Move blamed for rise in failed classes at Schenectady middle school
Principal’s illness added to issues
SCHENECTADY Hundreds of middle-school students failed at least one class last year amid disorganization at Mont Pleasant Middle School.
Of all the seventh- and eighth-graders in the district, including those at K-8 schools, 57 percent failed at least one class. In the prior school year, 47 percent failed at least one class.
They generally failed one of the core classes — English, history, science or math — or technology, a required middle school class. All five classes had roughly the same failure rate.
Superintendent Laurence Spring said the problem was mainly the result of the merger of Oneida Middle School and Mont Pleasant Middle School. Oneida was closed to save money, but is now slated to be reopened because the district needs more classrooms.
When it closed last year, Oneida teachers transferred to Mont Pleasant along with their students. The school district held several social events before school started so the incoming students would get to know Mont Pleasant students, and offered orientations to get them used to the larger school.
But the longtime principal, Michael Bush, fell gravely ill just seven weeks into the school year. He wasn’t replaced until December, two weeks before the school holidays. By then, many students were misbehaving. It took a long time for the new principal to right the ship.
“It’s more difficult to create norms partway through the school year,” Spring said.
He said Bush fell ill at the worst possible time.
“It was a very significant transition for folks last year,” he said. “That would be a difficult thing to get through anyway. Then to have the leader, who needs to bring that together, need to leave.”
Spring kept the school board apprised of the unfolding situation at Mont Pleasant throughout the year, explaining efforts by school leaders to institute structure and enforce consistent rules. This summer, he also held conferences with teachers and administrators to prepare for a better start this year. They created a “school climate toolkit” specifying routines and structures that would make it more likely for students to behave and learn.
Among the decisions was to have standard punishments for standard misbehavior. Students who come to class late, for example, must now take their seat quietly. When the teacher has a free moment, the student can present their hall pass or confess they have no excuse for their tardiness. The teacher will mete out discipline at the end of class — generally a discussion with the student or a call home to parents. Students get detention if they are tardy three times.
Last year, Spring said, some teachers wouldn’t let students enter the classroom if they didn’t have a pass. Others let students in without requiring a pass, and still others meted out punishment if students were late without an excuse.
Students didn’t know what to expect, and some hoped they could get away with just walking in late. Those who were turned away at the door often wandered the halls searching for someone to write them a pass so they could get into their class, he said.
Now, they all know the rules.
“This is the pattern. They can expect it,” Spring said. “We want to make sure kids stop testing that system and just know that’s going to happen.”
He added he told teachers the structure would help students who are recovering from trauma.
“When they can depend on that consistent response, it’s reassuring to them. When they can’t predict how their environment will respond to their actions, it makes them anxious,” he said.
In addition, Karmen McEvoy took over as principal this year. Spring said simply having the same principal at the school all year would make a big difference.
But there’s still work to be done at Mont Pleasant. The district just hired an assistant principal, who will start work next month. Until then, the school is shorthanded of leaders who can deal with serious disciplinary problems.
“When a student does something wrong, you need to address it right away,” Spring said. “When a student waits two days, it’s lost a lot. They need to associate the consequences to their actions.”
For now, other school officials are pitching in to help, and that seems to be working, Spring said.
“I’m noticing a very improved school climate,” he said.