We're All Bozos Here

A former teacher's contrarian view of the reforms that have to precede "education reform.

The children of both liberals and conservatives star on the basketball team or run cross-country or lead cheers or sing in the chorus. And parents of every political stripe get equally upset when those activities are threatened in the name of economy, academic integrity or anything else. (Several surveys have found that people are disturbed about the overall state of education, but perfectly happy with their own children's school.) Our schools may be bad, but when it comes down to paying the real costs that come with specific reforms, a lot of people prove to be content with those schools just the way they are. And all our protestations to the contrary don't fool our children for one minute. CP

DRAWING THE LINE IN APPLE VALLEY

AFTER YEARS OF steady deterioration, behavioral standards in the public schools may have bottomed out and actually begun to rise in at least a few Minnesota districts. A recently released study by the Children, Families and Learning Department shows that 274 students were expelled in 1994-95, a three-fold increase from five years ago. Most of the change can be attributed to a very few districts, and leading the trend is Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan District 196. Tightening discipline was a priority of superintendent John Haro when he took the job three years ago, and for once it was no empty campaign promise. Last year was the first under a tough new policy, and the results were dramatic. The 25,000-student suburban district expelled 55 students, a full 20 percent of all the children ejected from Minnesota's public schools.

Developing a new policy began with public "site council" meetings designed to elicit community input--as well as the crucial factor, public support. Working within the due-process constraints imposed by school law, the district eventually developed a re-written student "rights and responsibilities" policy in which specific behaviors called for specific penalties imposed with zero-tolerance leniency. As in most school districts, teachers and administrators review the policy line-by-line with students at the beginning of each school year.

What the spelling out of some 40 infractions and attendant penalties boils down to, says Rosemount Middle School principal Larry Larson, "is basic respect for yourself and others." From the outset, however, the question has been whether adhering to cumbersome state law on student rights would allow for a policy flexible enough to deal sensibly with individual circumstances and students. Director of Secondary Education Dan Kaler, who has final authority in all serious disciplinary actions such as expulsion, maintains that principals and teachers do have the latitude to take case-specific disciplinary action, and that building-level response to the new policy has been overwhelmingly positive. "I met with both the middle and high school principals this week," he says, "and asked them point-blank what we should consider changing in the policy. They had to struggle to come up with anything at all."

Some building administrators, however, finesse the question of flexibility. "There are times," says Apple Valley High principal Gary Embretson, "when I'm grateful for for the cut-and-dried areas of the policy, and times when I'm grateful for what gray areas it does have." Likewise, Rosemount's Larson notes that the tight correlation between offense and punishment doesn't always distinguish between the kid who loses it once and "the 3 percent of the population that causes the real problems." Partly as a result, District 169 is joining forces with Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, another district which has tightened discipline, to develop a highly structured alternative school designed to ease less than incorrigible students back into the system.

"A tougher discipline policy isn't a panacea," Larson adds. "It works best in conjunction with other programs, including a concerted effort to get more parents into the building during the school day." Like many educators nowadays, Larson is concerned that students "own" the disciplinary policy--see it as in their own best interests. He looks forward to the time when Rosemount can begin "peer mediation," the latest term for student-faculty disciplinary committees.

The general feeling among principals seems to be that the tougher line on discipline has at least enabled district schools to hold their own under increasingly difficult conditions. Dakota County has had an influx of lower-income families, especially in "second ring" communities like Burnsville, Eagan, Rosemount, and Apple Valley, and those families bring with them the usual problems for schools. "The kids are tougher to control than they were 10 years ago," says Larson. Adds Apple Valley's Embretson, "They get into more serious trouble at an earlier age. For the first time this year, the district has had to hire a full-time police liaison officer."

The real test of the policy's spine--and all-crucial public support--came last year when District 196 was sued by the parents of a boy expelled for carrying a knife in school. The case made headlines throughout the state, and the district got its share of media criticism for its rigidity in expelling a student for carrying a "pen knife." Administrators stood by the letter of their law, however, and successfully defended the district's weapons policy in court. The decision to duke it out in front of a judge was no doubt made easier by the community reaction to the case. "Our office was getting lots of cards and letters and phone calls," recalls Secondary Director Kaler. "I think we actually gained a great deal of support from the community."

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