Parents, teachers sound alarms over poor discipline, morale in JCPS

Last spring Dulce Stevens — the mother of two boys at Moreau Heights Elementary School — had an eye-opening moment. At an end-of-the-year awards ceremony, another parent asked Steven’s opinion about a troubled student at the school.

“‘I don’t know. What am I supposed to think about so-and-so?” Stevens responded quizzically.

“Well, Dulce, did you realize he cussed nearly every day in school?” the mother asked.

Although that news was disheartening, her 7-year-old son’s response was even more unsettling.

“He said, ‘Well, yeah, mom. That happens every day.’ It has become not-newsworthy anymore among the kids. A child is cussing out his teacher and it … it just seems normal,” she lamented.

That story, and others like it, have been quietly percolating among retired teachers, former students and parents with children in the district.

Some of those tales include students body-slamming other students; kids acting out in stressful, emotional meltdowns that disturb their peers; pencil boxes being thrown across the room; principals who are too swamped with round-the-clock meetings to meet teachers’ needs; small children running on top of the tables; students screaming; and a host of other behaviors that interrupt the school day.

Some parents are perturbed by a district-wide practice that, on occasion, removes an entire class from their room in order to “remove the audience” from a student who is misbehaving. (School administrators maintain the practice is accepted in the profession.)

“It seems as if teachers aren’t left with many options,” said Carrie Morgan, another parent with children at Moreau Heights who substitutes regularly in the district. “The misbehavior is impeding the education of the other students who are watching, especially at the kindergarten and first grade level.”

Because of some of the circumstances at her son’s school, the Morgans transferred their youngest child, a first grader, to private school last year at mid-semester.

Morgan fears if a handful of students are misbehaving, and no consequences are meted out, it sends the wrong message to well-behaved children.

“If he can do it, we can, too. The misbehavior is transferred to ‘good’ children. We don’t want misbehavior to become learned behavior,” she said.

Morgan feels school personnel lack the resources they need to adequately address discipline problems with students in the schools. That message was reiterated multiple times Thursday morning, when about 60 citizens attended a coffee klatch to share their concerns with Board of Education leaders.

“Teacher morale is low, due to the fact that teachers feel their hands are tied,” Morgan said. “Teachers do not feel like they are getting the support they need from the central office.”

One major flaw Morgan feels needs to be fixed is the district’s large student-teacher class ratios.

“I feel they are overcrowded. Twenty-five kindergartners in one class is too many,” Morgan said.

Stevens shares Morgan’s concerns.

“If there is one or two children who need that negative attention, that means there are another 23 children who know right from wrong and are just sitting there waiting. I don’t know. I think the teachers definitely need support. They need to know the community is listening and that we really do care. I don’t know that they hear that very much. I don’t know that they hear ‘thank you’ very much,” Stevens said.

The conversation about cussing wasn’t the only harbinger that school life for her son is awry.

“There was one night he just came home and said, ‘I don’t feel safe in my class anymore,’” Stevens said.

She said she did talk with the staff when than happened.

“I know I can’t bubble wrap my child all the time, but he should have a safe environment. And his teacher was very gracious about everything and I know she was trying her hardest,” Stevens said.

She feels if the district doesn’t have the resources to cope, parent-volunteers may be one strategy.

“There are lots of well-intentioned parents who want to stand in the gap and help,” she said.

Thursday’s morning coffee meeting was the third time the Board of Education has solicited the public’s viewpoint on life in the schools. At each meeting, they have received an earful from skeptical critics of the district who want to know what the administration is going to do.

What is the district going to do?

Superintendent Brian Mitchell said a self-study the district completed in February identified four areas that needed immediate attention.

“One identified area, at the elementary level, was the need to better support the increased emotional/behavioral needs of our students,” he said.

He noted a committee — including parents, teachers, counselors and principals from every elementary building — was formed. As a result of their work, Mitchell said several “action steps” will be implemented by the start of school in August.

