More truancy officers. A full-time social worker. A “restorative justice” room for kids who get in trouble.
The school system rushed to put those pieces into place at Lincoln-Bassett School in the wake of a state audit revealing “serious concerns” about the education there.
The school district has begun to implement those changes, and others, over the past week, Superintendent Garth Harries announced at Monday’s school board meeting.
The changes come on the heels of a recent state audit, reported in this March 14 Independent story, which cited concerns about kids’ behavior, teacher attendance, student safety, and a “low level of rigor” in the classrooms.
The audit revealed that staff in the school are divided over whether they support the direction the new principal, Yolanda Jones-Generette, is taking the school. The audit was part of Lincoln-Bassett’s application to become the third city school to join the state Commissioner’s Network, a new network of failing schools that receive extra oversight and money in exchange for launching “turnaround” efforts.
Harries Monday said a turnaround committee of teachers, parents, and state and city officials is still working on a redesign plan, which is due to the state on April 7. The plan will include “re-crafting” work rules and expectations for leaderships, teachers and staff. Staff won’t have to reapply for their jobs, Harries said. They will have to decide: “Given these new work rules, do they want to be part of the transformation?” If they don’t want to, they’ll be guaranteed work elsewhere in the district.
Meanwhile, Harries (pictured) said the district has jumped to make some immediate changes at the school.
“We have been concerned about the current state” of the school, he said. “It’s in the midst of change from a long-term leader to a new leader,” and from a failing school to one that is planning for a “transformation.”
Jones-Generette took over last summer from retiring Principal Ramona Gattison, who led Lincoln-Bassett for 16 years. Jones-Generette, a first-time principal, was tapped to plan for a turnaround at the school.
Reached Tuesday at the school, Jones-Generette once again declined to be interviewed. She referred all comments to the central office spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, a team of administrators—including school security supervisor Lt. Dwight Ware, special ed supervisor Typhanie Jackson, and former Director of Schools Charles Williams, who retired in 2012—was on hand lending extra help to the school. Williams is not employed at the school district at this point, according to school spokeswoman Abbe Smith. Two cops were stationed outside Lincoln-Bassett Tuesday to provide extra security, due to an incident the night before in which two teens were shot, one fatally, on the sidewalk right outside the school.
Harries Monday said central office staff “mobilized” last week to give the school extra supports and oversight for the rest of the year.
Florence Caldwell, a former Lincoln-Bassett custodian whose children and grandchildren attended the school, on Monday welcomed the extra supports for the school, especially as it relates to student behavior.
The school has declined in recent years, she said: “It’s not the Lincoln-Bassett that it was when my children and my grandchildren were there,” said Caldwell, who sits on the turnaround committee.
To help with student attendance, the district has increased the amount of time truancy officers are spending at the school. The school used to have a part-time truancy officer; now it has a full-time officer plus extra part-time support. Last year, one of every five students at the school was chronically absent, meaning they missed over 10 percent of school days. This year, the school is making progress in that area, according to the state.
The following extra resources are “in progress” of being implemented at the school, according to an Immediate/Short-term Support Plan Harries distributed at the school board meeting:
• Hire a part-time “dean of social skills.” This position was already budgeted for but had not yet been filled.
• Convert a part-time social worker to full-time.
• Create a new “refocus room” for kids who get into trouble. Set up staff who would focus on “restorative justice” approach, which focuses on repairing any harm that was done, instead of punishing kids.
• Give teachers extra coaching in reading and math.
• Give the principal extra leadership coaching.
In addition, the school is “exploring” bringing in an outside mediation service, such as Community Mediation, to help with “community building” among staff. The audit found staff is split 50/50 over whether they support the principal; the audit identified adult discord as potentially dangerous for the schools’ improvement.
Donna Aiello, the district’s supervisor of staff and organizational development, has been assigned to find ways to address concerns of absenteeism among Lincoln-Bassett staff. She will also prioritize Lincoln-Bassett when assigning substitute teachers.
Meanwhile, district central office staff have begun plans to better communicate with parents and staff. Harries met with staff at the school on Monday of last week, then sent a letter to school staff on Monday of this week. His letter sets expectations for adult behavior, pledges extra support, and calls for an end to the division among staff.
“I ask that everyone at the school set aside differences and come together as a team with a common mission of supporting, educating and caring for students,” the letter reads, in part.
Click here to read it.
In the letter, Harries urges “collective responsibility for raising this school up.” And he concedes he should have done more for his part, too.
“Lincoln Basset is a school with significant needs, and I have been slower than I should have been through the course of the year to fill those needs,” Harries writes. “You have noticed increased presence in the school last week, from both central office and support staff such as the truancy team. We intend to continue that this year.”
In the letter, he asks adults at the school to “be professional and respectful in their interactions with each other and with parents and students.”
He calls for staff to “follow attendance protocols rigorously” and for the principal and assistant principal to “communicat[e] openly, clearly, and
supportively with all staff.”
Harries vows to “provide extra support to teachers who are handling students whose behavior is exasperated by trauma at home and stress at school.” And he calls for adults to be “pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone and adapting to new strategies for instruction and behavioral interventions.”
He said the turnaround committee is coming up with new work rules for next year. A March 15 deadline in the teachers contract has passed, so the school district cannot make changes to the number of school days or the length of the school day, nor make Lincoln-Bassett an official contractual “turnaround” school, where teachers have to reapply for their jobs. However, the new teachers contract does include for an extra half-hour every day that teachers at all schools are supposed to spend on collaborative planning. And the contract allows the school district to change other work rules at “Tier III” schools, the lowest rating on the district’s system of grading schools.
“Once those work rules have been designed, staff who are unable or unwilling to abide by these new rules will be able to request a transfer to other schools within the district,” Harries wrote. The committee will also come up with a plan to add extra supports to the school day, so that students can be at the school for extended hours, such as from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“Change is hard,” Harries wrote, “and we have to find ways to build teamwork among staff and focus our energy and attention on dramatically improving education for our kids at Lincoln-Bassett.”
At Monday’s meeting, school board member Alex Johnston encouraged Harries and the turnaround committee to “really be bold in their thinking.” With a school turnaround, he said, “there’s an opportunity to really rethink how that school works,” he said. But nationally, turnaround efforts have flopped, he said: “Unfortunately, 90 percent of these efforts don’t amount to anything that really meets the needs of kids.”
“We think the other turnarounds that we have done have been successful,” Harries replied, and “there’s a lot more work to do.”