Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

TOP STORY >> Middle School Woes

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Adding their voices to the chorus of Jacksonville residents unhappy with what they say is the Pulaski County Special School District’s lack of commitment to the new Jacksonville Middle School boys campus, members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce’s education committee on Wednes-day had strong words and pointed questions for interim Superintendent Robert Clowers and Marvin V. Jeter III, director of learning services.

The boys campus is experiencing fights and discipline problems and less than nine weeks into the school year, 60 students already had been suspended.

Under pressure from some parents and the Rev. James Bolden III, Jacksonville’s school board representative, the board Tuesday declined an administration recommendation, acting instead to leave a well-respected, strong disciplinarian — Jackie Calhoun — as an assistant principal at the school instead of moving him to Jacksonville High School. The administration had proposed the move to cut costs as proposed in the district’s Fiscal Distress Improvement Plan.

Calhoun, helping supervise students getting on buses at the close of school Thursday, said he was happy to remain at the middle school.
That leaves one principal, 1 1/2 assistant principals and one school resource officer to oversee a school where there were 16 students in the office for disciplinary reasons Thursday afternoon.

SPECIAL TREATMENT

“We want special treatment and plans,” Bolden said at Wednesday’s chamber meeting. “This is not just another school.”
Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim agreed, saying he expected the board to do what was necessary to make the single-gender schools successful.

“This school is a disgrace to the community,” Swaim said. “It creates a problem in recruiting businesses and new residents.”
“Discipline (problems) at the boys school shot up,” Bolden said.. “We need full support on the gender schools. We don’t have time for friction”
“We pulled a high percentage of low achievers,” boys campus Principal Michael Nellums said.

Seventy-two percent of the students in his school get free or reduced lunches, an indication that they are economically disadvantaged and statistically more prone to discipline problems as well as academic problems, Nell-ums said.
The middle school argument has undertones of the discontent that led Jacksonville leaders to try unsuccessfully to detach last year from PCSSD and form their own school district, and the ongoing discontent over their failure to have their own district.
A circuit judge ruled last year that a separate school district would violate the district’s desegregation agreement.

CITY ‘NOT HAPPY’

“Jacksonville is not happy,” said Bolden, who is a leader of the separate school district movement. “Things begin with discipline. We’re not getting what we were told. You told us there would be money (for facilities, programs, tutors and making a successful transition to the separate gender school model.)”
Swaim said the district app-roached the city with the single-gender middle-school idea last year, saying there would be re-sources through grants.

“I want enough to make it operate,” Swaim said after the meeting. “If they want to let it fail, they’re certainly going about it the right way.”
“We keep hearing ‘grant, grant, grant … no grant, no grant, no grant,’” Bolden said.
Some people believe there is a power struggle between Nellums and Jeter.
Jeter blames Nellums for problems in implementing the single-gender curriculum and would like to see him fired or transferred to another school, according to sour-ces who asked not to be identified.
“I would hope that he doesn’t feel that way,” Nellums said Thursday. “I haven’t specifically heard that. I’d be disappointed if that were the case.”

NOT A VENDETTA

“Nellums is one of the strong-est, ablest administrators we have,” Jeter said Friday. “This really is not a vendetta. I appreciate his skills. I believe in him and his abilities and I’m sorry some people made that an issue. I believe we work very well together.”
He added that a new program sometimes works better with new leadership and that moving Nellums to another school would have been an option.

Nellums said the discipline problems are to be expected when you put a large number of low-achieving males, with the natural aggressiveness of males, into a new environment, and that the district should recognize that and make sure there is sufficient supervision.
We don’t have the resources or opportunity to teach them conflict resolution, Nellums said, or time for intramural sports after lunch to take the edge off their aggression.

Jeter acknowledged that there were problems.
“I think there have been miscommunications and regular growing pains,” he said. “It’s a challenge to start a new program.”

LAPTOP COMPUTERS

Jeter said after-school remediation would soon begin and he expected Title V money to buy mobile laptop-computer carts so students could work on weak academic areas.
One sore point with Nellums and some Jacksonville parents and business people is the question of the gender school’s site-based council.
State law gives schools the authority to form site-based councils with teachers, administrators, principals and other school em-ployees making many major decisions at the local level.
Currently the middle school girls campus has one, left over from the council at that building last year when it was a traditional coeducational middle school. There was no such council last year at Jacksonville Junior High, where Nellums was principal, and which is the boys campus this year.
Jeter told the chamber members that the existing council had reserved spaces for representatives of the boys campus.
Nellums and Bolden say that the existing council should be dissolved and a new vote taken of interested parties at both schools. If the school community approves a new council, it would include members from both boys’ and girls’ campuses. Nellums has re-fused invitations to participate on that site-based council.
“I don’t think we should be one school, but two,” Nellums said.
Swaim agreed saying it should be two separate schools with two separate campuses and potentially two separate site-based councils.

EXCUSES/SOLUTIONS

“I’ve heard a lot of excuses, but I haven’t heard any solutions,” Swaim said.
Jacksonville Chamber of Com-merce Director Bonita Rownd told administrators that parents had complained that some students at the girls campus didn’t have text books and that teachers had told students — again, largely economically disadvantaged — to “go online.”
Jeter said more books were being purchased, although cuts in new textbooks were part of the district’s fiscal-distress improvement plan.
“This school can be successful with proper resources,” said PCSSD assistant superintendent Karl Brown. “We know what we’ve done wrong.”
Brown noted that the students were 55 percent African American, of whom only 17 percent were proficient in reading and math.
Nellums and two mothers who addressed the Tuesday school board meeting noted that the low-income students at the boys school generate about $150,000 in additional federal revenues, money they would like to see used to hire math and literacy coaches for the school.