One of the most notable responses is the establishment of a “transitional classroom” to be located in the Miller Performing Arts Center. The new program will displace the ABLE and GED programs, which will be moved to a new, rented site on Dunklin Street.

With five specially trained teachers and paraprofessionals to staff the new transitional classroom, the space is intended to serve students “in need of the most significant support on the behavior continuum.”

Mitchell said the idea isn’t to punish students by sending them to the new classroom. Instead, staff want to help difficult students who haven’t yet been taught appropriate ways to express their emotions. He said there’s a difference between the emotional and behavioral issues that a young child might exhibit — behaviors that are learned and can be unlearned, he feels — and the discipline a teenager needs to be less defiant and more compliant at school.

“None of us want to see young children removed from an educational setting entirely because it sets them on such a horrible course for their future, and their ability to transition back into a regular setting and have a chance for success,” Mitchell told the coffee crowd.

Other interventions planned for August include launching a pilot program at East Elementary school that calls for hiring a full-time family school advocate — a social worker who liaisons with families — and an at-risk specialist.

The district give elementary school guidance counselors more flexibility in how they spend their time. For example, they may spend more time triaging individual students or focus their attention on a group of kids who need it, instead of sticking with their traditional curriculum.

And the district will consider implementing an elementary social skills curriculum that would focus on ideals like honesty, hard work, kindness and respect for others.

Board of Education member John Ruth said he hopes these new changes will help relieve some of the stresses in the classroom.

“When school starts this year, every parent, every student, every teacher needs to know: No one student should be allowed to be a distraction from the learning environment of a majority of students who are excited, happy and energized to learn every day,” he said.

Neither does he see the transitional classroom as a way of sweeping away problem children. “To the contrary,” he said. “We’d like to wrap our arms around them even more … to support them, challenge them. Ultimately we’re looking to produce high-functioning, high-quality individuals who can be accountable to themselves through gainful employment.”

Although this new transitional classroom will help restore calm to the elementary buildings, the high school has no analogous alternative location to address behavior problems.

Currently, high school administrators rely upon in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension and the educational program at the Prenger Family Center.

A few years ago, high school administrators created the “Jay Plus” program to address discipline problems. But two years ago, that program dissolved and was “incorporated into the Jefferson City Academic Center (JCAC),” Mitchell said.

However, JCAC was not created to be an alternative school for students with behavior problems; it was designed to be a nurturing environment for students who have trouble academically and need extra assistance to graduate.

Mitchell said, at the district level, leaders are “going to be looking at space needs” for an alternative program for secondary students with behavioral problems.

“It’s a component that’s missing,” he said.

In the meantime, he said secondary-level administrators are going to take a closer look at how disciplinary problems are reported and work with faculty to ensure that behavior problems are reported consistently by staff.

Former board member Jackie Coleman said something has gone awry.

“Something is eating at people … people are not happy. No matter where I go, people talk about how unhappy they are. I am bombarded,” she said.

Roger Baker, a retired industrial arts teacher with 29 years of experience, captured the mood at Thursday’s coffee when he said: “We would put up with a young man all the way from kindergarten to his 16th birthday. He would destroy a classroom. Every classroom he walked into. And we never wanted to get him out of the classroom because he deserved an education. He destroyed education for the entire rest of the class.”

Mitchell replied to listeners that he appreciates their feedback and he said he knows the district doesn’t have enough supports in place to tamp down problem behavior.

“I don’t know what all those supports may ultimately need to be,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us working together. It’s going to take ongoing feedback from you, from our staff and from our parents. We’re trying to get better at soliciting feedback.”

The superintendent said he wants to see the community and the school district identify and provide more supports to help parents respond to inappropriate student behavior.

“It can’t be just the school district’s responsibility to manage those behaviors,” he said.

“It’s like we’re drowning”

Other people who attended Thursday’s coffee raised concerns that today’s teachers feel overwhelmed by their workloads, because there is no end to the number of initiatives thrown their direction.

