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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Part 4: A Clash Over Discipline

Below is part of four of my book, "Learning to be Leaders," published this month by KnowledgeWorks Foundation. You can download or order a copy here or read part one, part two here and part three here.

A Clash Over Discipline

By early November 2007, the pace has yet to slow. Kastor sits across from Engoglia and pulls out their to-do notebook (it’s way more than a list). “C’mon, we’ve got a half hour. Let’s get something done,” Kastor says.

But Engoglia’s office door is nearly always open, an invitation for students and staff to walk in. And just then, someone does.

“Oh look, here’s Corey ‘I play my Gameboy in science class,’” says Kastor. She’s pulling her hair out with this freshman who has trouble with his medication for attention problems. If they increase the dose, it makes him tired. If he doesn’t take it, he becomes disruptive.

Corey, who lives with his grandmother and has siblings who attend different schools throughout Cleveland, is one example of the discipline problems that are reaching a critical point at Legacy.

Unfortunately, the handling of those issues is another area where Engoglia and his staff differ. Teachers must focus on the needs of the whole class and often opt to remove disruptive students from the classroom, recommending that Engoglia suspend them. The principal prefers to keep students in class.

In mid-December, the faculty files another grievance against Engoglia, citing two cases where he didn’t follow teachers’ recommendations to suspend.

“The one girl has been in foster care all her life. If I suspend her, she’s not coming back. We have one boy who is a junior now. Karen, where would he be if I did what teachers wanted with him?” asks Engoglia.

“A mess. Always in trouble. Immature stuff,” Kastor responds.

“Half the staff wanted to hang him, but he’s had no referrals since a year ago. He’s not an honors student, but he’s better,” Engoglia says.

“Marc always takes the time to listen to their (students’) side of the story. He is genuinely interested in their lives and what may be going on outside of school that may be affecting their behaviors in school,” Kastor says.

“My reasoning with discipline is always around the student,” he says.

Despite their different tactics, teachers are also thinking of students. Accountable for classroom instruction, they focus on the needs of the group. Sometimes removing one disruptive student means they can address the needs of the rest of the class.

One approach to heading off discipline problems gains support from all sides. Noting that 1,000 of the 1,600 discipline referrals in the 2006-07 school year were freshmen, Kastor has started a Freshman Seminar. Every freshman takes the class and learns study habits, organization, behavior expectations in class and how to be successful in high school.

The class has worked so well that the other small schools are going to make it a part of their schedule in the 2008-09 school year.

Now Kastor and Engoglia are planning to add a new component: upper classmen who have been trained to serve as mentors for freshmen.

No sooner do they start discussing the plans for mentors than they are interrupted with another discipline problem.

Kastor closes up her files and leaves the to-do list. “I’ve got to go to class.”

Engoglia sighs. He wants to get back into the classrooms to help with instruction, but discipline issues continue to monopolize his time. These distractions, he knows, are taking away from working on student achievement.

Failing Students

Shortly before winter break, 25 kids are hanging around in the Legacy School office. Engoglia walks in and surveys the crowd.

“Raise your hand if you’re on the honor roll,” he says. No hands are raised.

With her hands on her hips, one girl responds, “Mr. Engoglia, why you gotta be so nasty?”

“I’m not being nasty, but all of my honors kids are in class,” he says. “The bell rings in five minutes and I expect all of you in class.”

He walks into teacher leader Kastor’s office. They are anticipating a tense day. They and leaders of the other four schools plan to introduce a discussion with staff about changing to an eight-period day. The extra period wouldn’t lengthen the teachers’ school day, but would require them to spend more of their day teaching.

Why? In Legacy School alone, 200 students have a grade-point average of less than 2.0. All but 65 of the 329 Legacy students qualify for special help, meaning they have at least one D or F.

Heights leaders want to find ways to help struggling students. While all the schools offer help at the end of the school day, few students take advantage of it. The eight-period day would allow them to build in mandatory help sessions throughout the day.

All five teacher leaders feel that despite the added work for teachers, it is a necessary step for student achievement.

Two days later, they gather to review teacher feedback on their proposal. Renaissance teacher leader Jane Simeri and Kastor are dismayed by some of the responses.

“I already have a full plate; I do not need more student contact time.”

“Teachers are losing planning and lunch time.”

“Requiring teachers to conduct a study hall puts them in front of students for an extra period every day. Is that fair?”

“I’m interested, but only with students I know.”

Engoglia is also frustrated by the response. “On the first day of school, kids are in class and ready to learn. What happens to change that? If kids aren’t coming to class, you have to ask yourself why. What are you doing or not doing to keep kids engaged?” he says.

He thinks teachers should take more responsibility for students’ academic progress. He’s willing to help, but wants them to do more on their own.

Most teachers already put in long hours and still can’t get to everything that needs attention. They worry the extra period will stretch them even thinner. Many also believe it will be a scheduling nightmare and have an adverse effect on electives, which already are squeezed by the small school structure.

Once again, the perspectives on what will help students most are starkly different.


Engoglia can’t believe he overslept today. It’s the start of the second semester and he’s showing signs of exhaustion. Seated on a stack of textbooks in Kastor’s office, he holds his face in his hands and then looks up at Kastor, with the previous semester GPAs in his hand.

“How do I share this with the staff without being the enemy?” asks Engoglia.

She spins around in her chair to look at him. “Keep it structured, not a free-for-all. Present the data and then keep it about what we all can do to help.”

Kastor and Engoglia had hoped their efforts with Freshman Seminar would lead to higher GPAs for the second quarter. But they did not rise. The school’s overall GPA is 1.9 – less than a C.

The low numbers are a result of many things: poor attendance, lack of home support, discipline issues. But Engoglia suspects part of the problem is instructional.

He shakes his head again. “It’s my fault and I know it. I’ve got to be in more classrooms.”

Engoglia notes that the number of discipline referrals is down and attributes the drop to his stubborn insistence that teachers find new ways to deal with problem students. “I’ve been a jerk about it,” he says. “I haven’t done that with grades. A lot of the reason why these GPAs are so low is the way we grade.”

To address grading, he has recently handed out a Repair Kit for Grading. Among its 16 tenets are: “Don’t consider attendance in grade determination; report absences separately,” and “Don’t reduce marks on ‘work’ submitted late; provide support for the learner.”

Through handouts and many other methods, Engoglia repeatedly pushes his staff to think differently about education. It isn’t always welcome. Teachers who have refined their practices over years in the classroom often rely most heavily on what their own experience has taught them.

Engoglia respects that experience, but thinks methods that have been successful in the past may not be effective with the added demands on today’s students. “Teachers say the kids don’t do homework. So you keep giving it to them? Find out why they don’t do it. Do they have a job? Do they understand the material? Why aren’t they doing the homework?

He adds, “There aren’t enough teachers talking to individual students and finding out what’s going on in their lives.”

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