Interim superintendent David Meadows instituted a new focus this year on the first 20 days of the school year. During that period, which ended on Wednesday, teachers emphasized classroom expectations, proper behavior and school culture.
The hope is that the time spent at the beginning of the year on establishing the appropriate atmosphere will allow for more time to be spent the rest of the year on quality instruction without interruptions.
"If you come in and lay out your expectations, everyone knows what is expected and then you can go from there," said Tupelo High School Principal Jason Harris.
The lessons for the first 20 days were given across the district, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Teachers were given a common lesson plan to use, although many schools also added their own piece.
The lessons lasted about 10 to 25 minutes each day and were either done in homeroom periods or incorporated into various classes.
For the first four days, teachers spoke to the students about rules, procedures and discipline consequences. For the final 16 days, lessons centered on a different social skill each day. Skills included minding your own business, using appropriate voice tone, getting the teacher's attention and making an apology.
"So many times, misbehavior in the classroom is not knowing a teacher's procedure in the classroom," said Tupelo High School Assistant Principal Tim Carter. "If students have heard the procedures, now you can hold them accountable."
At Milam Elementary, Principal Travis Beard recorded a lesson at the beginning of each school day. It was simulcast live over the Internet, and students watched it on the projectors in their classrooms.
At Tupelo Middle School, teachers and students made various videos related to the topics.
"It was a gentle reminder in a subtle way," said seventh-grade history teacher Eileen Bailey. "Subconsciously, they retained that throughout the day."
After a year marked with much turmoil, including public concerns about student discipline, the first 20 days of the new school year was a big emphasis of the school district administration throughout the summer. They hoped to be able to use the early lessons to establish school culture.
"TPSD's front-line instructional leaders have spent the first 20 days of school reestablishing a focus on academic excellence, building effective ways to communicate with their students and establishing expectations for student behavior in order to increase student achievement," Meadows said.
Teachers said that they have noticed an improved culture from the renewed focus this year. Tupelo High School science teacher Teresa Ware said that students seem to be on time more and are more prepared to start class once they arrive. Tupelo Middle School Assistant Principal Nathan Hall also said that tardies are also down at that school.
"The climate is different," Ware said, noting that having a consistent approach from teacher to teacher has made a difference.
Milam language arts teacher Kathy Corban said that it helps that students know the expectations from the start of the school year. For instance, if she sees students running in the hallway, she can remind them of what Beard had said on his video that morning.
"The children know our rules," said Milam reading and social studies teacher Indira Cotton. "They know what our expectations are."
Lawhon Elementary Principal Christy Carroll said that the school recently rewarded its students who had not received a referral yet this year. The number of students able to participate was much higher than usual.
"It is not that we hadn't talked about procedures before, but I think the lessons helped them understand the impact that their actions have on others," she said. "Maybe just taking the time to teach those social skills in that explicit way made a bigger difference."
Several parents interviewed said they weren't specifically familiar with the social skill lessons that were being taught as part of the 20-days initiative. Most said, however, that they were happy with the atmosphere they had seen at the start of the school year.
"After last year, I think it is a good thing," said Julie Smith, whose children are in 12th, eighth and sixth grades. "There was so much turmoil. I think it is a good thing that everything is quiet and calm, and we are focusing on what we need to focus on."