Taking back a school

In Indianapolis, a new principal tries to take back the city’s worst middle school, a place of disorder, violence and rock-bottom expectations. He transfers 17-year-old seventh- and eighth-graders to alternative schools, suspended students for fighting and tries to enforce a dress code. The Indy Star reports:

Students … might be obeying, but teachers were another matter. (Principal Jeffery) White couldn’t persuade them to assign exciting projects, provoke students with controversial questions or teach hands-on lessons.

To a science teacher, White suggested dissecting frogs.

“You want me to put scalpels in their hands?” she responded. “That’s crazy.”

Teachers were afraid, outside evaluators told White. Afraid to step beyond the same old lesson plans. Afraid of their students.

And the students knew it.

The principal lets students hold a talent show in the long-abandoned auditorium. The show is a success — but a fight breaks out in the parking lot.

Three girls from Shortridge Middle School had jumped a John Marshall student leaving the show. Hundreds of children poured into the brawl.

White planted himself in front of the school, instinctively protecting the grounds even as he felt anger and disappointment.

“This is why you can’t let them do anything,” a teacher called out.

Still by mid-year, eighth-grade test scores are up, passing several other middle schools.

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  1. Why would students even show up at such a horrid place every day?

    A fine post about the need for something different.

  2. Miller Smith says:

    Notice he couldn’t do much more than kick out the 17 year olds. That’s the way it is in my county. The students have a ‘right’ to coe to school and we can’t suspend them for more than 5 days at a time.

    And get this-teachers must provide all make-up work for suspended students as a suspension counts as an excused absence. You are not allowed to fail a student due to excused absences.

    Here’s a big clue-at my school, 40% of the graduating seniors last year had 20 or more days unexcused absence. We were not allowed to no-credit them. We were required to allow make-up work for all unexcused absences.

  3. It is — or ought to be — an agonizing choice to kick a kid out, to write him off, give up on him.

    Triage is not a good model for public education but sometimes it’s the only one we’ve got. It is the strongest argument for and against school choice.

    No parent or child ought to be forced to go to a dysfunctional school.

    In the long run, perhaps, school choice would elevate all schools, perhaps, but in the short run it could also make the bad ones worse.

    I have taught “bad” kids (those who were kicked out of other schools) and usually they are not bad at all. In the right circumstances they are nice, even respectful, and sometimes can flourish. I’ve also seen kids get kicked out of our school and go straight down the drain. One boy, articulate and spirited if a little lazy, is now — 13 years later — a crack head living in a box. Another boy who should have gone straight to college after HS, wound up joining a gang and spent his early adulthood in prison.

    The crack head got kicked out because he had put his hands on a girl during an argument and the next day the girl’s uncle and his thug-mates came to school and tried to shoot the boy. The girl also got kicked out (I don’t know what became of her).

    The other boy yelled at — and humiliated — the AP in a public vanue.

    Maybe booting those two boys helped teach a lesson to others who might have found discipline as a result.

    Who knows?

    I have spoken to both men and they both take full responsibility for getting kicked out of our school and pretty much everything else that happened to them afterwards.

    But I don’t let them off the hook.

    We should have been able to do more for them.

    Sometimes there is a school culture that influences the behavior of everyone and removing specific kids does nothing to change it.

    On the other hand, the culture is created by the people — including students — in the institution.

    I wish that Indianapolis principal a lot of luck.

  4. wayne martin says:

    > It is — or ought to be — an agonizing choice to kick
    > a kid out, to write him off, give up on him.

    Using the “factory model”, it is incumbent to identify parts that do not meet the quality expectations for the product. Not only can a faulty part not work, but it can damage surrounding parts which can lead to system failure.

    Why removing disruptive students from the class room is not clearly the correct action on the part of schools defies imagination. Suspension might be not the correct answer, given that “alternatives” might be available. But teachers and Administrators have to realize that the whole is more important than the individual.

  5. Yes, Wayne Martin, I think most educators understand the toll that misbehaving students take on schools.

    In some cases, being very harsh on those kids can have a sobering effect on others who might be disruptive.

    Allowing students who might not care about their futures to sabotage the education of others does seem unethical.

    But only if we’ve made a reasonable effort to intervene, to work with those “bad” students.

    I’m not sure I accept the “factory model” as a useful one in dealing with educating human beings, but I’ll indulge you. Okay, using that model:

    Do you always discard the faulty part?
    Or do you remove it and repair it when possible (when it’s cost effective)?

    Removing disruptive kids from a class seems a fair thing to do — for the students whose education is being ruined. Most students with whom I’ve discussed this say just that. They are much harsher on their peers than I am. But what then?

    Repair them and return them to the class.
    Notice I said repair, not punish.
    We are using the factory model, after all.

    You wouldn’t punish a compressor that wasn’t working, would you?


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