By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – As the debate over revitalizing Tupelo’s middle class has accelerated over the past two months, one question has received particular prominence: Is discipline in Tupelo schools a problem?
It’s a nuanced question fed by stories of fights, bullies and students disrespecting teachers, but also one that has been magnified by exaggerations and false perceptions.
In a district with roughly 7,400 students, it’s only natural that a diversity of opinions will emerge based on individual experiences.
But this particular question has taken on added weight as Tupelo tries to maintain the community support that over the years has made its schools a point of pride.
“Public support is key for the Tupelo Public School System,” said TPSD Chief Operating Officer Billy Crews, a longtime community education advocate who served as the Chief Executive Officer of Journal Inc., before taking his current role.
Keeping that support will require maintaining public confidence on the discipline question, whether the current concerns are real or exaggerated.
“We need to work together as parents, teachers and administrators to deal with any problems we face and any issues we face,” Crews said. “We can deal with issues if we work together.”
A history of support
Tupelo has long been known for its public school system and the community involvement in its success.
In the early 1970s, as other systems struggled with integration, Tupelo’s process went relatively smoothly with encouragement from civic leaders. In the 1990s, voters passed large bond issues for school improvements and construction, including the high school.
But worries have been growing over the past few years because of the middle-class flight out of Tupelo.
Recent census data shows that the city’s middle class declined over the past decade.
City leaders have developed plans to reverse that trend, including a proposal by Mayor Jack Reed Jr. that voters approve a tax increase to fund a university tuition guarantee for Tupelo High School graduates.
But some residents have countered that plans to reverse that decline will fail unless the school district improves its discipline.
“One of the reasons people are moving out of Tupelo isn’t housing, it’s the school system, and we need to start paying attention to that,” City Councilman Markel Whittington said.
The discipline question arose about the same time the school district became one with more minority than white students. At the beginning of the current school year, just under 46 percent of the district’s students were white. Last year, Tupelo schools were 47 percent white, and in 2001, they were 56 percent white.
That shift can increase racial unease. It can also challenge educators to teach students from different backgrounds than those they’ve taught in years past.
The issues: Respect, order
The question about discipline in the schools does not appear to center on safety. Although some may not feel safe, all of the 29 parents and students interviewed for this story said that they, or their children, do.
“When I dropped my kids off at school, I always knew they would be safe,” said JoAnne Kent, who has a son who graduated from Tupelo High School in 2009 and a daughter who is currently a sophomore at the school.
More vocal concerns involve fights, particularly among freshmen and sophomores, and unruliness as students at the 2,100-plus student Tupelo High School switch classes.
There is also a question of students not respecting teachers.
“I think some of the classrooms are not as orderly as I’d like to see them but for the most part, I haven’t had any problems,” said Scottie Presley, who has a 10th-grade son at the high school and a sixth-grade daughter at Milam Elementary.
Rhonda Horton, who has a daughter and a stepdaughter at Tupelo High, said that she, too, is concerned about how her daughter’s education is affected when other students are disrupting class.
“I think a more no-nonsense approach needs to be taken,” she said. “I think times have changed and things are acceptable now that were not acceptable years ago, but I think these kids need to be taught there is a time and a place for everything and when you are in a public place is no time to be yelling profanities or fighting or talking back to your teacher.”
Janice Garrett retired in 2009 as Lawhon Elementary’s librarian after 15 years of working in the district, including six at THS. She noticed parents and students showing less respect for teachers toward her later years.
“We’re seeing a lack of respect from parents, and kids pick up on that,” she said. “All you have to say is one comment about a teacher, and it sticks in a kid’s mind.”
But Tupelo High Principal Lee Stratton also said that much of the school’s discipline reputation is untrue.
“The perception that there is a discipline problem is not fair to our teachers, our students or our administrators,” Stratton said. “They are kids. Kids will make some bad choices and there are consequences for those choices.
“We continue to teach and learn every day. It is a safe and secure place. It always has been, and we plan for it to always be that way.”
Challenges: Size, schedule
For administrators, one of the high school’s assets also presents one of the biggest challenges to maintaining discipline.
Tupelo High School’s 12 buildings are spread throughout a massive campus. It is the school’s large size that allows it to offer many special extracurricular activities and programs that are not available at most nearby schools.
Superintendent Randy Shaver called it “a beautiful facility,” but one that is challenging to supervise.
In order to better monitor the large campus, Shaver said the entire staff needs to help.
“Teachers have to be on duty,” he said. “It is a team effort. We need the team to work together.”
Magnifying the difficulty, students currently change classes on that large campus seven times each day. Next year, THS will switch to a block schedule, under which students will take only four classes every day.
Stratton said the new schedule was chosen because he believes it will help the school improve its academics. But, he said, it should also help with some of the discipline concerns.
Under the new schedule, the time for lunch will also be reduced from 50 minutes to 30.
“The fewer class changes and the reduction of free time during lunch will help everyone focus on learning and academics,” Stratton said.
After listening to the community’s concerns about discipline, the school district has begun to direct its resources at the issue.
Shaver appointed Crews to review discipline concerns and recommend solutions. That process will involve input from administrators, teachers, parents and community members, Crews said.
The district also appointed two additional school security officers, for a total of five, to better monitor Tupelo High’s large campus.
SSO Brenda Pass said that the two additional officers have helped.
“It is a whole lot better with us having more help,” Pass said. “With the other two officers, it helps us to be on each end of the campus.”
Meanwhile, eight members of the district’s administrative staff were assigned to a team that will spend much of its time on the THS campus helping the school improve its academics. Their presence will allow Stratton and the school’s five assistant principals more time to focus on discipline concerns.
“I think we have responded as strongly as we possibly can to the request for a stronger discipline model at the high school,” Shaver said, noting that three of the district’s top four administrators will now spend a majority of their time at the school.
As the demographic has shifted, the district has also provided more training to help teachers manage students from different backgrounds, particularly those students who haven’t learned as much self discipline at home.
Garrett, the retired librarian, said that such training is important.
“A lot of it is classroom management,” she said. “If you have a clear set of objectives on how you could discipline that child and if you know your strategies, things don’t escalate as quickly.”
The district has taken a couple of other tangible steps to try to make its discipline operations more effective.
School board members voted on Tuesday to increase the number of slots in Tupelo’s alternative school from 60 to 90. That will make it easier to send students with serious behavior issues off campus.
The district is also revising its discipline ladder of consequences to make penalties more severe for certain infractions, particularly fighting.
“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,” Shaver said.
As the district works to address these concerns, the community will be watching closely.
Leigh Sharp said that she expects to send her 2-year-old daughter to Tupelo public schools. But her child’s safety will be the most important consideration.
“I’m really excited to send my daughter Ella to school in Tupelo,” Sharp said. “Times are changing, and I think the problems you are going to see in Tupelo, you are going to see anywhere else, maybe more so because it is a larger school.
“As long as my child is protected at school, I can send her with a feeling that she is going to be OK.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read The Discipline Ladder by Chris Kieffer for more.