The new dean of students at East Haven High School is making it his goal to "throw out the old-school way" of looking at discipline-taking problem kids out of class and giving them in in-school suspensions.
"Kind of defeats the purpose of coming to school, don't you think?" asks Mark Hughes. "We want kids learning."
After eight years of working for the Area Cooperative Educational Services schools as a social worker, Mark is hard at work at his new position in East Haven.
Watching Mark in action for a few minutes at the end of a recent school day is an eye-opener. As one student stopped in to pick up her cell phone, which she'd had taken away for her for having it out during class, Mark tells the disbelieving student, "You'll get your phone back, after your mother comes in and picks it up."
The student stalked out of the office, but a few minutes later the student's mom was at the door, getting her daughter's phone back, after listening to the dean of students implore her to direct her daughter to keep her phone out of sight during class time.
Mark is a big believer in what he terms "positive behavior intervention support." He elaborates by saying that pulling kids out of school classes to put them into in-school suspension is a model of which he isn't a fan.
"One of the strengths of a good school system is the kind of positive recognition system you put into place for kids to thrive," says Mark. "Our whole goal is to get the problem kids back in class, learning."
In Mark's office, where he says, "my door is always open to students," you see plaques with words like "respect" on the walls. A quick gaze around his office also gives any visitor a hint about Mark's other passion, besides social work with kids. He's a certifiable sports nut-primarily a big Red Sox and San Francisco 49ers fan.
The East Haven Board of Education approved the hiring of a dean of students a few months back. The position, which is new to the school system, received about 75 applicants.
As dean of students, Mark will focus on discipline and managing the day-to-day culture of the school climate, says East Haven School Superintendent Portia Bonner.
The school system wants students to learn from their mistakes, and Mark will be in charge of having a restorative discipline approach, Bonner says. Mark, a 1987 Platt High School graduate, became interested in an administrative career when working as a social worker at the Collaborative Alternative Magnet School, formerly in North Branford.
At the school, he worked with special education and high-risk students. He says there was only one administrator at the school, so he was relied on to do some of the smaller administrative duties. He was in charge of interventions, some of the behavior and discipline issues, and contacting families when an issue came up.
For the dean of students position, Mark, who is married and lives in Meriden with his wife "and a cat and a dog," interviewed before a committee of administrators, parents, and students. The committee's core focus was empowering students. Mark liked what he heard.
Asked the type of discipline he favors, Mark tells this story: "Just today I had a student who was worried about missing a doctor's appointment because she had detention. Because she was honest about it, I waived the detention."
Mark adds: "I want to grow an understanding with the students that I am a resource for them. My door is open all the time. My focus is on this school, these students. I think one thing we older folks forget is what an emotional time [it is for] students the age of high school kids. Everything they experience can be magnified by a thousand.
"I'm here not to change the world, but to try and help these students-that's my total focus."
Part of that focus means learning more about East Haven High School, "whether it be going to a volleyball game after school, like I did this week, or a band performance on a weekend," he says. "I'll be there."
The new dean of students says he is a bit surprised that some of his new ways of looking at discipline have been received so well.
"I expected a little more resistance to change from the staff, but that hasn't been the case. Everyone has been great."
He adds that he also thinks parents of problem children sometimes get a bad rap.
"I've yet to have a parent not show support for our attempts to help a student," Mark says.