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Improving school climate – the path to improving discipline while virtually eliminating out of school suspensions at White Mountains Regional High

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At the last meeting of the New Hampshire State Board of Education, the subject of school discipline came up. I thought back to a discussion I’d had in the spring of 2013 Mike Berry, principal of the White Mountains Regional High School.  He described his approach to creating a climate in WMRHS that reduced the need for disciplinary actions.

Before my visit to his school, Mike gave this overview in a meeting with superintendent Dr. Harry Fensom and the district leadership team:

“Four or five years ago there was a concerted effort to improve the climate at White Mountains High – in simple ways like attendance, discipline, some of the routines of the building – to make the school a more professional and academic setting.

“One of the big conversations we used to have was always about hats and cell phones, for instance.  When kids are focusing on hats and cell phones, they’re really not focusing on stuff that matters.

“We just said, “No more.”  On cell phones, for instance, for two years it was just, “No.”  Now we’re getting to the point where we can bring it back into the school day as a device that can be used for scheduling or bringing up certain aps

“And we feel like we’ve made some real gains in school climate. We’ve put a number of new activities into the school day and the school year.  At the beginning of this year, we had all the parents up for a mandatory meeting to hear our mission and vision.  That has turned out to be one of the most important things we did.  We had two meetings about co-curriculars and athletics.  Parents had to come to one in order for their student to participate on the sports team or the club, so we got pretty much full participation from the parents.

“We’re going through the NEASC accreditation process now and one of the areas we’re particularly strong in is the climate and the culture, the relationship between faculty and staff.”

[Here is the NEASC report conclusion about climate.]

Later, I visited Mike’s school.  Here’s an edited transcript of our discussion:

(Bill Duncan): “[To assistant principal Mike Curtis] Are you the discipline guy?”

(Assistant principal Mike Curtis):  “Well, we share it because Mr. Berry has never shied away from the discipline process.”

(Bill):  “How would you characterize your discipline situation today compared to before?”

(Principal Mike Berry):  “Well, Mike [Curtis], you were the dean of students the year before I got here.”

(Mike Curtis):  “Mike [Berry] has probably been the fifth Principal in the last twelve years here, so we’ve had a lot of turn-over. The year I was dean of students, we had a new principal. We had a class of 140 kids, big senior class, and 25% of them had police records.

That year Eric [the new principal] and I started to try to get the lid back on. And the year after that, I had an academic role and Mike came up because he had the skill set to do both jobs.   So when I was dean of students, we started the process of getting the kids back.”

(Mike Berry):  “Reining them back.”

(Mike Curtis):  “Reining them back.

A new vision 
to improve discipline 
by improving school climate

Mike came with the vision and, now, four years later, if you see those PBIS charts [Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports chart], it’s 80% green, 5-10% yellow, 5% red – that kind of thing.

Now we have six or eight red zone kids. The year I was dean of students, it was probably 30, 35. The difference is Mike’s vision and the staff getting focused on climate.

We had a big turn-over about two years ago where we lost about thirteen of faculty who had been in the mode of, ‘See no evil, hear no evil’.

 “They left on their own terms. No one was fired.

“They could see, some of them, that the administration was tightening up on some areas and they might not want to be a part of it. Two or three others left for higher pay.  Some just got out of education.”

(Mike):  “And, in turn, we did a lot of hiring. That hiring process was difficult because of the time we put into it and the expectations that we had to get the right people. We interviewed 38 science teachers, for instance, just to get the three that we wanted. So it was very, very intense.

We got good people who wanted to work hard, who wanted to hold kids accountable.

They’ve made our jobs a little bit easier.  Now a teacher does not write a kid up without a good reason, whereas previously there might have been nickel-and-diming – ‘Just get this kid out of my room’.”

(Mike Curtis):  “If they didn’t have a writing utensil.”

(Mike):  “Or refusing to do the worksheet. Those aren’t reasons to write kids up. But people were frustrated with the climate.

Now we don’t get that.  Back then, over a few months, we had close to a thousand write-ups and right now we’re just over 300 for this school year [the interview was at the end of the school year].”

(B):  “So a ‘write-up’ is just a write-up?”

(Mike):  No consequences.

We have a policy in place – the Handbook – that guides us.

[Here is the Handbook.  You can see from Section II, Social and Civic Expectations, which includes the discipline section, and Section III, School Climate Expectations that that there are teeth in the policy.]

We talk to teachers and say, ‘I appreciate you writing the kid up. This is how I handled it.’

We haven’t used 
In-School Suspension, 
which is our primary tool 
to change behavior, 
in two weeks.

A couple years ago, if we didn’t give a punishment like an ISS [In School Suspension] or OSS [Out of School Suspension], the teacher would say, ‘Oh, I’m not being supported.’  Now the conversation is, ‘Hey, I appreciate it.’

And now we don’t have that. Mike was telling me yesterday that we haven’t used our In-School, which is our primary tool to change behavior, in two weeks.

So teachers have that additional a teaching time plus extra planning period because of the climate of the building.

Before we start addressing NECAP
and other performance issues, 
we're going to address 
We're going to make kids 
proud of being 
in our school

It all began with a conscious effort by Eric, the previous principal.  He laid the foundation.  He had an idea of what he thought this school could look like and he just needed the people to do it.

