BACK STORY • Schools take on behavior problems with new ideas
Fourteen-year-old Micah Mitchell isn't proud of his behavior at school over the past few years. He's acted up in class, talked back to teachers and the principal, and in general rebelled 'for no reason,' he said.
But after a long history of suspensions at North Portland's Ockley Green School in his fifth- through seventh-grade years, he's now an eighth-grader at North Portland's George Middle School, where he's on track to finish up the year in good standing and move on to high school, where he hopes to advance his dreams of becoming an architect.
'They get paid to design buildings and make stuff,' Micah said, a shy smile spreading across his serious face. 'I just think that's cool.' Of his new outlook on school, he says: 'I'm just here to learn. I don't want to be stupid, end up living on the street.'
Micah's transfer to George in October - after his mother threatened to send him to boot camp - came at an opportune time, when the school began taking on a new strategy to manage student behavior.
'Last year was a difficult year,' Principal Beth Madison said. 'It totally wore people out. We just made a commitment to turning things around.'
As a result of their new tactic - a contract with a Houston-based classroom management program called Envoy - discipline rates this year have been cut in half, and the hallways and classrooms are noticeably more mellow, Madison said.
Yet many schools still are struggling to get a handle on discipline problems, recognizing that school climate is a crucial factor in student achievement, equity and preventing high school dropouts.
A Portland Tribune analysis of Portland Public Schools discipline data over the past four years shows three major conclusions: that discipline rates spike at the middle-school level; that schools in poorer areas have much higher discipline rates than the others; and that there are large over-representations of black, Hispanic and American Indian students involved in disciplinary incidents.
That's no surprise to administrators, who say they're trying to confront these trends.
'Does poverty have an effect on behavior? That's kind of a question I have,' said Tammy Jackson, the district's student conduct program manager. 'The literature would suggest yes, it does. Kids who have more challenges come to school less ready and able to learn. So what is it that schools need to be about to help the kids be successful and deal with the barriers they have?'
Backgrounds play a role
Randy Sprick, a national educational consultant who brought his student behavior program called 'Safe and Civil Schools' to 26 schools in the Portland district last fall, notes that he works with a wide spectrum of districts - from Dallas, Texas (with 84 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch), to Bellevue, Wash., at 17 percent.
Portland is in the middle, with 45 percent. (A school's share of students who qualify for the federal lunch program indicates how many of its students are from low-income families.)
'I'd be cautious implying that this is a poverty issue,' said Sprick, who graduated from Portland Public Schools and now teaches at the University of Oregon. 'But certainly schools in poverty have a higher number of incidents because of absenteeism, higher transience rates. … You also run into some culturally based issues.'
Nikole Hartman, a student intervention specialist at George who has been working with Micah to control his impulses to act out, has noticed that cultural differences play a big role in how kids behave at school.
'A lot of things that come out of my students' mouth, to them, are completely OK,' she said, referring to some of her black and Latino students. 'Their parents say, 'Oh, it's a cultural thing.' Stuff that I would consider wholly inappropriate is fine by their culture and family values.'
Hartman, who is of mixed race, thinks that any racial overrepresentation that exists stems not from any racism by teachers but from the fact that many schools, like her own, simply have large minority populations.
At George, a third of the students are Hispanic, 19 percent are black and 12 percent are Asian.
Districtwide, students may get suspended for everything from fighting and bullying to vandalism, theft, possession of alcohol, tobacco or drugs, or failure to follow rules. The most common cause for suspension in the district is fighting, with bullying coming in a distant second.
Jackson and others also caution against reading too much into the data because various schools handle their disciplinary incidents differently, and some don't record or report all incidents for fear the marks will tarnish their school's image.
John Danielson, principal at Southwest Portland's Jackson Middle School, which has one of the lowest discipline rates, says he doesn't manipulate his numbers.
'When you suspend kids, the data goes in,' he said. 'We do a lot of work here trying to get to a point where we're proactive about student behavior.'
