School board meets Sunday to glean info on district ills

Poor discipline, extra work for teachers dominate discussion

When the Jefferson City Board of Education opened itself up to more feedback, John Ruth thought he would hear about a desire for smaller class sizes or the need for more computers.

Instead, Ruth, who is serving his second term on the board, received more concerns about a lack of appropriate student behavior, low faculty morale and questions about the number of initiatives teachers are expected to comply with.

He said many people have approached him, asking questions such: “Did you know your teachers are saying they have issues they need help with?”

“We’re probably failing in our communications strategy to let them (the public) know what we’re doing,” Ruth told his colleagues.

To address this rising wave of concerns, the board met Sunday afternoon to learn more about what administrators are proposing to do about the situation and offer guidance to administrators’ efforts. Three topics — district-wide strategic planning, quality of life in the buildings and strategies for behavior and discipline — dominated the discussion, although numerous other topics were covered.

Two assistant superintendents — Kathy Foster and Sheila Logan — talked extensively about their proposal to handle out-of-control and disruptive children at the elementary level.

Foster noted in recent months her team revised the district’s Teacher Support Team process. She explained the process — which gathers together a group of supportive colleagues — can be initiated by any classroom room teacher who harbors concerns about a student. The group is tasked with suggesting new strategies for coping with behavioral or academic problems.

“The parents are always part of the team,” Foster said.

The revised process is expected to work in conjunction with the creation of a new “transitional classroom” the district will be trying out this fall at the Miller Performing Arts Center. The space was chosen for its central location, and access to a cafeteria and gymnasium.

The classroom is being created as a place to temporarily send elementary students whose behavior is causing significant disruptions in their home schools. Logan said some of the problem behaviors include temper tantrums, hitting, throwing over desks, refusing to heed directions, etc.

Logan said there, these students can “learn to be a learner.”

“We struggle with the five-, six- and seven-year-olds who don’t know how to be in a learning environment,” Logan said.

The women explained their team has crafted a multi-step process that will allow teachers to refer students to the transitional classroom. A committee will decide if the student truly needs to go there.

“When there is a serious safety issue, they can skip steps and refer (a student) straight to the transitional classroom,” Logan added.

If the request is refused, an appeals process will allow the teacher to contest the decision. Likewise, if a parent doesn’t like district’s placement, they too can appeal the decision. Placement to the transitional classroom calls for monthly parent-teacher conferences for each student and monthly parent training sessions, too.

At the meeting, the women shared a document defining their process with the board, but would not share it with the press.

Board member Alan Mudd indicated he believes the faculty’s complaints about combative students are serious and should be heeded.

“I’ve heard from husbands of women who have suffered bruises, black eyes, scratches, and so forth,” Mudd said. “That’s troubling to all of us. We need to know if things are getting better, or if we’re having the same difficult situations.”

Mudd said if the district continues to hear complaints from staff who are physically enduring such treatment, “We need to improve the system,” he exhorted.

Logan said that some of those situations happened because “the staff didn’t realize all the measures that were available.”

Foster added: “We have a plan in place for every building leader to go over the process … go over the steps.”

On Sunday, the board also discussed the district’s practice of removing entire classes from their rooms in order to deal with an out-of-control student in private. The practice is meant to “remove the audience” from students who are misbehaving, but also reduce the stress other students experience by watching a peer rage and cry.

Superintendent Brian Mitchell said the practice happened about 87 times last year, or about once a month per building.

“This practice is questionable,” Ruth said, noting that it doesn’t support the district’s brand as a place with high expectations for students. “It sets the wrong tone. I would support it as a last-resort move.”

Mitchell said he agrees with Ruth, but opposes removing it as a strategy for schools to use.

“It’s commonly used,” he said.

Also on Sunday, the board discussed the wealth of “initiatives” — programs, requests, new strategies for teaching, etc. — that teachers are asked to support and advance. According to one count, teachers have been asked to keep up with 30 or more new ones recently.

Mitchell said he hopes to communicate which programs are critical — formative assessments, for example — and which are merely desirable — project based learning.

“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating our expectations,” he said.

The board also discussed possible methods for surveying the faculty — to determine their happiness in their jobs — but did not decide on direction to take yet.

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