At the coffee, Ryan Prenger told listeners his wife, Buffey Prenger, decided that the 2013-14 school year would be her last at Cedar Hill Elementary School. After 14 years as a teacher, she has decided to work for the family business instead.

Prenger said she’s leaving the profession because she couldn’t keep up with a “constant barrage” of initiatives, programs, committee assignments, projects and other miscellaneous requests to do tasks in new ways. She said it was affecting the quality of the teaching in the classroom.

“It’s like we’re drowning,” she said. “We’re the walking wounded. Teachers shut their doors and cry. They spend their weekends paging through the classified ads.”

Prenger said she hopes her remarks aren’t interpreted as evidence that teachers don’t want to work hard.

“That’s the last thing I want,” she said. “The teachers I worked with are caring, concerned professionals who will do anything to help their students. But, at the end of the day, you can only work so hard. And many times, we left knowing we hadn’t gotten done everything that was asked of us.”

Prenger said teachers at her school have attempted to share their concerns with both Superintendents Bert Kimble and Mitchell. They have turned in teacher surveys saying the same thing. They have brought in groups like the Missouri State Teachers Association to advocate on their behalf.

All of those efforts came to naught, Prenger said.

She noted Mitchell visited the school last spring and was “barraged” by her demoralized colleagues. Many wanted to submit anonymous letters detailing their complaints.

She said Mitchell discouraged her peers from doing that.

“He said, ‘I can’t do anything if it doesn’t have a name on it … it goes in the trash,’” she said.

The Prengers contend that out of the 18 regular K-5 classroom teachers in the building, five have resigned. Three are leaving the profession entirely and two are going to smaller districts nearby.

Central officer administrators have different view. Penny Rector, the district’s human resources director, said 38 people work in the building and 26 are certified staff. Of the 26 — a number that includes art, P.E., special education teachers, too — five have resigned.

A sixth employee has taken a job as a reading specialist elsewhere in the district.

“They are escaping,” Ryan Prenger said. “That’s a lot. And that’s just this year.”

“I though I would retire as a teacher,” Buffy Prenger said.

Rector doesn’t think the district’s attrition rates are excessive compared with national and state levels. (A study by researchers from the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs pegged teacher turnover in Missouri at 16 percent in 2006.)

Last year 11 percent of the district’s teachers — 80 people — decided to either retire or resign. Of those, 27 retired and 53 resigned.

The year before that, the numbers were very similar with 38 retirees and 42 resignations.

During the 2011-12 school year, about 9.14 percent of the teacher workforce retired.

“I feel it’s under the national average,” Rector said.

District’s response

Board of Education members said responses to these concerns, and others, are imminent.

Speaking on the board’s behalf, John Ruth sees concerns raises at the coffee sessions as “an opportunity to highlight the process we’ve been going through to identify areas we need to focus on in our district to get better.”

Ruth continued: “We’ve had some folks say, ‘We need help.’ And this is really an opportunity to thank the people in our community who always believe, and they continue to believe, that here in Jefferson City we’re in control of our own destiny. You’ve got people who are committed to this place being a great place to live, work and raise a family. The schools are a subset of that.”

Ruth acknowledged that recently the board has heard feedback concerning the climate and culture in the school buildings.

“Drill down a little further, and there are behavior and discipline issues,” he said. “So, since these have become items that people have asked for help in, the board has taken action to try to make progress.”

Ruth said the most-valued resource the district has is a “high quality classroom teacher.”

“No matter what quality brick-and-mortar we put around them, no matter how many iPads we buy … and we want all those things to be exceptional … we understand that teacher is the most important thing we can give to our students,” he said. “That’s why we’re asking for their input. How can we help you? What tools do you need? Where do we need to focus?”

“That’s why we have a strategic plan … which measures retention of high-quality teachers.”

Ruth said the board hopes to meet for a work session to discuss climate, culture, behavior and discipline soon.

Ruth said he wanted to “thank all the community members who have been participating in the board’s plea for feedback and dialog on how we can continue to make this a better school district.”

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