He attributes his low discipline rate to a lot of staff training, a strong parent community and an engaging 'integrative arts' model, a curriculum that crosses lessons between subjects such as math and art.
'If you're really engaged in what's going on at school, you'll probably perform better at school,' he said.
Still, Jackson said she's been trying to work aggressively with schools throughout the district to better track their misconduct data.
'The more we keep information about kids who are struggling with their behavior,' she said, 'the more readily we can respond when something's a problem.'
Pressure's on in middle school
Leslie Rennie-Hill, who oversees the district's Office of High Schools, agrees that engaging kids in their studies is key. She said the overrepresentation of minority and poor students in discipline data mirrors the achievement gap, which the district has been working to tackle.
'Many of the norms in public education in the country stem from a white, middle-class background,' she said, such as having a mostly white teaching and administrative work force and outdated textbooks that lack cultural diversity.
'We've worked to differentiate and add cultural competency to what we do. I'm not at all saying 'water down.' But the way you demonstrate respect to a young black man may be different. We need to develop our ability to do this.'
She said while her office's focus is on academics, there's no doubt discipline is intricately linked. 'If a student isn't in a class (because of a discipline issue), they're missing the class,' she said.
That's why a student's behavior at ages 12 to 14, before transitioning into high school, is so important to address, educators say.
'In many districts, middle schools are the biggest problem, disciplinewise,' Sprick said. Issues tend to swell in middle school for a variety of reasons related to adolescence, he said: 'an incredible degree of peer pressure, a lot more behavior testing - pushing limits, seeing what you can get away with - and also, by high school, a lot of problem kids have dropped out.'
To stem that tide, Rennie-Hill's office has been working on an effort to track the progress of freshmen who are more at risk of dropping out, based on their marks in eighth grade.
The district has identified 1,100 so-called 'academic priority students,' about a third of all district freshmen. Each month, teachers and administrators pore over their progress and try to find ways they can either get additional tutoring or make up a class or part of a class to gain credit.
The early results at the semester mark are encouraging, prompting administrators to ask more about their common assumptions, Rennie-Hill said.
'For years and years, people have thought the way to motivate people is give them the bad news, hit 'em with an F,' she said. 'We're working with teachers and principals to see if that's really motivating.'
Uniforms set a tone
At all grades and all schools, many students come to class with a lot of issues, their principals and teachers say.
There are anger issues, aggression, manipulative behavior, insubordination and willful disobedience, stemming from past abuse, stresses in single-parent households, family members who are incarcerated, the physical effects of poverty such as hunger, or having cultural beliefs about fighting.
Of those who run into discipline problems at Northeast Portland's Boise-Eliot School, '100 percent of those children have pre-existing issues,' student program coordinator Linda Adams said.
Since the school implemented a uniform dress code this year, it immediately brought a different attitude in the building, according to Principal James Brannon.
'It levels the playing field, helps all students step into the building and feel we're all equal, no matter what's happening outside,' he said.
The school has held three 'free dress' days since September, when students could wear their normal clothes instead of uniforms. On each of those days, behavior problems and the energy level of students rose dramatically, Brannon said. He doesn't plan on having any more this year.
But Brannon and Adams say the improved student climate comes from more than just the uniforms. They've been working with teachers on building relationships with kids and heading off problems before they occur.
Since the pre-K-7 school of 420 students has no counselor (it will get a half-time counselor next year, as it adds eighth grade), teachers are asked to send kids to talk with Adams if 'it looks like they're not starting the day well,' Adams said. 'We'll try to sort through the problem, deal with it when it's still small.'
The new school environment may have had an impact on achievement as well. Last week, the school was one of 16 across the state recognized by the Oregon Department of Education for making strides in closing their achievement gap. The honor came with a $3,000 grant and a trophy.
Three other schools have adopted uniform dress codes as well over the past two years. Northeast Portland's Rigler K-8 School was the first, in 2006, and Jefferson's single-sex academies opened with them in the fall.
