Behavior specialists help teachers and students stay on track

New London - In the 60-minute period a New London High School teacher has to squeeze in the day's lesson plan, every minute counts.

Teachers can't afford to sacrifice that moment when a student goes from "Uh-huh" to "Aha!" The job becomes even more challenging when a disruptive student competes for the teacher's attention and shifts the focus away from the lesson.

Under pressure to improve lagging test scores, the high school has enlisted three behavior specialists to help reduce classroom distractions and keep the focus on learning.

Michael Morgan, Jeff Larson and David Moore assist teachers by removing disruptive students from the classroom so others can continue to learn, and then returning the student to the class with a calmer attitude and a redirected outlook.

Social studies teacher John Martin said the entire school, from Principal William "Tommy" Thompson to the teachers and students, are stressed by the pressure to improve the scores on next year's Connecticut Academic Performance Test and to meet a new school policy where only those students who can demonstrate knowledge of the English language will graduate, starting in 2015.

"These guys are a safety valve," he said of the behavior specialists.

Each specialist has an office on one of the school's main floors and works to become familiar with the personalities of the students and establish a solid, constant line of communication with the teachers.

"I love my relationships with these kids," said Morgan, a 2005 graduate of the school who was working in retail a year ago. "I'm trying to make everyone's day better when I see them out in the hall.

"When other kids see me shake someone's hand or stop and have a quick conversation, they want in on it too, so they talk to me. They trust my word, they know I went to school with their brother or their cousins and they've heard good things about me from outside of school and they give me that respect."

At 9 a.m. on a recent Monday, Moore receives his first call of the day.

A student in Kristen Talley's English as a Second Language class says he has a headache. He doesn't want to go to the nurse but refuses to participate in the class.

In the hallway outside of the class, Talley translates the student's complaint from Spanish into English for Moore.

"He says he told someone he had a headache and they poked him on the head and made it worse," Talley says.

"I'm sorry that happened to you, but you can't be in a class and have your head down. You either need to go to the nurse so she can help you or you need to work," Moore says to the student.

Talley translates.

For a brief moment, the student looks back and forth between the two adults and, with an almost defeated expression, drops his head, nods, and says he'll go back to class.

Moore, who has been at the school for five years, begins the short walk back to his office but continues past his door to greet Spanish I teacher Oscar Perez, who is standing outside his classroom to say he's having a problem with a student.

"Can you please talk to him?" Perez says. "I've asked him to stop talking four times but he's not listening."

The boy then traipses out of Perez's classroom and flings his black backpack over his shoulder. He shuffles down the hallway to Moore's office.

"When you're the only one talking and laughing in class when it should be the teacher, what is actually causing the disruption?" Moore asked.

"Me," the student says.

"Exactly. So you've got to realize that you're stopping the flow of class and, to keep the class flow going, you can go to PRR for the rest of class since your work is already done," Moore says.

The PRR, or Period Restriction Room, is tucked into a corner near the school's cafeteria. When the room's Whaler green doors are closed, it easily could be mistaken for a storage closet. But open the doors, and it's an alternative classroom with desks, chairs and posters.

For a majority of students, issues can be resolved in a matter of minutes and they return to class. But in cases where the teacher doesn't want the student to return, they can be sent to PRR or to a dean's office.

"The thing is, teenagers are angry and frustrated, and in certain situations, they express themselves differently because they're just angry and frustrated," Moore says. "You have to see beyond that behavior and find what they're really trying to say."

Perez, a first-year teacher at the high school, praises the immediate availability of the specialists. "It has to be one of the greatest things ever as far as support. It helps me maintain structure in my classroom, cuts down on a lot of the pausing, and also helps me manage the kids a little better," he said.

Fewer problems this year

When students are sent to the dean's office, the most common reasons are disruptive talking and failure to attend a teacher-issued detention, Thompson said.

This year, the deans are seeing fewer students in trouble.

Compared to last September, October and November, he said, there has been a 6.5 percent decrease in disruptive talking referrals; a 22.8 percent decrease in the number of students who have failed to attend a teacher-issued detention; and approximately a 33 percent reduction in the number of overall referrals.

"I attribute that to the classroom management skills of our teachers and the support that our teachers, especially the new ones, get from our deans and the behavior specialists who can address behavior before it gets to the point of a referral," Thompson said.

The school district was able to hire two of the specialists with money from a three-year $800,000 grant from the state Department of Education. The School Improvement Grants go to "chronically low-achieving" schools to "dramatically transform school culture and increase student outcomes." The state will monitor whether the school improves its standardized test scores.

English teacher Karen Kook said the presence of the behavioral specialists has brought an "amazing improvement" in the school. The school's learning environment has become healthier and safer, she said, and the students are more relaxed and engaged.

A teacher at the high school since 1998, Kook said that earlier this year she would forget that the specialists were there to help her because she had been handling most behavioral situations in the classroom by herself.

"I don't forget now. It's a beautiful thing," she said. "You just open your door and it's like having a fairy godmother right there. It's a blessing to the building."

Students' point of view

Caleb Jackson, a sophomore at the adjacent Science and Technology Magnet school, said he has seen how important the behavior specialists are to the teachers, especially if they are struggling with a student in class.

"It's really annoying when kids are being disruptive. The part I really don't like is that they'll show blatant disrespect for the teacher when they give them a warning because they'll just keep talking and totally disregard what the teacher asked them to do," said, who is from Groton. "When the teacher decides to send them out, it's a fast process and they can focus on the rest of the kids who want to learn."

Freshman Jessica Morocho said she welcomes the intervention. "It helps when they come take a student out of class because I'm trying to take notes. It bothers me because when I'm trying to focus and pay attention to the teacher and someone's talking, I get frustrated," she said.

Magnet school student Angela Angulo, a junior, said she was sent to see Moore in the beginning of the school year, and while her situation turned out be a misunderstanding about an incident, she appreciated the time he took with her.

"He helped me see that it really wasn't as big of a deal as I thought it was, and he told me to sit down and relax a bit and really think about whether the situation was worth me being upset over," she said. "They talk things out with you, rather than last year, when a teacher would send you straight to the office where people will be angry with you for taking up their time, or they may not have the time to deal with you at all so you just sit there."

Be fair, firm and consistent

The school's behavior specialists and administrators use a discipline matrix to determine what consequence should result from a student's behavior.

It removes the subjectivity and keeps the specialists from becoming the bearers of bad news.

"I use it every day," Morgan said. "I look at it and read out loud what the offense is and what the punishment for that offense is. If they have a problem with it, I ask them to read it themselves. It's not what I say or what I think their punishment should be, it's right there in black and white. They can't argue with that."

While the consequences may be spelled out in black and white, there are instances where the ramifications of an offense can be modified to better fit the situation.

"There are things that happen that aren't on the chart and, in those cases, it's just a guide for us," Morgan said.

When a situation does arise where a stricter form of punishment is needed, the school's deans get involved.

"A lot of people think the dean's position is very, very punitive. When it comes time for a suspension or an expulsion, we are the ones who deal with that," said Lawrence Washington, a school dean.

Passionate about providing a school climate that is safe and conducive to learning for everyone, Washington described the school's environment as peaceful, even though he said he is prepared to deal with disruptions to that environment. "I don't see chaos, I see order. The kids are respectful. I'm really proud of these kids. They do a very good job as far as following school rules and procedures," he said.

"A situation that disrupts our climate and what we have going on here is something I have to prepare for on a daily basis, and when you don't get something like that by the end of the day, it's a very good day. And so far, to this point in the school year, I haven't had a bad day yet."


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