Worries about bad students, demoralized teachers

Observations expressed to Jefferson City school board

Concerns about plummeting teacher morale and a lack of discipline in the schools dominated the discussion at a coffee klatch hosted by the Jefferson City Board of Education meeting Thursday morning.

More than 60 students, parents and retired teachers attended the 3 1/2-hour-long meeting. Many in the group waited throughout the district staff’s nearly two-hour presentation on technology to air their concerns.

Laurel Kramer, a psychologist who said she’s worked with many current and former teachers, told listeners she feels school board members have a false impression that JCPS faculty are content. She said she knows of several teachers who explained their reasons for leaving JCPS in “pointed” exit interviews.

But she doesn’t know who is reading those interviews, or how administrators are addressing those concerns.

“I know two teachers who left because of morale. They feel bullied, manipulated,” she said.

“Where are those surveys going?” she asked. “The school board isn’t getting the information.”

Jennifer Mercer told listeners she transferred her daughter, a kindergartner, to a private school last year after experiencing issues with other students’ poor behavior at Cedar Hill Elementary School.

“Her safety is important,” Mercer said.

Ryan Prenger, husband of a Cedar Hill teacher who left the district, said he believes nearly 50 percent of the school’s teachers have left.

The district’s attorney and human resources director, Penny Rector, acknowledged eight teachers and two support staff have left.

“There are 18 teachers there,” Prenger responded. “They are going to other districts. These are experienced teachers. It scares me to think of a school full of brand new teachers. What is your plan for that?”

Roger Baker, a retired industrial arts teacher with 29 years of experience, said disciplinary issues are nothing new.

“We’d put up with a young man — kindergarten through 16 years old — who would destroy every classroom he stepped into, for the rest of his school career. And then he quit school. It’s not right, it’s not equitable,” Baker said.

But he noted that tolerating poor behavior has eroded the quality of education provided to other students.

Listeners applauded when Baker said: “We’ve got to find a place to put the 1 percent, so the 99 percent can learn.”

Baker concluded that the district doesn’t have enough support and resources in place.

Superintendent Brian Mitchell replied: “I don’t disagree with anything you just said.”

Hollie Burrows, a recent JCHS graduate, hoped administrators didn’t take away a message that critics are blaming faculty.

“We’re not criticizing current teachers,” Burrows said. “I don’t see any current teachers here. They don’t feel like they can give constructive criticism.”

Instead, Burrows said teachers feel they’ll be retaliated against — by administrators and principals — if they openly discuss problems at the high school.

“That’s not the way it should be,” Burrows said. “We know they are doing their best.”

In his remarks, Superintendent Brian Mitchell talked about a new transitional classroom for elementary-age students that the district is implementing at the Miller Performing Arts Center this fall.

The new program will displace the current ABLE and GED programs, which are being relocated to a rented Dunklin Street site.

The Miller space will be used as a place to teach disruptive K-5 students. Mitchell described it as a place for behaviorally challenged students to relearn the appropriate classroom behaviors they need to be successful in their regular classrooms.

He said a child will only be moved to the transitional classroom after a team of educators decides it’s the right thing to do. Also, only students who exhibit numerous incidents of acting out will be considered as candidates. The program is meant for students whose behaviors are so challenging and stressful that they disrupt their whole buildings, not just their classrooms.

But he noted, in the long run, it’s best for students to remain with their peers.

“None of us want to see students removed entirely, because it sets them on such a horrible course,” Mitchell said, noting that ultimately — if these kids do not learn to become self-sufficient adults — the whole community will feel the impact.

Additional coverage examining the concerns raised at Thursday’s meeting will appear in Sunday’s paper and posted online.

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