Teachers speak out about school conditions

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  • Anderson

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    Capozziello

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    Laursen

  • Anderson

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    Capozziello

  • 2

    Laursen

BELOIT - Although staff and former staff members uniformly say they love the School District of Beloit and most students are well behaved, some acknowledge they left over what they perceived as lack of support on disciplinary issues in their classrooms.

Others cited excessively large class sizes, confusing and conflicting policies, poor communication and a general feeling of being devalued.

Some who found work in other districts told the Beloit Daily News there are similar student issues at their new schools,but they said administration's response to discipline has been more supportive of teachers.

A teacher who stayed on in Beloit this fall said he is optimistic a new year will signal change. Another teacher still working in Beloit continues to worry about large class sizes.

Following the town hall meeting earlier in 2017, in which hundreds of staff members expressed frustrations on such topics as disciplinary issues and administrative support levels, the Beloit Daily News reached out to several teachers - some who left, some who stayed - to discuss those situations and whether conditions are improving. Some teachers who are critical of district practices told the newspaper they fear professional retaliation. The newspaper agreed not to use their names so they could speak freely.

Here are their stories

A teacher who left a Beloit intermediate school to work in another district this fall hopes the Beloit district improves both for students and those who work there. The district has many positive qualities, the teacher said, while urging teachers, administrators, support staff and parents to begin a candid discussion about discipline - what works, what doesn't.

"The district needs to find something and stick with it," the teacher said.

There should be a uniform discipline policy enforced strictly across the district, the teacher said. Although students signed the code of conduct following the town hall, the teacher said there was no further follow-up on discipline. Although the code is relatively sound, the teacher said it gives administrators too much discretion in how it is applied.

At the intermediate school where the teacher taught, almost all students were given the same discipline - a lunch detention, or a couple of them. That might work for fourth graders, the teacher said, but it was less effective for older students. Some students were in lunch detention continually.

"When you are doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results, you have to change something," the teacher said.

About 95 percent of students were well behaved, the teacher said, but the 5 percent who weren't caused considerable disruption in class. It became so extreme that teachers tried to group 10-12 behaviorally challenged students into one class just to separate them from better behaved students who wanted to learn.

Repeated misconduct by students takes a toll, the teacher said, adding teachers do their work because they love kids. It was difficult to be repeatedly disrespected by certain students and not able to give full attention to the 95 percent of students who wanted to learn.

When misbehaving students would shout in class or interrupt, the teacher would have to stop the lesson and redirect the student, breaking the fluidity of the students' learning.

At the teacher's new district - with similar demographics to Beloit - there are still behavior issues, the teacher said, but behavior systems are followed consistently by all staff and there is good communication between teachers and administrators. Smaller discipline issues at the new district are nipped early on to keep them from escalating. The district also has a staff person, separate from the principal, dedicated to handling discipline.

"Students speak to teachers in ways that wouldn't be tolerated in any other workplace. A worker would either be dismissed or reprimanded," a former Beloit Memorial High School (BMHS) teacher said.

After teaching for more than a decade, the teacher found work at another district, departing over discipline concerns and a perceived lack of administrator support. The teacher said the lack of discipline was setting up students for failure in the future, while preventing other kids from learning. Some students simply enrolled out and left the district.

The teacher attributed lax discipline to a growing focus by principals and administrators on boosting graduation statistics and lowering the number of suspensions and expulsions.

The teacher said the town hall meeting came at the right time but resulted in little support from administration. After the meeting, the teacher said more blame was put on staff members who were urged to explore their "inherent biases," explore equity issues and improve classroom management. Meanwhile, the cycle continued of students using profanity toward their teachers and acting out - only to be sent out of class and then returned by administrators.

While some teachers instructing Advanced Placement or higher level classes had almost no discipline issues, others teaching general education classes were overburdened with a few students acting out, using profanity or worse.

Following the town hall, teachers were given copies of the code of conduct and attended meetings on it. However, the teacher said the code had a critical flaw - it ultimately gave the administrator too much discretion in the process.

Another problem at BMHS was class sizes, the teacher said, with rosters of up to 36 students for general education courses.

"When you pile that many individuals up in a classroom, the ability to feel effective and have control over a classroom greatly diminishes," the teacher said.

The teacher said escalating to higher numbers of expulsions isn't necessarily the answer for unruly students.

"We need to put that student in specialized programs with highly skilled programming, and it's not a conversation happening right now," the teacher said.

Another former BMHS teacher who also left to work in another district loves Beloit and misses its kids. This teacher said 99 percent of students are well behaved, staff is excellent and there are many great programs.