He said, ‘We are going to change.  Before we start addressing NECAP issues, before we start addressing other performance issues, we’re going to address the climate. We’re going to make kids proud of being in our school.’

We did that through athletics and co-curriculums.  We put a lot of emphasis on making our students more competitive, getting students more committed to their sports, hiring virtually all new coaches. We hired 19 new coaches.

Mike and I actually coached sports together the first few years because there was no one else to cover it.  We did basketball together.  We helped out with girls’ basketball.  He did some track. I did some football to set the tone that this is what we expect.”

(B):  “So it wasn’t a direct discipline undertaking; it’s a tone.”

(Mike):  “We prioritized things like getting students to come to school. We changed our attendance policy and made it pretty fair – but with teeth – so if you’re violating it we can actually do something to change your behavior.

When kids did misbehave we made a conscious decision to be a little heavy that first year.  We deferred the climate piece or the athletic piece to begin to change behavior.

And as Mike [Curtis] said, we do have our red zone kids. But kids know what’s expected of them.

Our athletic teams are in the biggest division in New Hampshire, Division Three, with the 27, 28 teams. We’re always in the top 5, 6, 7,  and get some championships.”

(Mike):  “We have the 4th smallest school population in Division Three, but in the last two years we’ve had seven or eight state championship or runner-up finishes.”

(Mike):  “Bow is our rival. They pay well, they have good sports, they have smart kids, they have money.  It’s near Concord.’

So for our kids to see that they can compete with Bow, that’s pretty great.”

The calculus teacher! 
That guy goes to everything.  
And Gary!  
He'll drive two hours 
to go watch the theatre.

The kids begin to see that our coaches and teachers are putting us in situations where we can be competitive.  They see they’re getting something out of the effort.  So they don’t mind taking the NECAP.  They don’t mind taking the AP class.  They feel proud.

And the staff goes to stuff.  That wasn’t really happening before. Like the calculus teacher, that guy goes to everything.  And Gary!  He’ll drive two hours to go watch the theatre.  That’s why they’re so valuable to the school.

Lip Dub – a school spirit video

And the other climate thing I have to tell you about is our Lip Dub [here is lip dub explained on Wikipedia].”

(B): “I watched it last night. I thought, “How did they organize such a huge undertaking?”

(Mike):  “It is a lot of work. It’s good work – fun.

When I started doing this, the kids would say, ‘We don’t see Mr. Berry as that guy’. Mike C is the more fun, outgoing one.  But I get right into it. I said, ‘We’re going to do this, this and this. We’re going to make it good.’ And I work on the process.

We run it in January and we start talking about it in early November, getting the song leaders and all. We get teachers involved that are associated with the songs. We have a school-wide vote on what songs we’re going to pick.

Every year – we’ve done it three times – it’s a little more sophisticated than the previous year.  The kids, it’s like to put their stamp on it: ‘Hey, this is what it was like when we were there. These are the songs that were in. This is what was going on.’

In the first year, we can look back and see a lot of sports stuff because we were heavy in sports. This year we had not as much sports because school is becoming more well rounded.

We got some of the computer technology kids involved.  It was tough to convince those two boys to be a part of it.  That was as much of the success as anything else because they were nervous because that’s not their style.

They wouldn’t have been in it but I thought it was important for us to do that. And they did well. Mainly, they had a good time and what makes it gnarly for those kids is they’re outside in their t-shirts and it’s negative twenty degrees.  But it was just a lot of fun.

And it tells their parents, ‘Hey, those school folks are coming up on their day off to work with our kids.’  That carries as much clout as anything we do. That one-day event gives us legs to make a decision that someone doesn’t like. They give us some space.

The other piece was the teachers – having the teachers in it this year the way they were.  That would not have happened ever before.  Thirty teachers come up on their day off to dance on the stage.

When we have that type of environment, all that Common Core stuff is easy.  Now the conversations are more detailed and sophisticated – how we’re going to implement this and what we’re going to do as teachers. That’s harder work than organizing the Lip Dup obviously, but the Lip Dup helps us get all that in place.”


(Mike):  “I will tell you those first two years – I’m in my fourth year – there were a ton of bullying complaints. There were not a huge number of founded bullying because as you investigated, it would come out that it was a rude behavior. It was kids being kids. It  just didn’t meet the criteria of bullying or harassment or hazing, and so we would navigate the kids through that.

We would tell families, ‘Hey, that isn’t what it is’, and that is tough. In fact, later today I have to call parent and say it was unfounded and the mother disagrees with it.  I’m saying, ‘Look at it; it doesn’t meet the criteria. You’ve got to trust us.’ Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

But we don’t have nearly the number of complaints, and I think we might have four or five actual founded bullying cases this year – very minimal – and it’s usually verbal bullying or social media.

And it’s undeniable.  When the kids print out a comment that says, ”He called me…’ something sexual…  That will get you a bullying complaint. Because there’s some ignorance.  We’re not diverse in any fashion – we’re not diverse in sexual identity. There might be two or three guy kids who are out and, for the most part, our student body handles them well.  Those kids really have to handle themselves well to just be able to be a homosexual person here.  They have some thick skin and they’re worldly.

So the number of complaints has decreased significantly.”


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