A History of PBIS in PUSD from Implementation to Innovation

The history of PBIS in PUSD was not initially tied to LCFF. In its burgeoning stage, there was a shared agreement between district and school leaders on the importance of the social emotional development of students. Additionally, since receiving the label of “significant disproportionality,” senior leadership recognized the importance of a comprehensive approach to thinking and planning strategically to close gaps in the district. For years, PUSD had been missing its targets. As Dr. Kathrine Morillo-Shone shared: “Not because the people don’t care that we were missing our targets. We had so many resources and people who cared, we focused heavily on academics and content and all of that, but it was not connecting.” District efforts were not reflected in their data, both internal and external.

In 2012, after the creation of the equity plan, PUSD intentionally shifted the focus from significant disproportionality to a broader and strategic pursuit of equity. At the same time, as in many districts across California, the world of education was going through significant changes, and shifting priorities often come with multiple “packages” of solutions. The district had tried many in the past, and district leadership knew a piecemeal approach would fail to meet their goals.

An important question at the time, in the words of Morillo-Shore, Director of Equity and Professional Learning, was “How do you redefine culture district-wide without really having it come down as a top-down?” The district, led by the Department of Equity and Professional Learning under the Division of Educational Services in partnership with Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), decided to build a phased approach to PBIS with several key components:

  • a clear and explicit commitment to equity as a core driver of PBIS;
  • the development of school leadership teams to co-lead the process;
  • a focus on stakeholder engagement and buy-in;
  • a shift towards a whole-child approach that places Social Emotional Learning as part of everyone’s responsibility; and
  • a commitment from the district to supporting professional growth and capacity building to ensure fidelity in implementation.

In 2015, the district’s senior leadership, in conversations with LACOE, identified PBIS as a potential strategy for

  • equitable, safe, and positive learning spaces for students;
  • positive school cultures across the district;
  • responsive and comprehensive tiered systems of support;
  • local and distributed leadership;
  • responsive support systems that are based on the whole child; and
  • consistent data systems and teams to gauge progress and monitor the impact of their work.

With these goals in mind, PUSD initiated a phased approach toward a comprehensive district-wide implementation, initially starting with a select number of schools (a number that has grown to 27 total schools). This approach aligned well with the principles of PBIS. However, as senior leadership began developing a strategy, they recognized that profound changes needed to take place for both PBIS and the broader pursuit of equity to be successful.

First, a change was needed in the way PUSD saw itself, its students, and how that was reflected in the culture of schools. As shared by members of the leadership team during a focus group, “In essence it was some way of retrofitting the way we thought about Pomona, because Pomona in some ways has a very negative image of Pomona Unified and a history of not seeing our kids as the assets that they are from the get-go.” Second, the district recognized that this shift in thinking not only meant a change in beliefs but also a consequential shift in structures, procedures, practices, and spending. As argued by the district’s former Deputy Superintendent Stephanie Baker, “There was a lot of things that needed to be unlearned and relearned as an institution.”

Also in 2015, the district underwent a self-review process while developing its Promise of Excellence Strategic Plan 2015-2020. District leadership, in collaboration with multiple outside partners, recognized that while there was a general understanding of the need to educate the whole child and to focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), it was not reflected in their structures. Additionally, there was no coherent, comprehensive, and strategic approach to do so. In the words of Ashley Hedrick, Program Specialist and head teacher in the PBIS district team: “To really support our students, we knew we needed to bring all that SEL component before we could actually pitch the content (academic); we just did not have a good way to do it.” These insights were both a challenge and a key element of buy-in as PUSD began its PBIS journey.

During our visits to PUSD, stakeholders, students, teachers, and school leaders across different sites proudly shared stories of change and success. While PBIS was seen initially as a system for behavior, its impact has spread into academics, culture, instructional practices, relationships with families and the community, teacher leadership, and the operation of schools themselves. Similarly, both supports for students based on needs and assets as well as intentional interventions and supports had been often relegated to special education. This not only prevented supports for all students and more comprehensive strategies but also hindered collaboration and expertise sharing between educators.

PBIS Today

Four years later, PUSD is on phase four of implementation. There are 27 schools with active PBIS teams leading its different phases of implementation. In 2016, 15 schools were awarded Bronze Recognition by the California PBIS Coalition. In 2017, there were 13 Silver Recipients and five Bronze. In 2018, there were four Gold Recipients, 17 Silver Recipients, and two Bronze Recipients. Today, a committed team of district and school PBIS coaches, alongside the leadership of the Department of Equity and Professional Learning, lead the process. All of the coaches are classroom teachers who have been trained by LACOE, collaborate as a professional learning network, lead Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), coach and support their peers, and, as explained by Sarai Costley, Program Administrator of Equity and Professional Learning, “have become a crucial part of this process.”

In 2017, during their presentation at the National PBIS conference titled “A journey to systemic change and sustainability,” PUSD’s PBIS team drew three important parallels to illustrate their journey from the beginning to today:

  1. From Implementation to Innovation;
  2. From Struggling to Strengthening; and
  3. From Fragmentation to Cohesion.

When asked why she believes PBIS worked in PUSD, Morillo-Shone said:

We were very fortunate that we grounded our work around equity to begin with. The equity plan was written in 2012; a group of stakeholders used Dr. Edward Fergus’ Equity Lens Assessment and worked very closely with Napa County Office of Education, who at the time was in charge of the significant disproportionality.1

Next, we will focus on three key components that have begun to move PBIS beyond behavior and toward a broader strategy for equity: The Development of School Leadership Teams; A Shift Towards Educating the Whole Child; and PBIS, MTSS, and a broader strategy for equity.


  1. Fergus, E. (2017). Solving disproportionality and achieving equity: A leader’s guide to using data to change hearts and minds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.