Glenn Hills Middle School got a wake-up call last week in the form of a .25-caliber handgun clutched in the hand of an eighth-grader.
The boy brought the weapon Jan. 16 after he and a T.W. Josey High School student had tried to rob a student in a Glenn Hills bathroom the day before, officials said.
The day after the boy was arrested, nearly 200 students stayed home from school, Principal Glenn Andrews said. Instructional coach Elizabeth Arnette said teachers were fearful of a repeat incident with a worse outcome.
The scare was the culmination of years of rising discipline issues, slipping student achievement and a lack of parental support that put a gridlock on the school reaching
its potential, Andrews said.
On Tuesday, the principal called a meeting for parents where about 60 in attendance heard him beg them to get involved in their children’s education and for the school district to provide resources the
school desperately needed.
Board of Education President Venus Cain and Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Debbie Alexander were there to reiterate his point.
“If we don’t do something in this building, we got what we got last Wednesday,” Andrews said. “My piece is Glenn Hills Middle. Your piece is the house. And that’s where it’s got to come together. We got to come together.”
As a result of the incident, the district allocated money for a second school safety officer and a full-time parent facilitator to the school this week.
Andrews said parent facilitator Rhonda Clark will help form a 10-member school council filled with business leaders and community members. School officials will also resurrect the defunct PTA and try to bring more parents on the campus for activities and meetings.
“Lately it’s been nonexistent,” Arnette said of parent involvement. “When the parents come up here, it’s always for a problem. We rarely get parents here for positive things.”
At the conference Tuesday, Cain stressed the need for family engagement in a school that has neighborhood violence being brought in. Cain said the community must put an end to a culture of blaming the school board or the school establishment for problems that might be happening at home.
She urged parents to take ownership for their children so they can see them walk across the stage to get a high school diploma – not end up in prison or the morgue.
“We think nothing of jumping on another kid, the parent comes up to the school and you want to cuss the principal out, you want to cuss the teacher out, you want to hold me responsible for not educating your child,” Cain said. “I don’t live in your house. I have spent many a nights praying. God and I had a talk last week because I wanted to know after this incident, how did we get here? … How does a middle school kid get a gun and convince a high school kid to leave school and come over here and beat up a little kid?”
ANDREWS SAID the issues at the school are more complex than parents know or other educators will acknowledge. The state Department of Education took over Glenn Hills in 2005 after it failed to meet adequate yearly progress, a former measure of school achievement, for five years in a row.
School Intervention Specialist Amy Wright brought in a team to train teachers and support the leadership. She said the reform was accelerated in 2007 when Andrews was hired as principal, and he developed data tracking strategies and revised discipline procedures.
Andrews said that when he came on the job, the school had four active gangs, daily fights and a third of the sixth-graders were reading below grade level. Two students, who were later arrested, were leading a bomb threat scheme, where they called in two threats twice a day for 18 days in a row.
Through the reform and state intervention, discipline referrals fell from 2,000 in 2008 to less than 500 by 2010. The percentage of students meeting standards in math jumped 13 points to 69 percent between 2005 and 2010; the percentage in English/language arts jumped almost 17 points to 89 percent, according to state data.
“There was a collaborative spirit that was very infectious,” Wright said. “It just bled everywhere as a result of coaches being there 24/7. The right people were in the right places at the right time. We had student buy-in, teacher buy-in, administration buy-in. It was a special time in my life I’ll never forget.”
When the state intervention ended in 2010, and local budget cuts began at the same time, Andrews said he lost six teachers, one assistant principal, a guidance counselor and a front office staffer.
Teacher morale dropped and achievement suffered. At the same time, teachers had to take on the load of learning new Common Core state standards with new requirements.
Now, Andrews said student achievement is mostly below 2005 levels, though 2013 scores can’t be directly compared because of changes in curriculum standards over the years.
Without enough teachers, class sizes have swelled to almost 38 in some cases, leaving teachers overwhelmed, Andrews said.
“I was left trying to sustain the success the students built and the teachers built and I built that I couldn’t sustain,” Andrews said. “We had been able to get above water, and then the last three years have been a fight.”
Andrews said the gun incident has been a shot in the arm for the school to get it together but that small victories have already been made. Arnette and fellow instructional coach Gladys Hamilton are developing a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math infusion program that is being tested in select classes.
Teachers have expanded their data analysis system over the years. Each student’s name is posted on the wall of the collaboration room in either a green, yellow or red designation and is monitored daily.
The educators say the goal is to get back to the success they tasted several years ago, but they can’t do it alone.
“The students here have so much potential,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes they don’t believe in themselves, sometimes it’s the parents that say ‘I don’t have the time to come up here and be involved.’ But we can do it.”