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Pandemic shifts views of school discipline to improving mental health

School Committee logo '[R]ebuilding the whole school culture.'

-- AHS Principal Janger

UPDATED: Aware that the pandemic has had a negative impact on the emotions and behavior of many students, area educators are approaching discipline less as punishment and more as a chance to teach good conduct and to help kids feel better about being in school.

Staffers have needed to patiently reinforce skills, routines, procedures, expectations and basics, such as how to line up and how to move from room to room, Arlington Public Schools leaders told the School Committee at its regular meeting Thursday, April 28.

The adjustment process is significant, and one that doubtless is not unique to Arlington, the administrators said. In some ways, it amounts to “rebuilding the whole school culture,” said Matthew Janger, principal of Arlington High School.

Especially at the middle-school level, teachers work with coaches, counselors, reading specialists and special-education experts. They are being educated about social-emotional learning and meet frequently among themselves about the issues.

“Safety is my No. 1 job,” said Brian Meringer, principal of Ottoson Middle School, grades seven and eight. 

Need for caring adults

He and Fabienne Pierre-Maxwell, principal of the grade six Gibbs School, said some students seem troubled and isolated and need a sense of belonging. Both spoke of the crucial need to ensure that all kids have at least one caring adult, if not several, to connect with on campus.

Pierre-Maxwell advocates that staffers be trained to recognize signs of crisis. She said there have even been indications of “suicidal ideation at a really young age.”

All three principals and Assistant Superintendent Roderick MacNeal Jr., who reported on the seven elementary campuses, agreed that learning to understand one’s emotions and manage one’s own behavior is key. “We want to be as pro-active as we can,” MacNeal said.

Susupensions are last resort

Off-campus suspensions are a last resort and are almost unknown in grades indergarten through eighth. At all grade levels, on-campus suspensions, wherein students can still be engaged, access services and get support, are preferred when possible.

Meringer said educators seek a “teachable moment” so that students can learn from their mistakes and do better in future.

Two techniques often used are intervention and logical consequences. Responding to a question from committee member Jane Morgan, Pierre-Maxwell said that an intervention with a child who has been lying might be to have him or her read stories about telling the truth and then discuss the matter. A logical consequence would be, for example, if a pupil has defaced a wall, then he or she is required to clean that wall.

Committee member Bill Hayner asked about bullying. Pierre-Maxwell said she was investigating two cases currently; a third case brought to her attention was recently found to be unsubstantiated.

“We take [allegations of] bullying very seriously,” Meringer said, noting that it is important to distinguish that from the more common phenomenon of student interpersonal conflict. When a situation is determined to be bullying, “We need to protect the victim,” he said.

Read the related agenda documents here >> 
Special-education advocates seek changes

Teacher retention, confusion about obtaining services and records not being transferred adequately were top concerns, according to a recent survey by the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, or SEPAC. 

In their presentation to the committee, SEPAC representatives said they had recently spoken with Superintendent Elizabeth Homan and Alison Elmer, current director of special education, who will ascend to assistant superintendent July 1. They are pleased at Elmer’s promotion, believing it will improve communication and follow-through.

SEPAC’s survey took place mid-January through mid-February of this year and garnered 136 responses, or 20 percent of the special-education population. “A 20 percent response is fantastic,” said SEPAC Chair Inae Hwang, whose background is in statistics.

See the full survey results >>

Other parental requests are for teacher training on neurodiversity, because many students have autism, ADHD and dyslexia; more focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) and recognition that “school refusal” is an SEL issue rather than simply absenteeism or truancy.

Committee member Len Kardon acknowledged that teacher turnover is a valid issue. “There does seem to be a bit of a revolving door,” he said.

In other business:

  • An open house at the high school is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday April 30, with more than 500 visitors expected. For details on how to attend, go to AHSbuilding.org or here >>
  • Kirsi Allison-Ampe became the committee’s vice chair by a vote of 6-1, Hayner abstaining.
  • The committee held a public hearing on school choice, as required annually. The committee affirmed that it would not take students from outside the district. Paul Schlichtman, who made the motion, said that this stance was necessary because there are “no available seats.” No one from the public spoke. The motion passed unanimously.
  • Covid-19 cases went up after spring break, and, as in the past, infected individuals are required to isolate temporarily at home, Homan reported. Numbers this month are as follows: 45 on April 29, 77 on April 22, 97 on April 15, 68 on April 8 and 61 on April 1. "Cases are reported through a combination of state databases, individual reporting by families, and APS surveillance (pooled) testing, symptomatic testing, and test-and-stay," according to this frequently updated district website.
  • The district is actively recruiting for the following administrative positions, Homan said: assistant principal at Brackett School, special-education coordinator at the high school, director of social studies, director of visual arts and director of health and wellness.
  • The district is striving to fill vacancies in facilities, particularly in maintenance, which is tough given ongoing competition from the “hot construction market,” according to Chief Financial Officer Michael Mason Jr. However, “We can still get work done in the district,” he said. “Buildings are safe and able to be occupied.”

The committee went into closed session at 9 p.m. 


April 16, 2022: Plan to change how 9th graders are grouped for English passes, 4-3
 

This news summary by YourArlington freelance writer Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, April 29, 2022, and updated to add details about Covid cases.

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