Committed to Kindness

Anwatin Middle Schools sees drop in discipline problems

Whenever a parent raises a concern about discipline issues at Anwatin Middle School, Principal Beth Russell asks if he or she has been inside the building. She assures them that it's quiet, except for the noisy passing times between classes.

Russell admits that behavior problems, especially among teenagers, is an ongoing challenge but says the Bryn Mawr neighborhood school is equipped to handle it. She pointed to a banner hanging near the school's entrance that read, &#8220Anwatin: a community committed to kindness.”

That's what the school aspires to be. As a testimony to its accomplishments, referrals to the office and suspensions are going down, which Russell attributed to new initiatives including a shift to all-school pre-International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IB/MYP), a schoolwide emphasis on accountability plus a coherent, stable staff.

Some school employees say conditions at the school are better this year than they have been in a long time, while others argue that the perceptions of the school's discipline problems have been overblown. Still, others credit demographic shifts for a more manageable student body.

Even so, the multicultural school struggles with the community's perception that it has more than its fair share of fights and other problems. Some fights that occurred last year, including disputes between Hmong and African American students, sent waves of anxiety throughout the community.

Anwatin's proponents, however, claim that such events have been overhyped. They say they've encountered little, if any backlash at the school and are firm believers in its academic focus and extracurricular opportunities.

Central to some parents' fears about Anwatin is the notion of middle school as unfamiliar territory. Some parents would rather send their children to kindergarten-8th-grade (K-8) schools because it's within their comfort zone, Russell said.

Teens are struggling for individuality while also striving to impress peers, which is why teenage years are so tough. &#8220Schools are getting blamed but [their behaviors are] within the norms of what kids will exhibit at this age,” Russell said.

Discipline problems declining

As the magnet IB middle school for the southern part of the city and some parts of the North Side, 480 students attend Anwatin from more than 20 feeder schools.

That's down from 850 students six years ago due to various demographic changes. More than 70 percent of the school's students live in poverty, compared to 95 percent two years ago.

Anwatin Behavior Specialist Marylynn Boone has worked at Anwatin for 16 years. In that time, she's witnessed ups and downs. When she first started, there were many problems at the school. She said that in the past six years, the time that Russell has been leading the school, things have calmed down.

She said she remembered one year when seven fights broke out in two hours. There's a different tone this year, however.

&#8220This year is one of the best years I've seen,” she said. &#8220One change is that this is just a different group of kids. They're committed to learning and are proud to show me their grades.”

So far this year, she's been called to mediate only a few fights. Last year, however, brought challenges, she said.

She attributed some of last year's difficulties to an influx of students who were displaced from closed schools. In transition, they didn't get to acclimate to the school early on. Many of those students have since graduated and moved on to high school.

Last year, the school reported 411 incidents of serious discipline problems to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) as required by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

For the 2004-05 school year, Anwatin showed 567 incidents. Behaviors that frequently led to suspensions included assaults, fights, gang-related activities, harassment, threats and weapons violations.

Suspensions alone are down 23 percent within the first several months of this school year compared to the same period last year.

A small number of the students - about 30 - are responsible for the disciplinary issues, said Russell. Many of the students who get in trouble are also repeat offenders. Additionally, there are disparities between how each school handles problems and what gets reported.

Other schools in Southwest saw fewer reported incidents last year. Lake Harriet Upper Campus reported eight office referrals, Anthony Middle School had 149 and Ramsey International Fine Arts Center had 192.

Outside the area, Cityview Performing Arts Magnet in Northeast surpassed Anwatin with 532 offenses, while Olson Middle School in North Minneapolis followed with 358 incidents, Northeast Middle School had 304, Folwell Middle School in South Minneapolis had 276 and Lucy Craft Laney in Northeast had 201.

A positive climate

As a daily demonstration of the school's motto, students award each other in their classrooms with &#8220kindness slips,” given at random. Kindness slips are an initiative of the school's Positive Climate Committee that has also led an anti-bullying curriculum delivered in a weekly session called &#8220advisory.”

Posters mounted in the hallways contain anti-bullying messages. Within classrooms, bullying behaviors are listed and posted.

Although some teachers agreed that acting out is rare, sometimes students pick fights, loiter, are tardy or don't pay attention in class. But most problems that arise occur in the hallways, they said. To cut down on hallway squabbles, usually of the name-calling, &#8220he said/she said,” pushing or shoving variety, passing time was shortened from five minutes to four.

Additionally, soundproof ceiling tiles were installed throughout the hallways, which previously reverberated like airport noise. Students are no longer sprinting through the hallways, according to Russell.

To help students release excess energy, recess was introduced this year as part of students' 30-minute lunchtime.

But perhaps the greatest difference in the school's climate has come from its move to all-school IB this fall, offering academic rigor to everyone. Currently, the school is in the process of becoming IB/MYP certified.

Previously, children were split between a community and an IB program. IB students stayed with one another all day while non-IB students weren't being tracked.

Anwatin teacher Dan King said expecting greater achievement from more students gives them &#8220more to earn and learn, rather than be lumped together with kids who have a reputation for being unsuccessful,” he said, adding, &#8220Most kids respond to that challenge.

Aiming for success

One way to get everyone up to speed, especially those lagging behind, is to offer tutoring labs after school and on Saturday mornings. Students receive extra help on homework and a quiet place to study.

During the labs, students finish incomplete assignments - as part of a recent no-tolerance policy for missing assignments - sending a message that simply failing for not turning in work is unacceptable.

Teachers are also emphasizing good organizational habits. On a subtle level, teachers are striving to reach out more to individual personalities and learning styles in the classroom.

That includes gender. For instance, in science classes, children are grouped according to gender for collaborative projects as a way to downplay stereotypes. For example, in mixed-gender work groups, boys typically act as leaders and girls often end up as recorders.

To ensure that introverts and extroverts have a voice, teachers are taking advantage of &#8220justice circles,” which seat students in a circle, passing along a talking piece indicating when is their turn to speak.

When students do step out of bounds, a behavior specialist intervenes. Students map out reasons for their actions along with consequences and a plan for improvement on a &#8220reflections sheet.” Also, a police liaison officer is staffed at the school.

Anwatin parent Mary Lewis said she has been impressed with Anwatin. Three of her children have attended the school. Her youngest, Anna, is a 6th grader and her son, Noah, is an 8th grader at the school.

She said her oldest son, now in high school, encountered bullying some years ago but said it didn't detract from his education. Her children have good friends at the school. She praised its IB program and committed staff. &#8220I feel badly for the parents who're afraid to send their children there. They wind up pulling kids out of a school I love,” she said.

Parent Marian Moore said the school's diversity has provided invaluable life lessons for her son.

&#8220Real learning is going on there and the truth is, we need more resources in schools,” she said.

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].