Washington Elementary School Rewards Students with Innovative Awards


Photo: Left to right Amy Muzopappa, Executive Director for the Boyertown Foundation for Education; Alison Moyer, Communications Specialist for Boyertown Area School District; and Lisa Derenzo, Principal, Washington Elementary School welcome the school’s new book vending machine, a tool designed as part of the school’s initiative to promote positivity.

by Jane Stahl

“You Matter!” “We see you!” These are the messages that principal Lisa Derenzo and the staff at Washington Elementary School want every one of their students to know.

And they are intentional about the delivery of that message. Three times a year, an assembly is held in which teachers present several dozen “Genius Awards” and certificates to students who have been nominated by their teachers.

The “You Matter!” awards are bronze-like medallions on a lanyard featuring a bear paw. The achievement award certificates are given “for sharing your genius with our school each day.’ Each certificate includes statements from the child’s teacher describing and “celebrating” the student’s “super powers,” the impact they make on the Washington Elementary School community.

Principal Derenzo found the idea for the Genius Awards in Angela Maiers’ book Genius Matters: A Framework for Epic Transformation. The awards are part of a system that rewards students who demonstrate positive behaviors like kindness, respect, perseverance, and a strong work ethic.

Visiting Washington Elementary School for one of their “Genius Awards” ceremonies recently was a heart-warming and impressive experience. Students filed into the space with their teachers—many costumed as characters from their favorite books in celebration of “Read Across America Week.” A different theme had been celebrated throughout the week.

 Left to right: Teachers Jessica Ramirez, Megan Linderman, and Kelly Yarnall, dressed as crayons from their favorite book The Day the Crayons Quit.

 Arielle Boyer came with her school bus. She represented Mrs. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus and attracted students to hop along for the ride.

Adding to the celebration of the “Genius Awards,” Principal Derenzo read a book entitled Only One You. “I just love to read to kids and I do it every chance I get,” she adds. The book includes positive messages like “Look for beauty wherever you are and keep the memory of it with you”; “Blend in when you need to and stand out when you have a chance”; “Go your own way, you don’t have to follow a crowd”; “Know when to speak; know when to listen.”; and “If you make a wrong turn, circle back.”

“These are all messages that encourage you to make the world a better place,” she told the students before her.

But Principal Derenzo saved a surprise until the end of the assembly. The moment students had anticipated was the unveiling of an innovative way their positive behavior will be rewarded. In a dramatic countdown, the curtain opened to reveal a book vending machine filled with books that the students can earn.

Photographs by Amy Muzopappa

“There’s a new currency at Washington Elementary, and it’s kindness. It’s courtesy. It’s respect,” explains Amy Muzopappa, Executive Director for the Foundation for Boyertown Education.

“The machine accepts special coins that can be earned by students demonstrating behavioral merit. The machine not only gets kids excited about reading, but also provides a lesson in setting goals and earning rewards, by being good role models,” she continues. “Being able to choose their own book by earning the special ‘currency’ provides an innovative way to reward them.

“The vending machine is as much of a positivity tool as it is a book dispenser. Teachers will note the positives in each student, and the tokens will reward that behavior.

The Book Vending Machine will be permanently placed in the school lobby, where each and every student will pass it by on their way to and from school. “We want to get kids excited about books!” Principal Derenzo exclaims.

“And this is just the first of what we hope many book vending machines for the Boyertown Area School District,” Amy says. “There are 6 Elementary schools in our district. Our hope is to eventually see book dispensers in all of them.”

Following the ceremony and before the students left for the day, Principal Derenzo complimented them for vigorous clapping for those who received the awards, saying, “You showed you were happy for your friends who received awards today. You know that not everyone is awarded on any one day, but today, celebrating those who were awarded was your way of supporting the members of our school family.”

Photograph by Amy Muzopappa

Since the pandemic, educators nationwide are trying new approaches to social-emotional learning in hopes of helping students deal with the continuing mental health struggles that took shape or worsened during the isolation of remote learning. Efforts are aimed at reinforcing positive behavior and making sure students know that they have somewhere to turn for help.

“Students are facing feelings and situations that they’ve never experienced before,” acknowledges Principal Derenzo. “Their behavior in recent years is more challenging than I’ve seen in the 29 years I’ve been an educator,” she continues. “But I firmly believe that when we witness any student doing a good deed, it will make a difference if we let them know we ‘see’ them and, in some small way, reward them for it.”

The Foundation for Boyertown Education:

With the belief that “Strong schools strengthen communities,” the Foundation for Boyertown Education is dedicated toward the idea that "Together, we can make BIG things happen for students!"  The Foundation for Boyertown Education fosters enriched educational experiences for the students of the Boyertown Area School District by providing grants and enhanced learning opportunities. The Foundation for Boyertown Education is an independent public charity separate from the Boyertown School District (BASD). The Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, tax-exempt organization, founded in 2013 and run solely by a volunteer board comprised of community leaders, business owners and parents. To carry out their mission, the Foundation relies on tax-deductible donations from individuals, businesses, corporations, service clubs, civic groups, alumni and residents. The Foundation serves as a channel through which the Boyertown Community enhances the education of its young people and strengthens the future of the community itself.

More info: www.foundationbe.org

Boyertown Area School District:
The Boyertown Area School District is a public school district which covers 100 square miles in southeastern Pennsylvania. The district operates six Elementary Schools, two Middle Schools and one Senior High School with a student population of nearly 6,700 children.

“Cultivating an exceptional, innovative learning community that enables all students to succeed in a changing world.www.boyertownasd.org

Photograph by Amy Muzopappa

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Sounds like great things are happening at Washington Elementary and hope this idea/program will be followed by the other Boyertown Elementary schools.  Thank to Mrs. Derenzo for being a wonderful and involved principle with her students and staff who started at Pine Forge Elementary.  

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