Creating a Safe Learning Environment
Belmont was a school run by the students. They skipped class and roamed the halls in the hundreds. Fights were a near daily occurrence. Police cars regularly parked outside. An emergency alarm sat next to the cash registers in the cafeteria to sound when students tried to steal the lunch money. Teachers feared for their safety and stayed in classrooms behind locked doors, desperately trying to teach while ignoring the distractions outside.
Three years ago, people referred to the Dayton, Ohio high school as “Hellmont.”
“It got to the point where I would get phone calls from friends saying my school was on the news again,” said Michael Slightam, a social studies teacher at Belmont. “It was an embarrassment for my personal life and my professionalism.”
Belmont was the place where the lowest-performing and most troubled students were dumped in the Dayton Public Schools district. In Dayton, parents can choose which schools to send their children to, though that will change in the 2011-2012 school year as Dayton moves towards a neighborhood school attendance model.
Belmont’s reputation meant that it wasn’t a school parents choose. Not surprisingly, the school was also a revolving door for teachers.
All of that changed when David White took over as principal in July 2009. Under his leadership, the school achieved dramatic reductions in discipline problems in just a single year.
Compared to the 2008-2009 school year:
- Fights went from 143 down to 17, an 89 percent reduction
- Assaults went from 83 down to 10, an 88 percent reduction
- Arrests went from 58 down to 1, a 99 percent reduction
With discipline improving, the school is also achieving academic results. In the 2008 – 2009 school year, 30 percent of freshman were promoted to sophomores. The following year, 63 percent were promoted and this year, 2010 – 2011, 84 percent of freshman will move on to their sophomore year.
Teachers who once left the school now want to come back. And those who never left now wear their Belmont Bison t-shirts with pride.
“There have been times I have walked through the hallways in the past two years and hear no sound. I actually have to stop and think ‘is this a school day? where are the students?’ Because they’re not in the halls,” said Robin Thompson, a data technician. “They’re in the classrooms where they are supposed to be. The teachers can teach now, and they can teach with their doors open.”
How Did Belmont Do It?
First, Principal White and his leadership team focused on restoring order.
Going into such a chaotic school, they knew the best course of action would be to spend the entire first year working on behavior. Once a safe learning environment was established, then they could move on to the academics and the tests.
Principal White established authority with the students from the very first moment of the 2009-2010 school year. As students milled outside on Day One, waiting for the doors to unlock, White stormed out with his now-famous bullhorn in hand and demanded the students form two single-file lines. They waited outside until the lines were perfect and then White marched everyone into the auditorium to explain the new expectations for Belmont students.
White sent the message loud and clear that things were not going to be business as usual. “I created good habits, structure and direction,” said White. “The kids feed off of that and have done very well.”
Expectations at Belmont revolve around the 5 B’s:
- Be prepared
- Be on time
- Be respectful
- Be accountable
- Be consistent
The staff at Belmont work hard to get the students following the 5 B’s, and are strict with enforcement. “If you instill that in the kids, it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit it becomes their character,” said Larry Carter, the 9th grade transition coordinator.
“Big expectations, that’s the key now,” said Ajilon Harmon, a paraprofessional who works with special education students. “The kids are starting to see that staff are really here for them and they can learn and progress.”
It Takes A Strong Leader
There are 807 students in grades 9-12 at Belmont. Eighty-five percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, 20 percent have limited English proficiency and 28 percent of the students have disabilities.
With high poverty rates and large special needs population, in a city that has been experiencing a very long and sustained economic downturn, Belmont presents a challenging environment.
The challenge was one Principal White was used to. He has made a career of working with at-risk students in Dayton. With experience as a teacher, assistant principal, program manager for an initiative targeting dropouts and truants and assistant to the superintendent, White opened his own school in 2006. He served as the Chief Academic Officer of Dayton Technology Design High School, a conversion charter school sponsored by Dayton Public Schools that serves 9th through 12th graders, age 16 through 22, who have dropped out of high school or who are likely to do so.