But the teacher said Beloit Memorial High School has a group of around 25 repeat offenders who frequently cause great disruption, preventing teachers from teaching and students from learning. The teacher said most districts have kids with similar issues, but Beloit has suffered from poor administrator response.

"There is a revolving door policy. You send them out, and 5-10 minutes later they are back, sometimes with a bag of chips and a smile on their face," the teacher said.

Some students, the teacher said, try to get suspended or expelled, and the threat of action does nothing to deter their behavior.

This teacher called the town hall meeting a "joke" and "publicity stunt" because no meaningful action followed it. Although the teacher said the school board asked some good questions, there was no change in approach by administration.

The code of conduct is solid, the teacher said, but it is inconsistently applied and some administrators make deals with students.

The BMHS teacher said educators were made to feel poor student behavior was their fault, and sometimes were asked what they did to escalate the situation. Other times parents would be vocal when a child was disciplined and the district backed down.

The teacher also was critical of shifting new policies for teachers to follow, low morale and a general lack of communication.

The teacher suggested a committee of administrators and teachers be formed to address issues facing classrooms.

"It needs to be from people in the trenches and people who have to deal with situations every day," the BMHS teacher said.

Former School District of Beloit Dual Language Immersion Program Manager Rosamaria Laursen said top-heavy administration, with ever-changing ideas and new initiatives, leads to some of the district's problems.

"I'd love to see Beloit have someone come in and do an organizational analysis to determine how the distribution of personnel at all levels compares to other districts, especially districts similar to Beloit that are experiencing success. I think you will find a very different picture to what is happening in Beloit right now," she said.

Laursen said there are many directors at Kolak, all with great ideas and enthusiasm for making the district better.

"Individually, they do great work, but as they are all trying to move forward with their initiatives, it gets to be too much," she said. "It makes teachers and principals feel pulled in so many directions. Things are added to the already heavy testing load and state requirements for teachers."

Given the turnover at Kolak, as different administrators come and go, it's left to the successors to continue the work their predecessors started or focus on something new.

She said the district needs to get back to basics, simplify organizational structures and focus on fewer things at a time.

She also said there needs to be increased focus on the most vulnerable students.

"Despite high needs, the special education director position was dissolved a few years ago, alternative education is lacking support and up until recently, there was no director for bilingual student education. Up until very recently, we also didn't have central office administrators addressing equity as a main focus."

The elementary schools - where students get the fundamentals - need more support, she said, suggesting shipping some administrators out of the central office to become assistant principals and educational specialists at the elementary level.

One intermediate school teacher, still with the district, had 34 kids in class with the help of an aide at the start of school this fall. The class is composed primarily Latino students, some with language difficulties. The teacher said the class size should be 17 or 19 students per teacher, or two teachers for a class as large as 34.

The teacher had concerns Latino kids are being overlooked, possibly because their parents don't speak up. The Latino kids, the teacher said, tend to be the best behaved and are a large percentage of the student population.

Assistant Football Coach Mark Anderson said with a statewide teacher shortage, teachers can easily find jobs in other districts. If they are getting blamed for student discipline and learning, they get beat down, he said.

Anderson has retired from teaching, but said he still hears from teachers often. He said the discipline issues didn't improve dramatically following the town hall. He attributed the discipline issues to changes in policies to keep suspension numbers down.

He also considers restorative justice practices not always effective, especially at the high school level. He said structure and safety is more important than ever for at-risk kids who need a refuge.

"I worked for some good administrators and principals, but could see at the end of my track how this was trending. If all you do is hire administrators who buy into this, you will have chaos," he said.

Beloit Memorial High School business education and family and consumer education teacher Tony Capozziello has stayed on with the district and is hopeful. At least in his classes, he said discipline improved following the town hall meeting. He said the meeting opened the door to some honest conversations with students.

"Discipline did improve after the town hall meeting. It brought things up to the surface where the kids heard loud and clear that people were tired of it and it helped to get some of the students in line," he said.

Some teachers, he said, have a natural rapport with kids while others are working to use other strategies to manage classrooms this fall. He believes the district is working with teachers to do more positive reinforcement and to mix up their teaching styles to engage students.

There is always room for improvement and some class sizes are still large this year, but he said administration has been proactive after hearing teachers at the town hall. For example, there was an increased focus on the enforcement of the electronics policy following the meeting, and he is optimistic progress will continue to be made.

"It's a new year and a clean slate. We will see," he said.

With so many kids coming from traumatic homes and backgrounds, teaching can be tough and exhausting, he said. Teachers can feel undervalued from the state level on down.

"Some people have left the profession and some are trying different districts, but wherever you go, you will run into the same problems," he said.

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