the school, and 94.5 PST sent a guest DJ to a field day celebration.

Teachers stressed how support from the community has been vital in helping the program grow over the years. Lawrence said with very limited funds to keep the program afloat, having local businesses step in to help has made a tremendous difference.

Innocenzi decided to turn Grice into a Renaissance school after talking to former assistant superintendent Steven Bollar.

“He asked me if this was a Renaissance school based on the climate that we had, and I never heard of the program before,” Innocenzi said. “The district he was at prior to coming here was a Renaissance school, and he was the one who told me all about the program.”

Innocenzi pitched the program to the faculty and teachers, who were all onboard with the idea. Niglio said she’s seen an increase in morale across the entire school. Children are excited to participate, and teachers feed off the excitement to try take the rewards and rallies to the next level.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve been a part of [at Grice],” she said.