Part 2 of a three-part series regarding improvements being developed in
On the road to full accreditation:
Lancaster County Public Schools towards full accreditation status.
|by Audrey Thomasson
KILMARNOCKMiddle schools were tagged “the Bermuda Triangle of education” by Cecil Picard, former Louisiana superintendent of education.
They were described as places “where academic achievement goes to die,” by Cheri Yecke, Minnesota’s former education commissioner.
Pre-teens are “the toughest age to teach” because they are “caught in the hurricane of hormones...suspended between childhood and the adult world,” reported the Toronto Star in 2008.
Exaggerations? Or harsh reality?
Lancaster Middle School appeared to fit the profile based on some 250 Lancaster parents, teachers, bus drivers and school officials who gathered at Dreamfields 14 months ago to discuss a public school environment they called unsafe and failing their children.
Most complaints centered on the middle school, which covers grades four through eight, and involved bullying, fist fights, stealing, inappropriate touching, teachers abused by students, students abused by teachers, classrooms where teachers had little control, and poor communication with parents by school administrators.
Structure and routine
Shortly after that meeting the district hired Kelvin Evans in the position of dean of students. At the beginning of the current term, he was joined by a new principal, Mike Daddario, and vice principal, Jessica Davis, who shares behavioral duties with Evans.
Now, five months into the school year, the new administrators believe they are turning the tide on behavioral issues and have begun building personal responsibility and leadership in students.
“There’s lots of positive momentum now in the school,” said Daddario. But, he noted, the problems didn’t occur overnight and will take time to fix. “It’s going to change from where it was. We’re seeing improvements in general atmosphere...but it’s nowhere near where we want it to be.”
Daddario emphasized the need for pro-active strategies, establishing structure and routines and consistently following through for the school’s nearly 500 students.
“It’s all about being firm, fair and consistent,” said Daddario.
Procedures are now in place to monitor students throughout the day.
“Teachers stand in the doorways making sure kids aren’t lingering in hallways. They walk students in line to lunch and between classrooms,” something that was not done before, he noted.
Daddario, Davis and Evans maintain a constant presence in the hallways whenever children are moving between classes or recess”...to prevent things from happening,” said Daddario.
While he and Davis make daily visits to classrooms, Evans can be found overseeing student behavior in the cafeteria during every lunch session. Also, the school resource officer, Lancaster Sheriff’s Office deputy Dan Sanders, is a full-time presence during the school day.
“His goal and ours is to be a positive influence with students,” said Daddario. “He stays for sports, walks the halls, is in the cafeteria.”
“We’re very passionate,” said Davis, “and when you’re really passionate about something, you don’t want quick fixes.”
Expectations and trust
Turning behavior around begins with teaching students what is expected of them, said Daddario. One way this is accomplished is through behavior models, such as role-playing, to demonstrate the right way to respond in situations.
The school’s approach to dealing with troublemakers began changing after Evans was hired a year ago.
“He takes time to hear the kid out,” said Daddario. “He doesn’t tell them how to behave, he makes them think about what they should do next time.”
“We spend a lot of time talking with them about what they could have done differently,” said Davis.
One important lesson in correcting behavior is to assure students that everyone stumbles once in a while. “Kids are kids. We were in trouble as kids, too. We’re being an advocate with them, but at the same time being firm and holding them to expectations,” Daddario explained. It’s a common-sense approach that establishes trust, he added.
While a big part is listening to the kids, they also believe in listening to parents. The administrators said they return every phone call from parents, which has opened lines of communications.
“We give them time to talk hear them out, listen to them in order to make the situation better. We want the behavior to minimize,” said Daddario, who noted that parents have been very supportive and appreciate the school establishing a relationship with them.
“When I call parents about consequences, they like that. They feel connected,” said Davis. “And no one feels like ‘I got in trouble for nothing.’”
“Parents understand that their concerns are going to be addressed also,” said Daddario. “We need parents on our side. We support them and we need them to support us...to make the situation better and have an environment that’s conducive to learning.”
The school is offering incentives for good behavior and grades through the state-advocated program RISE (Respect, Integrity, Service and Excellence), a program in which student teams earn service privileges.
Earned privileges include one day of wearing street clothes to school instead of uniforms or becoming hallway monitors or class representatives. Eighth-graders may tutor or mentor fourth-graders.
LMS’s home rooms have become “teams” that work on building responsibility and leadership.
While the program is just getting off the ground, it is already improving the “noise” level in classroomsthe number one reason students are “referred” to the office.
Teams without “referrals” over a nine-week period are rewarded with a school pep rally or special movie offering, such as “Despicable Me.” Teams that had referrals attend a review session on what’s expected of them.
The Kiwanis Club of the Northern Neck offers a program for fourth- and fifth-graders called K-Kids and the school is hopeful that Kiwanis will soon sponsor a Builders Club for the upper grades. The clubs give students opportunities for community service such as K-Kids’ recent coat drive and making greeting cards for a retirement home. In December, members were invited to march with Kiwanians in the Kilmarnock Christmas Parade.
“If we can build a sense that they have a responsibility and are neededthat’s how we make change,” said Davis.
Daddario credits community involvement for helping students reach 100% participation in the mandatory uniform policy that went into effect January 6. Not only did parents back the uniform policy, the school received donations from many businesses, churches, organizations and individuals which assisted some families in purchasing uniforms and provided incentive rewards for student cooperation.
Whether uniforms are contributing to better behavior, Daddario says, “It’s too early to tell.”
The expectation of good behavior applies to all students including the special education division and those with special needs such as Attention Deficit Disorder.
“There are children with different behavioral plans,” said Davis. “Still, we set high expectations for every kid.”
At Monday night’s school board meeting, Daddario reported referrals are down 27%, from 709 to 518, over a year ago.
The improvement has not gone unnoticed at the central office. “I’ve been very impressed with the atmosphere” at the middle school, said acting superintendent Sandy Spears. “It’s a quiet, calm and relaxed environment.”
By having a constant, visible presence around the school, Spears said the administrators are helping teachers suppress some of the unacceptable behavior. She also expressed the important role parents have in how their children behave.
“The emphasis needs to come from home,” she said. “Parents should tell their children to go to school and learn as much as you can learn. If school was really important to children, they would not misbehave as often.”
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