A weekend interview with John Hopkins Middle School principal Barry Brown
St. Petersburg's John Hopkins Middle School – home to some of Pinellas County's finest magnet programs – was rocked last spring by brawls and student arrests and teachers begging for intervention. In the aftermath, Superintendent Julie Janssen made Barry Brown the new principal. The result: So far, things have been a lot quieter at Hopkins and by many accounts, better. Brown spoke with reporter Ron Matus about what changed, what worked and why he's cautiously optimistic. (St. Petersburg Times photo by Cherie Diez.)
Are things better?
I think things are a lot better, yes. I wasn’t here the entire year last year. Just from parents I’ve talked to, from staff members I’ve talked to. But I still think our administrative team, we feel like there are things that need to be done still, that we have to continue to work at doing better.
So it’s better but you’re not declaring victory yet?
Absolutely not. We’ve got a vision we’re still working on. Every student, every day academic and social success. That’s our school vision. It’s simplistic. But I think it embeds what we need for our kids to be successful. But it really starts us with having that vision, communicating that vision to our staff, and supporting our staff, whether it be instructional support, professional development, supporting them with discipline, with referrals.
Are things better with student discipline and how do you know?
What I’ll say is, I think we still receive the same kind of kids we received last year. I think we’ve created a clear expectation of the discipline, and we work consistently to make sure that we give swift and consistent consequences in an effort to support our instructional staff and the environment they need to do their jobs effectively. Which is to maintain discipline. To start, we wanted to make sure we supported our staff, our teachers. When they write referrals, our goal is to address those issues immediately.
Be stern and get them back the information they need as to the consequence for that particular student. As an instructor – and I still remember what it was like to be an instructor – they need to feel supported when they write discipline referrals, they need to feel supported when there are infractions that happen in class. … The teachers are really the foundation for what we need to get done on campus. They’ve been the foundation on this campus for a long time. So we’re trying to come in and provide the consistency that they need. Because they’ve had to endure a lot.
So is morale better?
We completed a staff survey (on morale) before the break. … And we had 75 of our 76 respond. And we had 87 percent say either neutral or good or high. So I felt like that was pretty good. And I think the neutrals are what I was saying to you earlier: The jury’s still out. There’s still some things that need to be done. We recognize that. I know the staff recognizes that. I think we all have been cognitive of, this is the time that things start to sour if they’re going to sour. So we’re consistently focusing on that. Even in my morning messages, where we outline our Trojan pride expectations. It’s a list of things we continuously talk to our students about relative to just behaviors that we expect from them in the classrooms, in the hallways, in the cafeteria, the restroom. And I keep reiterating it. And I know sometimes the kids get, ‘oh here we go again with these same old Trojan prides.’ But those are the things we need to hit home on with our kids because we get kids from all different backgrounds and we can’t take anything for granted.
I don’t have any numbers besides arrest numbers. Are the stats you have also showing progress?
Our suspension rates, I think are better. But I think this year we’ve been really tough. In certain areas they may have gone up. In other areas they may have gone down. Our referral areas are pretty consistent. In some up, in some down. You can look at that in several different ways. You can look at it as we’re really stringent this year in setting a tone and we’re not tolerating a whole lot. We want to send a message of support, the need for academic achievement. And you can’t do that with high levels of class disruptions and discipline infractions.
So in some ways the numbers may be up. But they’re indicative of a new tone. You’re not playing?
Yes. We are going to support our staff and we want to provide a safe environment for our students.
In the student newspaper I saw a couple of initiatives. One was the REAP program. The other was Saturday school.
We’ve utilized Saturday school a little bit, but not a whole lot. Our REAP program … I just remember when I was an instructor at Boca Ciega, we had what used to be the on-campus intervention program. It was an alternative to out of school suspension. So I had this vision of creating something like that because there was a high number of discipline referrals and discipline infractions, some that would warrant out of school suspension. But we know we can’t teach them if we can’t reach them. If they’re not on campus, we can’t provide the instruction that they need. But at the same time, we’ve got to provide a safe environment. So for me it was that middle bridge we create where, for certain infractions, we could refer to a student to this program. And then the student would be taken away from the mainstream, be in there for 3 to 5 days at a time.
Is it working?