All - except the young men's academy, which has had some troubles in its startup - have seen a dramatic effect on behavior, and as a result, student performance. King K-8 School, in Northeast Portland, plans to move to a uniform dress code next year.
Message gets reinforced
Yet another approach to the discipline issue is contracting with a consultant, like the 26 schools that have signed up for training in Sprick's Safe and Civil Schools program.
On contract with the district for $25,000, the training includes schoolwide and classroom strategies and materials to improve student behavior, as well as individual plans for kids who need extra help.
The participating schools include the four academies at Jefferson, three academies at Roosevelt, three academies at Marshall, as well as Lincoln, Cleveland, and three alternative schools. The grade schools involved also are geographically diverse.
At George, a small, under-the-radar middle school in an industrial area of St. Johns, Principal Madison is working with her own strategies.
She takes advantage of the school's technology focus: The entire school is set up for wireless access, and all teachers are equipped with laptops and digital projectors to use technology across the curriculum.
Madison creates and e-mails regular PowerPoint presentations to students that are entertaining reminders of how to conduct themselves.
One shows two cartoon characters that say: 'Use your brain, not your fists.' Another: 'Fighting is mean and ugly.' Another, with a character wearing a dunce cap, says simply: 'Fighting is stupid.'
The messages seem to be working, Madison said. Just before spring break, the school hadn't seen a fight for three weeks.
Teachers walk softly
The classrooms, too, show a stark difference, due to the classroom management skills teachers have been learning from their Envoy trainer, who is paid by the school's Title I dollars.
Rather than yell and repeat themselves to get students' attention, teachers have learned to speak deliberately, in low voices and with specific hand gestures, to get students to follow instructions.
Morgan Evans, who teaches seventh-grade language arts, began his class one recent morning with the simple command: 'All eyes on me,' then proceeded to drop his voice several decibels and outline the lessons for the day. When he finished, he said: 'Quietly, begin.'
And then, as one student tried to ask him a question, Evans held his palm up to the student for about 20 seconds, keeping silent. The student apparently decided he didn't need to ask the question after all and went about his assignment - producing a news show with digital video equipment Evans obtained with an outside grant. The other students stayed on task, too.
'When you go nonverbal, you manage with influence and raise productivity,' said Jan Howell-Spiesman, the Envoy consultant who spends two days a week at the school and will expand the training to Rosa Parks K-8 and Lane Middle School next year. 'This is management, not discipline. When you have to manage less, you have more time for teaching.'
At George, students like Micah also get individual help as needed from a student intervention specialist, who keeps a contract between him and his teachers that must be signed daily, to ensure he's doing his work.
He also attends a social skills class, which teaches him techniques to control his impulses and learn respect and responsibility.
'I did a self-timeout today in math class, when everybody was acting crazy,' Micah said, noting that he went to the office and worked on a lesson for 10 minutes, then returned to the class when he needed help.
Part of the reason Madison wants to get a handle on behavior now is that she's expecting 100 additional students next year from Rosa Parks School, after that school's boundaries change to alleviate crowding.
Jackson, the district's student conduct manager, will look to see what effects the K-8 conversions have had on discipline rates, she said. One of the arguments to move adolescents and younger students under the same roof was to create more stable, secure environments that would have a warming effect on all students.
The jury's still out on the overall effectiveness of the new K-8 schools, but at Ockley Green, at least, Principal Joe Malone believes the new structure has made a positive difference.
'Older kids have camaraderie with younger kids,' he said, noting that they enjoy visiting kindergarten classrooms on a regular basis. 'It's no doubt about it - there's a different feel from what middle schools do. If you have less of (middle school students), you have less of those concerns.'
Malone said the school is working on setting consistent expectations for kids and stressing the need to present themselves well in the community. He believes it's critical to focus on this in the early years, before high school. There's a saying he's fond of: 'It's easier to shape a tree when it's young, instead of when it's old, (when) it'll be harder to bend.'