From the Marin Independent Journal, a beleaguered middle school is taking a new approach to schoolwide discipline:

Larkspur’s Hall Middle School students won’t receive their fall schedules until they and their parents agree to the terms of an updated list of conduct expectations.

An outline of the new rule book — that is to be sent over the summer for parents to sign — was reviewed by the Larkspur-Corte Madera School Board on Wednesday. This requirement is part of a larger plan to beat bullying and regain control of what has been described as an unruly atmosphere concentrated at the Larkspur school’s seventh-grade level.

This seems like an odd requirement, for a few reasons:

  • Signing the updated list of conduct expectations certainly doesn’t mean students fill follow the new expectations.
  • A paper copy of new conduct expectations doesn’t seem like the best choice to roll out an initiative of this scope.
  • I’m fairly certain that the district can’t prevent any student who doesn’t sign from attending anyway.

But I’ll keep an open mind…

Saibel and Principal Tom Utic presented the new policies and programs that were compiled by a focus group comprised of students, staff, teachers and administrators. The overall goal of the plan is to establish clear and consistent behavioral standards.

Part of the plan is to eliminate cellphone use on campus, to provide No Bully training to educators, offer more lunchtime clubs and activities to keep students busy, and to continue to check in on students’ behavioral progress.

Everything here sounds good: collecting data, enlisting stakeholders, establishing clear goals along with a system (or at least a desire) to measure the effectiveness of the initiative.

The conversation started after parents grew tired of hearing about classroom disruptions and bullying at the school.

A petition sent to the school board last month signed by 66 parents said, “Our children’s daily accounts paint a picture of a ‘Lord of the Flies’environment where a band of children is running amok and wreaking havoc on the learning environment for all others at Hall.”

Parent Wendy Barta said there needs to be a “very clear strategy” that parents could use to support the school’s disciplinary action.

“If you have expectations … parents will partner with you in applying consequences that are meaningful,” she said. “That can be reinforced between the home and school.”

A petition sent directly to the school board means parents had already tried to communicate their concerns directly to the principal (or immediately bypassed him–I don’t know which is worse) and received no support. You can’t blame them for taking this to the next level.

Parents said a turnover of teachers is also affecting the quality of education.

Hall serves about 620 fifth through eighth grade students and this year has 32 teachers. Utic announced last month that he would not return in the fall as principal. Additionally, two teachers were not re-signed, two will be on maternity leave, three are retiring and two others have found work in other counties.

New teachers historically struggle with classroom management, but that can and should be mitigated by a school’s system for training, coaching, mentoring, and supporting them. Clearly there’s a missing link in the new teacher support chain.

Parent Jennifer Harrison said with a change of leadership and the new rules, some of which she says are confusing, the students might not comply.

“It’s going to be another year of the same thing” if school officials aren’t enforcing rules consistently, she said. “I just don’t want that to happen.”

The specific plan for Hall, however, comes as part of the districtwide strategic plan that includes disciplinary guidelines and addresses goals for achieving smaller classroom sizes and attracting and retaining teachers in the district.

So they re-wrote all the rules and parents are already saying they’re confusing? So much for enlisting the support of stakeholders …

Paragraph 2 here is where the rubber meets the road: is this really about writing a whole new set of rules and strongarming families into signing it? Or is it about consistently enforcing the rules you already have (which were probably not half-bad in the first place)?

Also, it’s surprising that a district would look at a case like this and walk away with the idea that the solution is smaller class sizes. That doesn’t compute.

Some quick research into Larkspur reveals that this is certainly not a poverty-stricken area. This is a surprising situation for a somewhat affluent suburban school to find itself in.

I hope I haven’t come off too critical of this school’s leadership. It’s easy to poke holes from 3000 miles away after reading only one article. But this is a blog about effective schoolwide discipline structures, so when I see ineffective discipline structures, you can bet I’m going to at least question, if not outright criticize.

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