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Tampa: Middle school misbehavior gains new attention

By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published August 17, 2007


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TAMPA -- The city's middle schools can be rowdy, chaotic places. The kids are a fidgety tangle of hormones, immature brains, growth spurts, emotional outbursts, peer pressure and defiance.

They lash out at teachers and at one another. That's why Tampa middle schools report more than five times as many discipline problems per student as the city's elementary and high schools.

"Middle school students are in the middle," said Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for administration. The 11- to 14-year-olds still act like elementary school kids, running and jostling and chattering. But many also act like they're already high-schoolers, asserting their independence.

"Some people classify them as hormones with feet," Brinson said. "They're just constantly moving."

With Hillsborough schools opening Monday, Brinson is pushing for a heavier emphasis on discipline problems. If schools really want to foster a learning environment, they have to pay more attention to misbehavior and classroom disruptions, he told principals at a recent meeting.

That includes 13 middle schools scattered across southern and central Tampa. They range from affluent, predominantly white South Tampa schools that earn an A every year to D schools in mostly black inner-city neighborhoods.

The bottom line: Every school must have a plan.

"You'll find that each school is unique," said Brinson, who has been principal of Benito and Eisenhower middle schools and Blake High School. "What is working at my school may not necessarily work at your school."

* * *

The school district and the state keep track of how many students at each campus get written up for things like fighting, skipping class, and catch-all categories like "disobedience" or "inappropriate behavior."

Looking at its own statistics for Tampa schools, the district faces an uncomfortable reality.

Boys are sent to the principal's office roughly twice as often as girls. Black children get written up more than whites. Black boys in particular are more likely to get in trouble.

That's the case all over the country. No one has a simple answer for why it's happening or what to do about it. Research points to factors like disengaged parents and cultural differences between teachers and students.

"It's a plight," said Sam Wright, an NAACP vice president in Hillsborough and the father of two kids in public schools. "There's a lot of unrest. There's a lot of hurting kids. They're in pain. Their parents are in pain."

Brinson, an African-American with three children in local public schools, doesn't have an easy answer.

"What I do know is that something is not working," he said.

* * *

Whenever a teacher sends a misbehaving student to the office, a "referral" is generated that goes on the student's permanent record.

Reporting inconsistencies make it hard to compare schools directly. What one school calls a fight might be called "inappropriate behavior" someplace else.

Still, obvious patterns emerge.

The area's two most affluent middle schools, Coleman and Wilson, which send students on to Plant High School, wrote up a total of 107 students last year for disobedience, inappropriate behavior, fighting or skipping class.

The two middle schools with the highest percentage of black students, Franklin and Sligh, wrote up a total of 1,592.

Leaders of some of Tampa's toughest middle schools talk of making a difference by connecting with kids one to one.

"You have to be able to reach the kids individually," said Joe Brown, who has been principal of Franklin Middle for a year and a half. "If you do that, that takes care of a lot of discipline issues right there, if there's a personal connection between an adult on the staff and the student."

Brown has a challenge on his hands. Last year the student population of Franklin Middle, off 40th Street, was nearly 67 percent black and 75 percent "economically disadvantaged," meaning the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Its teachers wrote up 596 students for disobedience last year -- a number nearly three times as high as other Tampa middle schools.

"I think the problem, not just in middle schools, is that all too often teachers are disassociated from students and it's much easier to write a referral on discipline infractions," Brown said.

All the same, Brown is looking forward to Monday.

"I'm excited about this year," he said. "It's going to be fun."

It's worth noting that even at a D school, plenty of students get good grades, listen in class and get involved in sports, band and volunteer groups.

That's really the point of all this: Constant disruptions in the classroom aren't fair to them.

"If the kids are not behaving, they're not learning," Brinson said. "The educational process cannot move forward without a well-disciplined classroom."

It's tough on teachers, too. It's the main reason they leave.

* * *

Pierce Middle School has the largest, poorest and most Hispanic student body of any middle school in Tampa.

Ninety-two percent of its more than 1,000 students last year were considered economically disadvantaged. At Coleman and Wilson, it's around 20 percent.

"These kids come with packages of issues: broken homes, parents in prison or working two or three jobs -- they could be living with grandparents," said Pierce principal Victor Fernandez.

Pierce, off W Hillsborough Avenue near Tampa International Airport, has a student body that is nearly 70 percent Hispanic.

Its discipline numbers are lower than those of predominantly black schools, but they're still sizable. Last year it wrote up 324 students for disobedience or inappropriate behavior.

"They think they know everything, and that's why we have to be strong," Fernandez said.

Once again, it's about reaching students individually.

"The main goal is to connect with the kids, find out why they're acting out," he said.

* * *

Before teachers send a misbehaving student to the office, they typically take intermediate steps. The teacher might move the child to a different seat, threaten to call his parents, or send him to a classroom next door to cool down.

Natalie Smith, a seventh-grade math teacher at Stewart Middle School, said she always tries to talk to kids before writing referrals.

She tries to figure out if there's something going on at home. She notes that it won't help her or the child to push the problem aside.

"Gone are those days where I stand up and just because I'm the teacher, I'm given due respect," said Smith, who has been teaching for 22 years.

"Sometimes you have to earn their respect, whether that's right or wrong. Teachers can't act like dictators."

Keeping middle school students on the right track is crucial, Brinson said.

If they lose their way, they're more likely to drop out once they hit ninth grade. Florida law allows students to quit when they turn 16.

"We have to be able to save and rehabilitate our children," Brinson said. "If not, the next institutional system they enter may be prison."

Staff writers Amber Mobley and Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

[Last modified August 17, 2007, 00:03:24]


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