According to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) website, the Behavior Education Plan (BEP) that was approved in March of 2014 “moves our district away from a code of conduct based on a punitive model in favor of one that provides students with an opportunity to learn positive behavior skills.” As a veteran in the district, I embrace the philosophy behind this shift. Providing students with a means of learning from their mistakes and maximizing the time that they spend learning is in line with teaching our students to be responsible citizens. However, a philosophy in itself cannot teach our children. Without consistency, direction, and increased resources, the potential of the BEP cannot be realized.
It was with this dream in mind that educators filed in to the McDaniels Auditorium to share the current reality in our schools with the MMSD Board of Education. Many stepped up to the podium to give public testimony, while others sat in the audience with heads nodding and eyes tearing up. It was an emotional evening, and a reminder that the best intentions can go awry.
In a letter from Crestwood Elementary, read by Andy Waity and Anthony Brown, the current reality of our schools was described as full of challenges that “impact our staff’s morale, emotional, and even physical health.” Brown described a school climate where learning is constantly disrupted and putting out virtual fires takes priority over restorative practices.
The Crestwood staff also extended an invitation to the Board of Education to come out and experience the school climate under the BEP for themselves. This invitation was met with agreement and applause by those gathered in the auditorium.
Kristen Voss, Memorial High School, seconded this invitation and asked Superintendent Cheatham and the Board to “recognize that by questioning these initiatives, it does not mean that [teachers] are not part of the mission. It means that we just want to be able to understand what we are doing.” Voss also reminded listeners that teachers are on the front-lines, working to close the opportunity gap. To support our teachers and provide them with training and resources is to support our students.
Kati Walsh, an art teacher and former Positive Behavior Support coach, spoke up about incidents such as “a second grade student [becoming] violent, throwing objects and refusing to leave class when class ended.” Even with PBS training, teachers like Walsh are unsure of where to go for help when violence happens in the classroom and many report that when they do call for help that response time is slow. Staff are concerned that this could endanger both staff and students.
Staff member after staff member told gut wrenching stories about being sworn at, kicked, bit, and punched on a daily basis. At no point did speakers advocate for students to be removed from the classroom — quite the opposite. Teachers pleaded with the Board to bring more resources to the classroom, for social work and guidance positions to be reinstated. It was a clear cry for help in implementing the new Behavior Plan.
Conversations with educators throughout the district have made it clear that the BEP is being implemented inconsistently throughout the district. Some report that students are being “sent home” as a way around suspensions. Others have yet to receive training on OASYS, the new system for documenting behaviors, so behaviors are going undocumented. One speaker reported that teachers at some schools have been told directly not to document low level behaviors and at other schools documentation is still done on paper.
For Katrina Ladopoulos, Crestwood Elementary, this is not a problem with training or staff leadership. Ladopoulos spoke of her love of Crestwood Elementary and listed her ongoing training in positive behavior supports, responsive classrooms, and culturally relevant teaching. As an English Language Learner and special education “cluster classroom,” Ladopoulos asked for increased support in the classroom. “We can’t do it alone. It’s a whole community. We need to work together.”
The conversation at Monday night’s Board meeting and others throughout the district is causing educators to wonder what the the plan is with the BEP. The vision of the BEP looks good on paper, but the paper does not match the reality of our schools — schools where classroom climate makes learning difficult for even our most motivated students. Superintendent Cheatham responded to speakers by reassuring them that their voices were heard, “loud and clear.” Moving forward, the district’s response to the ongoing crises in our schools will be evidence as to whether or not Monday night’s message was truly received.
Watch the Public Testimony here. (Public testimony begins at 2:11:00)
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