BELOIT - In February, School District of Beloit faculty and staff spoke out by the hundreds at a town hall-style meeting held at Beloit Memorial High School, strenuously objecting to what several said were chronic discipline problems, administrative lack of support, large class sizes and more.
As the district has moved into a new year, are conditions and morale any better?
After the town hall meeting the Beloit Daily News launched a major project intended to take a deeper dive into the district's discipline issues, staff complaints and efforts to create improvements. Over the full week the newspaper will publish its findings.
No doubt, the School District of Beloit has its challenges. It serves a community in which, statistically, the population is poorer and less educated than most in the state. Incomes and housing values are low by statewide comparisons. That limits revenue opportunities locally for the district, which is one of the most heavily subsidized by the State of Wisconsin as a result.
Academically, the district struggles as well. Recent statewide report cards demonstrated Beloit's overall performance ranks well below state averages as measured by testing. Likewise, as one of Wisconsin's more diverse districts, Beloit continues to grapple with a measurable achievement gap separating racial groups.
If changing the dynamic starts in the classrooms, the message from staff at the town hall meeting was frustration that persistent discipline issues from a relatively small number of individuals often prevent teachers from focusing on students who want to learn. Over the past few years, a significant number of experienced teachers have chosen to leave the district because of such issues.
Student discipline also has been on the minds of some students. At an Oct. 24 board meeting, Beloit Memorial High School senior and board of education student representative Evelyn Mendoza said she's heard complaints about discipline this fall from her fellow classmates. She said some students are misbehaving and not caring what's going on in the classroom. When a teacher sends them to a discipline room, she said they often end up being sent back to the classroom. Mendoza said such practices don't support the authority of the teacher.
Stories in this series will present information on the numbers and kinds of serious discipline offenses in the schools; teachers' thoughts on discipline and turnover; the district's response including a major new literacy initiative; and data on the many challenges to children in a district with a 71 percent poverty rate and a city where 63 percent of babies are born to unwed mothers.
The challenge facing Beloit is for the community as a whole, along with service agencies and committed individuals and community groups, to help the school district educate and nurture increasing numbers of children vulnerable to the impacts of poverty and social trauma. At the same time, the district's challenge is to meet the needs of children from strong families who are eager to learn, and also to support staff trying to teach all children in their classrooms.
At the town hall meeting, dozens of teachers emphatically expressed concerns over lax student discipline interfering with overall classroom learning, along with growing class sizes. One common complaint was students being sent out of class, only to be quickly returned by the building administrator. Some teachers had been hit, kicked and spat upon. Some said a small percentage of students were preventing other kids from learning by their continual disruptions.
In response, the district reviewed its code of conduct with all students and staff and each student, staff member and family was required to sign an acknowledgment form. The district also devised more clear procedures around its policy on using cell phones.
But again, at the end of the school year, a number of teachers chose to leave. The newspaper spoke with some of them about why.
In 2016-2017, 76 teachers left, following 85 teachers who left in 2015-2016. In 2016-2017, five administrators left following the 10 who left in 2015-2016.
The district also has been a net loser in Wisconsin's public school open enrollment process, and the loss has been accelerating. There was a 24 percent increase in Beloit resident families choosing not to enroll their children in the School District of Beloit this year, compared to the 2016-2017 school year. On the third Friday of each school year Wisconsin districts report enrollment numbers, including the number of students enrolling in or enrolling out. In September of 2017 there were 685 students enrolling out of the Beloit district and 151 enrolling in, for net loss of 534 students. It is up from 2016 when 553 students were enrolling out, and 164 were enrolling in for a net loss of 389 students.
If the net of those enrolled-out students instead had chosen to attend Beloit schools, state aids could have been as much as $3.8 million higher for the district.
All public schools are non-selective, meaning they are required by law to turn away no student who is eligible to attend as a resident of the community. While acknowledging the significant challenges of educating substantial numbers of students experiencing poverty and social trauma, School District of Beloit officials told the newspaper they are resolute and committed to educating all children. Administrators say they work to avoid expulsions when discipline problems arise, trying to keep students in school and away from the streets and temptations.
Those officials say the district is working harder than ever to be proactive, stepping in with literacy interventions, mental health programming and other initiatives intended to serve the many students who are living with trauma. District officials are also excited about a new administrative position added to address early literacy intervention for children age birth to 3, hoped to improve reading abilities. Although the challenges are great, the newspaper was told by several people that staff morale is improving and there is a renewed focus to improve school climate.
At this fall's convocation, teachers were visibly excited and hopeful for a fresh start as a new year began.
Superintendent Tom Johnson acknowledges there are discipline issues, but he insists there are erroneous perceptions about Beloit schools and the district is continually working to overcome them. (Johnson was placed on leave late last week; the newspaper interviewed him earlier.)
Johnson said most students are well mannered and some schools are filled with real joy. He encourages anyone who doesn't believe it to contact him for an unannounced tour.
The numbers tend to bear out what Johnson suggests. The most egregious offenses in the schools are caused by less than 10 percent of the student body.