Schools set their focus on discipline

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo’s principals will soon have an easier time sending troublesome students off campus.
The city’s school board last week voted to expand the number of spots in the district’s alternative school from 60 to 90.
Administrators are also working on a new progression of consequences that would more clearly differentiate between certain infractions and carry stiffer penalties for some violations, such as fighting. The new matrix is expected to be delivered to the board soon.
“At the secondary level, we need to have fewer steps from the time you first break a rule to the time you’re out the door,” Superintendent Randy Shaver said.
The two moves come as the district responds to real and perceived concerns about its discipline. They may not be as obvious as other recent moves, such as appointing Chief Operating Officer Billy Crews to evaluate discipline problems or temporarily placing eight members of the district’s administrative team on full-time assignments at Tupelo High.
But they could prove just as important.
“Both of those are in response to community concerns,” school board President Amy Heyer said. “The schools belong to the community, and when the community has concerns, we are obligated to be responsive to that.”
By the end of the last school year, 134 students were in Tupelo’s alternative school, which is housed at the Fillmore Center and is where students go after violating certain discipline policies. That count was a problem, Shaver said, since the school was designed, and staffed, to accommodate only 60 students.
The model was also inefficient academically. Of all the students that had gone to the alternative school during the previous four years, only two had passed any of the state standardized tests that Mississippi high school students must pass in order to graduate, Shaver said. Those four tests are biology, algebra, English II and U.S. history.
No students that had been sent to the alternative school over the previous four years had graduated, Shaver said.
Realizing it needed to improve the school’s academics, the district contracted this year with a private education company, Ombudsman, to run its alternative school. The original contract called for 60 slots for $456,000.
Students are now given individual computer programs tailored to the subjects they are studying and the areas where they are struggling. At least 15 seniors are pursuing a high school diploma that is offered by Ombudsman.
But the district had filled all of its 60 slots. While it had the ability to purchase the additional slots, at $950 per month, Tuesday’s board action will give it greater flexibility for sending students to the school as needed.
“If it is better for school safety for a child to be sent to the alternative school, that is where they should be,” Shaver said.
The district will pay an additional $54,000 this year for the extra slots, for a total cost of $510,000 for the year. The new cost will be $704,520 for the 90 slots for the 2011-12 school year and $725,670 for the 2012-13 year. That is an additional cost of $234,840 for year two and $241,890 for year three.
“It will help, but we hope no one makes those poor decisions to end up there,” Tupelo High School Principal Lee Stratton said. “That is our goal every day.”
The new discipline matrix will create better consistency across the district, Shaver said. It will also help rectify a problem he said he noticed when he began the job in July 2009.
Students were being sent to the alternative school who didn’t deserve to be there under the district’s policy, Shaver said. He insisted that the policy, which carried the force of law, needed to be followed.
“The application of the code of conduct was inconsistently administered from building to building and within buildings from administrator to administrator,” Shaver said.
The resulting complaint was that students who would have previously gone to the alternative school remained on campus. Thus the new discipline ladder, which will carry some stricter penalties.
“It will help not only administrators enforce policies but also our teachers,” Stratton said. “It will give us stricter guidelines to go by in the policy. We have a discipline ladder now, but this will be more in depth.”
Shaver adamantly denies rumors that he told teachers not to discipline students. He said that one tool that principals have not used enough is the 10-day suspension. Principals have the authority to issue those suspensions without board approval, he said.
“I don’t know who has told them not to discipline kids,” Shaver said. “The only person who can suspend a child is the principal and the assistant principal. I have never said let’s make conduct look good. I have said we have a code of conduct that has the force of law and that must be followed. I have never said that you can not suspend students.”
School board member Eddie Prather said he believed the new matrix will help remove gray areas from the current discipline policy.
“We wanted some clarity there, and we hope the matrix will give some clear direction on how we interpret things,” he said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.