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A renewed discipline

The superintendent urges schools to set up plans, share with parents and students, and enforce them consistently.

Published August 8, 2006

SEMINOLE — On a tour of Osceola High early Tuesday, Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox ducked into a biology class to observe and say hello on the first day of classes.

He emerged a few moments later and called principal Carol A. Moore to the side. Two students, he told her, were carrying hats, holding CD players and “cutting up” in the back of class — a triple violation of the district’s Student Code of Conduct. Moore went in and took action.

“The teacher shouldn’t have to deal with that on the first day,’’ Wilcox said later. “Whenever I see it, I’m going to point it out.’’

The episode, dispensed with in seconds, was a tiny blip on a day when Pinellas County schools opened with relatively few problems and an array of changes.

But it illustrated one of the larger themes of the new year — a districtwide push to reduce disruptive student behavior.

“We absolutely have to address and confront the loss of civility on some of our campuses,’’ Wilcox said in a recorded message being circulated to teachers as the year begins. “The distractions caused by a few are taking time and energy away from our primary mission — to prepare our students for their futures. And it simply has to stop.’’

Referrals for classroom behavior, violation of school rules and bus misconduct were up about 20 percent over 2004-05.

In his message, Wilcox urged every school to set up a discipline plan to be agreed upon by teachers and administrators. He says the plans should be shared with parents and students and enforced consistently.

“Every adult must send a simple and clear message of what is acceptable in our classrooms and on our campuses,’’ Wilcox said in his message. “We must stick together in enforcing our agreements, or surely we will find ourselves right back where we started — frustrated and tired, wondering where we went wrong.’’

Last year’s big problem, late buses, is taking a back seat this year to raising teacher morale by addressing student behavior, reducing paperwork and offering more flexibility in assessing student readiness for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

A number of buses were late Tuesday. But with fewer route changes this year and more drivers on hand, the bus system generally performed well, officials said.

Three schools suffered electrical problems and some middle school students were sent home because their immunization shots were not current.

But “for the most part, beyond some of the normal glitches, we had a pretty good day,’’ Wilcox said.
Among other changes this year:

- A new policy that further limits social promotion. It adds fifth- and eighth-graders to the list of students who could be held back a year because of poor performance on the reading portion of the FCAT.

- A federally mandated policy aimed at reducing obesity. French fries will be served in limited portions at high schools and phased out at middle schools. Birthday cakes and ice cream are out. Fresh fruit, cereal bars and baked chips are in.

- The opening of the district’s first high school fundamental program. It starts this year in the ninth grade at Osceola High, which gradually will become an all-fundamental school.

Fundamental or “back-to-basics” schools mandate that parents attend PTA meetings and sign homework. Discipline problems are not tolerated and the dress code, which is more rigorous than traditional schools, is strictly enforced.

This year, Osceola’s 430 fundamental ninth-graders will attend classes apart from the rest of the student body in 16 portable classrooms at the back of the school.

“The one thing that we’re going to ask you to do is be a model,’’ Wilcox told a first-period class led by teacher Suzanne Hedley. “We want to make this a great school.’’

The focus on discipline is in part the result of two recent surveys, including one in May by the St. Petersburg Times, indicating that Pinellas teachers suffer from poor morale.

Wilcox said the district is responding to teachers who say discipline has become a significant problem in their classrooms.

Elementary teachers wrote nearly 4,800 disciplinary referrals for violent behavior last school year — up 47 percent from the previous year and more than double the number in 2002-03.

Lest parents fear a heartless crackdown, the district is urging educators to “build positive relationships,’’ set “clear parameters” and have “meaningful consequences’’ in the quest for better behavior.

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 22:33:21]

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