His successes with at-risk students drew attention, and White was recruited to Belmont. Knowing he needed a team to recreate the same success, he brought along Dean of Students John Seebock and Assistant Principal Ken Kraemer, both of who worked with him at Dayton Tech. Theron Spence was already an assistant principal at Belmont and joined the team.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore, there were fights all the time,” said Ben Cox, who graduated from Belmont on May 20. “Mr. White came in and now it’s a pretty good place. Some people don’t like Mr. White because he’s strict, but the people who want to learn like him a lot.”
It Also Takes Collaboration
Principal White doesn’t like to be considered the lifeguard who saved the school from drowning. He’s careful to point out to that it’s the educators at Belmont who work closely with the students each day. “I’m lucky to have inherited a group of people that wanted change,” said White. “They were tired of violence. They were tired of the disrespect. They were tired of coming to work in fear. I was very fortunate to walk in to this group because they just said ‘what do we need to do?’”
“We’re all on the same page now,” said Alice Owen-Clough, a physical education teacher. “The teachers are on the same page with accountability, bellwork, classwork, homework. Everyone meets twice a week. It’s just a good thing all around.”
Principal White also has a collaborative relationship with the Dayton Education Association (DEA), which represents the educators at Belmont. Current DEA president David Romick was working at the school when White came in. The two developed a strong relationship, and White made sure to run ideas and changes by Romick first.
“We’re at a point now where things have to change, things have to move forward,” said Romick. “We’re here to serve the students, that’s the bottom line, and collaboration is the only way to get there.”
NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign strongly endorses collaboration as a key to education reform, and advocates for connections outside of the school building. It helps to have the entire community involved to achieve results like Belmont’s.
Lieutenant Christopher Williams of the Dayton Police Department credits Principal White and the staff at Belmont for taking charge of a plan that relies on support from the police as well as the Montgomery County Juvenile Court in Dayton. “David White is the guy who implemented the plan and his staff are the ones who monitored it,” said Williams.
The police department helped White and his staff identify the root behavior problems, and the police department then worked with the juvenile court system to work on a special case basis with Belmont students. No matter where a Belmont student got in trouble, action was taken in accordance with the education plan.
“When I take a look at the impact we’ve had with our piece of the puzzle at Belmont, there is no doubt in my mind we’ve made a difference in people’s lives,” said Williams. “We’ve all given some of these kids a future they never would have had.”
Photos and story by Amy Buffenbarger. To see more photos from Belmont, visit the Flickr page of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.
Morale Takes a Hit, but Commitment is Strong
In a perfect world, every public school teacher in America would be able to influence classroom instruction and size, have quality conversations with administrators, determine the best professional development and have the right resources needed to create student success. But reality for today’s public school educator is quite the opposite.
Ohio of several states around the country experiencing draconian assaults on public education—and teachers are feeling the angst.
Collective bargaining rights are being taken away, professional development limited, and bad policies such as school choice, privatization, and merit pay promoted without much proof of success.
In Dayton, Ohio, three schools—Dunbar High School, Belmont High School and Meadowdale High School—received federal School Improvement Grant funds. And at each school, staff spirit varies.
“Belmont staff is energized, ready to go,” David Romick, president of the Dayton Education Association. “They’ve taken the reins, and they’re riding with the whole Priority Schools program.”
Down the street at Dunbar High School, however, it’s a different feeling that’s more common among schools that have implemented new changes as part of the SIG requirements.
“Dunbar is a little fatigued,” Romick said. “It’s just been a strain to think about new ways to do things,” saying that the school’s staff was stuck in the ‘we’re going to keep doing things the way we were doing them because that’s what works for us.’
“Of course with Priority Schools and SIG, you can’t do that,” he added. “That change in particular has been tough for them.”
But make no mistake about it, educators are not sitting idle.