Greco Middle reduces suspensions by getting students more involved
TAMPA — Elizabeth Simpson was explaining how computer coding works to her seventh-grade engineering class when two students pushed a dolly of oversized, unmarked boxes through the classroom door.
The students in her Engineering STEM Academy class at Greco Middle School knew what was inside. They burst into a chorus of gasps and chatter.
“Oh my gosh. We got a 3-D printer,” the students cheered. “Oh my gosh. I’m so happy.”
Simpson, a science, technology, engineering and math teacher, smiled from ear to ear. The printer, which will allow students to create three-dimensional objects, is just the latest in a string of efforts to increase student involvement at Greco Middle.
In the 11 years Simpson has worked at the Title 1 school, where 91 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch, Greco Middle has seen its share of bad headlines.
Greco teacher Deborah LaFave was convicted in 2005 of having sex with a 14-year-old boy.
In 2013, the team behind the documentary “Waiting for Superman” filmed a segment at Greco on the struggles of connecting with students.
Just before students left for summer vacation last year, eighth-grader E.J. Harris was shot to death at a park. And in April, a student brought a loaded gun to class.
But Simpson, Greco’s teacher of the year, said she has also seen marked improvements in student behavior this school year.
“It’s been less work for me. I don’t have to do as many team-building things anymore,” Simpson said. “The career academy model really helps get kids affiliated with something in the school besides academics or sports and gives them something to look forward to, like a family type atmosphere that has meaning.”
At the root of this and many changes at Greco is a renewed focus on adding new clubs, career academies and courses to help students get engaged in school, echoed throughout the Hillsborough School District. It’s part of a districtwide push written into the student handbook to find why each child misbehaves and provide them with the support they need to make changes, instead of dishing out one-size-fits-all punishment.
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Change is evident in the school’s statistics.
As of Dec. 7, there have only been 96 student suspensions for a total of 313 days at Greco Middle School. By the same time last school year, there had been 258 suspensions for a total of 1,308 days.
Those 96 suspensions were given to 63 students, only one of whom was suspended for more than 10 days. Four students received six to 10 days of out of school suspensions and 58 students received one to five days of out of school suspensions.
When Principal Yinka Alege first came to Greco four years ago, an average of 18 to 22 teachers left the school every year. This year, only eight left. He started with nine teachers deemed “less than effective” by state evaluations, and now he is down to three less-than-effective teachers.
In November, attendance was at 94.8 percent, compared to 92.3 percent last year. The 2 percent increase may seem small but it ranks as among the better of all Hillsborough County Schools, most of which showed a gain of less than 1 percent.
Even students notice the culture change.
“I like coming to school now,” said seventh-grade student Xavier Carr. “The classes are hard, but it’s fun.”
There’s still a long way to go, said Alege.
Students buzzed Monday morning with rumors of a fight the Friday before. While Simpson’s class was marveling at the new 3D printer Monday, a parent walked the hallways with her child to confront another student involved in an online bullying incident over the weekend. Minutes later, the staff and Alege, wearing a Santa hat and jingle bell necklace, were working to mediate the situation before it spiraled into class disruptions.
The girls were suspended. In an unrelated matter, another girl attempted to leave the campus in the middle of the school day. But for the most part, Alege, said he is pleased with the changes he sees in students and staff. So is the district’s Area 3 Superintendent Brenda Grasso.
“Greco has come a long way in the years I’ve been with the school and staff,” Grasso said. “I think the word ‘dramatic’ is appropriate when we describe the changes were seeing.”
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Alege took a simple approach to improving retention and discipline in his school: He asked the students what would make them excited to show up every day.
Now, participation in Simpson’s STEM course has skyrocketed and Greco has added a number of clubs students work with during lunch periods.
Students take care of goats, chickens and turkeys in an agriculture class, and in culinary arts they prepare dishes from food grown in a community garden on campus.
When sixth-grader Mark Chevalier hears this, he jumps up from his seat and does a little jig before composing himself to finish his notes on the differences between hardware and software.
“I like that programming challenges us to see how intelligent we actually are,” Chevalier said.
The students work through coding puzzles and games with characters from Disney’s Frozen, Star Wars or video games like Minecraft. On Monday, the game of choice in seventh grade is Lifebot, which allows students to punch in code commands to move a robot through puzzles and games.
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A majority of the students in Simpson’s classes are female or minorities — demographics poorly represented overall in the fields of computers, engineering and other STEM areas.
Seventh-grader Isabella Gentry won second place in the school district and $100 in a recent engineering competition with her Starbucks-themed water tower. She wants to be a baseball player for the Tampa Bay Rays, but her engineering win has helped her connect more to her classmates, she said.
“We’re like a family,” Isabella said.
In STEM courses, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students started the school year with a mixer, where the younger students are paired with an older buddy. They were given questions to ask each other and shared tips on what to do, and what not to do, in classes. They’ll meet back up in January. Principal Alege said he’s watching how the initiative works with the smaller STEM groups to see if it could be implemented school wide.
Said Simpson, “It gives the sixth-graders an opportunity to see that there’s no need to try to be someone else or try to show off for the first couple weeks. I can just be who I am and everybody is going to be OK with that.”
The improvement in student behavior has freed Greco’s guidance and support staff to limit school suspension days to Thursdays and Fridays and introduce a “restorative justice program” this school year to smooth the transition back to class for students suspended three to five days. Under the new program, each suspended student meets with counselors to talk about what went wrong and what could have been done differently. They get extra tutoring to make up missed class work and are closely monitored for two weeks.
“That was always one of the pieces we missed, that if the kid does get suspended out of school often times the assistant principal is not able to take the time to really help the kid understand what they did wrong because in the heat of the moment you just don’t have the opportunity to digest it and the kids are not ready to listen at that time either,” Alege said. “Now we wait till they’ve been removed from the situation and come back to work through the problem.”
Greco Middle also joined the rest of the school district in offering a social and emotional skills elective course to all sixth-grade students. The class, which will be expanded to seventh grade next year, teaches students to make better choices, prioritize tasks, think about ways to overcome daily obstacles and also relax with mini-meditation sessions. Alege said he has even used the lessons with his staff.
“It just helps them relax and try to get everything that may have happened at the bus stop that may have happened at home last night to come out of your head so you can put it all behind you so you can focus on what you can do to be successful at school today,” Alege said.
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Other engagement techniques are more subtle.
In Simpson’s class, each student has a class number that corresponds to a bingo ball Simpson keeps in a roller at the front of the classroom. At the beginning and end of the day, each student has a chance to be chosen to straighten up chairs and put books away on shelves – small acts that earn them two “cub bucks” they can use in the school game room.
The game room is a converted teachers lounge that houses video games, arcade games and a school store stocked with iTunes gift cards, Busch Gardens backpacks and other prizes. Cub bucks can also be cashed in immediately for candy.
Alege said he has to be careful not to overwhelm his teachers with new initiatives. Greco isn’t considered a Renaissance School by the state, which would have meant extra pay for teachers, and the school district is still determining it’s own priority schools.
Teachers have gotten some incentives this year, Simpson said, such as $50 for each student pursuing a Microsoft industry certification. But the teachers aren’t in it for the money, she said. “You don’t get to come at 9 a.m. and leave at 4:15 p.m.,” Simpson said. “This isn’t the job where you get to clock in and clock out right on time every day, because you do have to call parents and write up reports.
“But it’s not overwhelming and since you see results it’s worth it. And since you know whatever you’re doing you’re doing in the best interest of the kids, it’s worth it to spend the extra time to write the reports.