Add This

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Part 5: Suspension disbelief and a conversation begins

Below is part of five 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 and part four here.

Suspension Disbelief

Engoglia’s discipline challenges continue throughout the year. Despite some improvement in the referral rate, suspension remains the default discipline. As he analyzes four years of data on suspensions, he concludes that there is not one case of a student turning his or her behavior around as a result of being suspended. In fact, suspensions seem to beget more suspensions.

The first step in discipline has always been a teacher referral to be handled by the principal. “It’s an archaic way of doing discipline and I’m working hard to change that. What we’re doing is not working.… I believe the punishment for missing school and work should be school and work,” he says.

Engoglia thinks teachers should do more to address discipline in the classroom. He and the other small schools’ principals and central district staff have developed a new behavior plan that calls for no suspensions of freshmen. They reason that freshmen adjusting to the demands of high school need room to make mistakes without hurting their academic achievement.

Concerned that the change will allow disruptive students to remain in classrooms to the detriment of student learning, the union has yet to endorse the plan.

While he waits to be able to enact the new plan, Engoglia handles each behavior case with as much patience as he can muster.

This time, Corey is back – again, pulling up his pants that hang from his thin frame. He takes a seat at the conference table.

From behind his desk, Engoglia asks Corey how things are going in Jim Voytas’ math class. “Mr. Voytas is cool. We have our differences, but he’s cool.”

“Then you better get out of this office and back to class before Mrs. Kastor gets back, or she will lose her mind,” he says.

No sooner has Corey left than a security guard walks in with another student. “We’re a monk today, Mr. Engoglia,” the guard says as he marches in a student who has his hoodie pulled far over his head.

Engoglia moves to the front of his desk, leans in and tries to make eye contact with the boy, who keeps his gaze on the floor. The student is behind because of poor attendance, and Engoglia encourages him to get a fresh start when the new quarter begins the following week.

A Conversation Begins

Cleveland Heights High School is in a much better place than it was five years ago, Engoglia and others believe. Each year, the staff gets more comfortable with the idea of change and the need for broad change lessens just a bit. The building is a calmer place now. Small school leaders work together to create innovative programs to help student achievement, but they also come back to their individual school strengths. Each of the five small schools has created a strong identity, one that students seem proud to share.

But certain impediments remain. For one thing, Heights is still tied to a traditional master school schedule, making it difficult for each school to create its own bell schedule based on its instructional model and its students’ needs.

Changing the master schedule is not likely, though, so Engoglia and Kastor choose to work on changes they can effect – namely, improvements in classroom instruction.

They plan a professional development day. Teachers will be assigned new Professional Learning Communities, and each PLC will be given a topic to research and to make recommendations on for the following school year.

“We discussed homework, grading policies, practical behavior issues. Anything else?” asks Engoglia.

“How about classroom management and involving parents?” Kastor responds.

Though he was disappointed at the semester GPAs, Engoglia is buoyed by staff response to the challenge. The presentation of GPA data went better than expected.

Kastor and Engoglia say learning that even honors kids are failing in some areas definitely got the teachers’ attention.

Other data surprised the teachers as well.

“A lot of kids are close to passing OGT [the Ohio Graduation Tests]. Attendance is not as big an issue as they thought it was. Four percent of our students are tardy; 55 students are here all the time and still have under a 2.0,” Engoglia says.

For once, the administration and faculty agree. At the meeting, union leader Paul Ernst told the staff that way too many kids are not doing well. “The conversation was started on the issue,” says Engoglia.

One Student at a Time

Engoglia is encouraged by his staff’s willingness to listen and feels optimistic that the seeds have been planted for improvements. Meanwhile, he continues to deal with students who need his help – both those with behavior problems and those without.

Mikol, an office regular, walks into Engoglia’s office and asks to use the phone to call his mom.

With his hand on his forehead, pushing back his hair, Engoglia tries to be patient.

Mikol has earned a reputation as a thief, even having taken a pizza from the staff lounge earlier in the year. Engoglia has tried to talk to Mikol’s parents about the thievery, with no results. He brings up Mikol’s obligation to make up for the theft whenever the boy is in the office, just to let him know he hasn’t forgotten.

“When are you going to pay your fee to me for the stolen pizza?” he says. “You owe me $16, but now it’s up to $20. You can’t get your cap and gown until you pay for it.”

“I’ll pay for it,” he says, and Engoglia hands him the phone.

A little later, Engoglia tries to get two girls to mediate a dispute and brings one into his office.

“Marissa, what did I tell you about confronting people, even in a nice way?” he asks.

“Not to do it.”


“Because with all the people around it escalates,” she says.

“It escalates. Next time walk away.”

Regulars like Mikol and Marissa suck Engoglia’s time, but he stays focused on improving student achievement. After Marissa leaves, he and Kastor start to compare notes on their visits to Adlai Stevenson High School outside of Chicago, hoping to learn from how the school uses professional learning communities.

“Knock, knock. Any y’all good at government?” asks Gerald.

“Bring it in here, whatcha got?” says Engoglia.

Engoglia reads: “‘The execution of the laws is more important than the making of them.’ Thomas Jefferson. What does execution mean?”

“I don’t know. Beat you up?”

“When you watch a football game and the announcer says the play was executed perfectly, what does he mean?”

“Oh, that they did the play good. Yeah, I get it. Thanks.”

Maybe it was Engoglia’s help, maybe not. But toward the end of the year, Gerald gets a free Chipotle lunch in Engoglia’s office for bringing his government grade up from an F to a B. He is joined by Elizabeth, who brought her math grade from an F (13 percent) to an A.

Mikol, on the other hand, is caught on security videotape stealing a laptop and expelled.

No comments: