Benny & Dr. D Strike A Deal

Markeshia Ricks PhotoInstead of sitting inside his third-grade classroom with his fellow students hours into his first day of school, Benny was standing in the hallway talking to two teachers.

He wasn’t in trouble. He was in distress. And he wanted to speak with “Dr. D.”

Benny was convinced that there had been some kind of mistake. He was in the wrong grade. And he could prove it.

At least that is what the pint-sized boy was trying to explain to the teachers listening patiently to him Thursday morning, the frenetic first day of the school year at Brennan-Rogers School of Communications and Media in the West Rock neighborhood.

The teachers tried to explain that Benny was indeed in the right grade. But Benny said he could prove that he belonged in fourth grade.

With more dignity than most adults speaking to an unyielding customer service representative, Benny wanted to go above the teachers’ heads. He wanted to speak to management.

“Can I talk with Dr. D?” he asked in earnest.

It just so happened that Brennan-Rogers Principal Gail DeBlasio, known to the students at the pre-K-8 school as “Dr. D” or “Miss Dr. D,” was making the rounds, headed Benny’s way.

When she walked up to the trio, Benny turned to her and made his pitch: Give him a week to prove that he could do fourth grade work.

“If I can get an 80, maybe you can let me go to the fourth grade,” he said.

DeBalsio squatted down to his height so she could look him in the eye.

“Prove to me that you can do third grade work for a week…,” she said.

“But…,” he tried to interrupt.

“Let me finish,” she said gently. “I’d rather you prove you can do third grade work than move you up to fourth grade and have you not do well and then have to move you back.”

Frustrated, but accepting DeBlasio’s solution as fair enough, Benny rubbed his eyes as if he might cry. No tears fell. “We’ll meet in a week?” he pressed.

“It’s a date,” she promised. Benny went back to class.

Rolling With It

In just the first few hours of the first day of school DeBlasio had already called on the “restorative practices” that her team has been training on and using for the last two years.

Before her encounter with Benny, she and Assistant Principal Monique Brunson and the rest of the staff were trying to manage a computer system mini-glitch just as hundreds of their students and their parents were walking through the doors .

But you wouldn’t know it, as faculty and staff greeted students and parents with big hugs and excited cries of “Look how much you grew!”

DeBlasio said during a quiet moment in her office later that while academics are a top priority at the Brennan-Rogers Magnet School, so is social and emotional learning.

In fact, the social-emotional learning was so important that two years ago teachers elected to come to school earlier to give students a extra half hour in the morning to meet in what is known at the school as “Crew.” In that 30-minute meeting, students are not only allowed to share their feelings, but taught how to identify and express them.

“Our feeling is if we teach our kids how to identify their feelings and articulate their feelings, and express their feelings appropriately that we’ll be able to have more peace,” DeBlasio said. “Kids will be able to work out their differences in a more agreeable manner. And we’re teaching them a skill that will last a life time.”

The school, an original experimental site of Yale psychiatrist James Comer’s groundbreaking social-emotional learning methods back in the day, is once again becoming Comer trained. DeBlasio is a long time acolyte of the method which advocates addressing student social-emotional needs as a way of helping them succeed academically.

Brennan-Rogers also is one of the test sites for the district’s efforts to add “restorative justice” practices into several schools’ disciplinary procedures thanks to a two-year grant from the American Federation of Teachers.

Those restorative practices aren’t just for inter-student conflicts. They also guide faculty and staff in handling student discipline and distressed children like Benny. Even parents participate in restorative circles.

DeBlasio said the process requires everyone to go beyond the surface of a child’s behavior to see what might be getting in the way of learning, to create that behavior.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. “But we have to give it a go.”

When it works, it looks a lot like what happened with Benny in the hallway.

His teachers had brought him out of the classroom when he was upset so that he could collect himself in the hallway while his classmates carried on inside. The teachers listened to his concerns and took them seriously rather than dismiss them. They didn’t force him back to class before a resolution that everyone could agree upon.

It’s a lot of negotiation to go through with a third grader, and DeBlasio admitted that there are some teachers who don’t like it, particularly on those days when a student’s behavior is over the top. Even she has to make a conscious effort to handle student behavior in this way, she said. It takes more time and effort. But it produces results.

“That’s why that is up there,” she said of a poster with restorative questions that she can see from her desk. “It’s my way of keeping in mind that I need to be restorative as well.”

Multiple Hats

While the school is ever working on social-emotional learning, it also is under a mandate to keep showing academic improvement. Brennan-Rogers has emerged from “turnaround” status, a designation reserved for Connecticut schools in the state with the worst overall student performance in a five-tier accountability system. The state had flagged Brennan-Rogers for specific interventions including more professional development for teachers. Brennan-Rogers teachers have a full week of training the week before school starts. They have additional staff meetings during each month of the school year. They have collaborative periods each morning. They also have three additional days of work for reflection after the school year ends.

“You have to have a high level of dedication to be here,” DeBlasio said. Teachers at Brennan-Rogers tend to be younger, and the time commitment means that the turnover is pretty regular, she said. This year the school has four or five new teachers. On average, there are about three new teachers each year.

“Predominately it’s people relocating and people with young children who need to go closer and have less of an obligation to come the week before and stay the week after,” she said.

Despite the turnover, the school has made strides to improve and is now a step above turnaround. It has “focus” status; that means the school still demonstrates low performance but mostly among certain populations of students such as those from particular ethnicities and socioeconomic status.

The K-8 school has two buildings across the street from each other. Its steady growth to 560 students prompted DeBlasio to move the third grade to the Rogers side of the campus and open up a third fifth-grade class on the Brennan side. It is made up predominantly of black and latino students of lower socioeconomic status. Around 40 students from other nearby towns attend the school.

“People wear multiple hats and do multiple jobs around here,” she said.

That was demonstrated Thursday when an unexpected gift from Yale University showed up with no warning from the benefactor. Instead of DeBlasio rushing out to deal with the delivery of some 30 boxes of donated supplies, art teacher Jeffrey Summers radioed to say he’d take care of it.

“That’s what makes this school so unique,” DeBlasio, who first came to Brennan-Rogers as a magnet resource teacher. “We’re all in this together, and nobody says ‘That’s not my job. I’m not going to do it.’ So, when people leave here, they often tell me that they miss the level of collaboration and collegiality that we have here, because most of my teachers they’re not competitive. They’re collaborative. To be a new teacher here, you receive a lot of support from your grade level and from your coaches and hopefully from myself, too.”

She also credited the willing collaboration of parents who have answered the call when they were asked to help students improve their attendance and practice their basic math skills.

“Our scores are going in the right direction, and it’s not just the dedication of the teachers,” she said. “We have great parents and families, too. They helped us to increase our math scores so we know it isn’t just us here. We know they’re helping us as well, whether or not they get the credit, we know it’s them. “

That spirit of collaboration extends to school leadership, which consists of DeBlasio and Assistant Principal Brunson, who is in her third year in that role. The two women share the same philosophy of pairing rigorous academics with social-emotional learning.

“We want students to really grasp all the concepts they need for the next grade level,” Brunson said while simultaneously trying to avert the mini-crisis that the computer system glitch had created for putting children on the right buses in the afternoon. “We’re using a workshop approach to learning, which gives them more opportunity for hands-on learning, more opportunities to apply the skills they’re being taught. That is really going to be a focus for the year as it has been in years past.” 

“We’re pretty much on the same page,” DeBlasio said.

All things considered, the first morning went smoothly.

“We recognize that we have a long way to go,” DeBlasio noted. “It’s an uphill battle. Our goal is to have a growth mindset. If you want us to be at the top by next year, it’s not going to happen. But we need to propel ourselves forward by knowing we’re going in the right direction and feeling the success of that.”

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posted by: Bradley on September 2, 2016  11:25am

One line of the story piqued my interest, “about 40 students from nearby towns attend the school.” I understand why suburbanites send their kids to specialized high schools. But a former “turnaround”  elementary school? Perhaps this could be the subject of a future NHI article.

posted by: WC parent on September 2, 2016  12:24pm

I am a Ms. Brunson fan from her time at Edgewood.  Enjoyed the article.  Appreciate the extra effort by everyone as you can’t make it all happen during the school day.  It has to happen outside of school also.