When Washington state passed a law limiting long-term suspension and expulsion in public schools, some schools struggled with what to do with kids who were making poor choices in the classroom.
Not Riverside Middle School. Paraeducator Andrea LaJiness had worked with these kids for several years, and her classroom became the in-school intervention destination.
LaJiness was recently named Classified Employee of the Year for Eastern Washington, and is in the running for the statewide award.
Principal Mike Syron nominated her for the award, citing her dedication and commitment to her students.
“She has a special knack of getting to the root of many middle school-aged problems,” he said.
LaJiness said her job is all about building relationships.
“It’s a family, instead of ‘sit down, don’t talk, get your work done,’ ” she said. “I feel like you can still reach kids in middle school and make an impact.”
The affection she has for her students is reciprocated.
On a recent afternoon, students frequently popped into her classroom for a quick hello.
“Just checking in,” said one teen.
They know she has snacks available if they’re hungry, and if they come to school wearing inappropriate clothing, instead of being sent home, they can go to her room and choose something else. LaJiness keeps a stash of T-shirts and other clothing on hand.
Kids are sent to in-school intervention for a variety of reasons. They may have fallen behind in their studies, or have had altercations with other students. Perhaps they’re being disrespectful in the classroom, or have instability at home that’s creating issues at school.
LaJiness goes through a self-reflection and accountability packet with them to discuss the behavior that brought them to her.
“It works when you see kids doing what they’re supposed to,” said LaJiness. “I love that.”
Anthony Chambers is one of those kids.
In a letter nominating LaJiness for the award, the eighth-grader wrote, “Mrs. LaJiness is very considerate. She feeds kids when they’re hungry. She clothes kids that are cold. She believes every child has the ability to do great things. I know this because I have spent a lot of time with Mrs. LaJiness, and there have been times when I didn’t get breakfast or lunch, and she would give me food.”
When he stopped by her classroom he said, “I’ve gone from getting in a lot of trouble to focusing on my grades.”
As Chambers left, a teary-eyed LaJiness said, “He just needed to be told he’s incredibly intelligent.”
Her belief in the infinite worth of every child led her to create the “8 Weeks to Great” program at Riverside Middle School.
“It’s all about leadership and taking responsibility for our school,” she said. “Middle school is rough. You hear unkind things in the hallway. But kindness can be contagious.”
The students who joined the group voluntarily gave up a recess to do so.
Abi Harget was one of them.
“It’s about promoting acceptance and kindness, and our school needs more of that,” she said. “I got to know some kids who were kind of rough around the edges. I was in the program with a boy I didn’t really like, but by the end of the eight weeks we liked each other. We’re still friends.”
Robby Luiten, 12, also enjoyed the program.
“Before I did it, I kind of judged people a little more,” he said. “I was really insecure.”
Luiten said he learned how to be more accepting of others. He traced the infinity symbol in the air.
“We all have infinite worth,” he said. “It was worth giving up recess for.”
LaJiness smiled at him.
“I love my job,” she said.
Principal Syron has already seen the results of LaJiness work with her students.
“I’ve seen the number of referrals to my office go way down,” he said. “It’s pretty magical to watch what she does.”
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