I think it’s working. I think (the REAP instructor, Brooke Dyett) has serviced over 80 students now. That would be 80 students who possibly would have been suspended out of school. Those numbers alone show me that it’s successful because now these kids are able to stay in school, they’re able to still do work, they’re not marked absent. And they’re getting that social development piece. So just the fact that you’re able to touch those kids and get them to look at their behaviors and what they’re doing.
In the spring, after things happened and there were the newspaper stories, the school board talked about removing chronically disruptive kids. Were there chronically disruptive kids moved out of Hopkins? If so, how many? And if so, did it make a difference?
I think that happened before I got here. So I’m not sure on exactly all those numbers. I think there were some students that were removed. But it’s difficult for me to make an assessment because when I came … We have had reassignments, but that’s board policy, depending on what the infraction is. We haven’t had any chronic discipline removals this year
Have you had more reassignments than in the past?
No, I don’t think so.
Roughly how many?
I think we’re looking at maybe 10 or 11 so far.
What still needs work?
We’re always looking to get better. We still need to maintain our consistency with our discipline. We need to review our processes consistently for their effectiveness. We need to continue to work on instructional areas. We want to be in tune with this new appraisal process. I want to keep my staff involved in this new appraisal process. With our survey we completed there were some areas that our staff said they wanted more training in. So we’re going to do that as well. We’re just continually looking at what we’re doing, getting input from our staff and just trying to get better at everything we do.
What’s really good is because of our open line of communication that I have with my administrative team, we’re able to be really critical of each other. Which you know, on any team, if you can be critical of each and look at those comments in a way to get better, then it really makes for improvement. We are constantly reviewing what we’re doing. Is this working? Does this work? And what does the data say? … Throughout the year we’ve consistently tried to do things to build bridges between our students and our staff. We’ve done staff development things along the lines of where our staff comes from, where our students come from.
My APs and I went through the community, took pictures. We took a Wednesday, got them some smoothies, and I drove them around the neighborhoods of our zoned school, taking pictures of where our kids come from, to try and paint an accurate picture for our staff, to see that our kids, some of them come from some difficult situations where we should applaud them and continue to work hard to support them. Because they come from areas that are maybe different from where we come from. And I think that sheds a very good light on some kids and makes us continue to be cognitive of how difficult a job it is.
Do you have everything you need to get where we all want you to be? Are there things the district could help you with? Are there things the community could help you with? Do you have all the resources you need?
I think I’ve been completely supported by the district. My line of communication to the district has been (are superintendent) Alec Liem, my regional superintendent. And he’s been phenomenal. I can call him at any time. He has established a relationship where I can talk to him frankly about any concerns in any areas that I need.
You’re getting everything you need?
I feel very good about our resources.
When you look back at this year, what do you want to see? What would make you think we took a good bite out of the apple this year?
I think it would start with what my staff says. What the instructors say. How they feel. Hopefully they’ll be critical of some things we need to improve on. But I’m really concerned about my staff. I’m really concerned about what teachers who are the driving force behind the academics on our campus. Their voice is really important.
So if they say at the end of the year, things have gotten better, that would be proof?
I’d feel good about that. But I’d definitely want them, and I know they will, outline the areas we need to improve. To me at the beginning of the year, it started with them. I need to support my staff. I need to assist them in what they need. And at the end of the year it’ll start with, ‘Staff, where are we? How do you feel?’ And from there, we’ll start looking at data. …
This is a sensitive time given that the magnet application period is coming up. How much of a hit did you take because of publicity from last year, as far as magnet applications and magnet enrollment.
I’m not exactly sure what that hit was. But we had 100 seats available, 130 seats available, at the beginning of the year. So we’re still open with those magnet seats.
So what would you tell parents who are, in coming weeks, going to be considering sending their kids to Hopkins and who may have these images in their heads from last spring?
I would tell them, magnet and traditional, for our magnet program, we have got some phenomenal instructors that are producing great things with our students. From drama to our dance productions to steel drums to our orchestra to our chorus. Our journalism program, I won’t even talk about how great they are. … Our little reporters do not play.
Whether it’s traditional parents or magnet parents, they have the same concerns. Rightly or wrongly, I heard from both groups of parents in the spring and they said this school is not as safe as I want it to be. If anybody still has concerns like that at this sensitive time, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that we are dedicated to providing a safe environment for our students. Our discipline expectations are clear, they’re precise. Our consequences are swift and consistent. And even with all that being said, we are continually reviewing those processes, those procedures, for their effectiveness. We’re working to improve those areas. But we are providing a safe environment on our campus.
Sounds like something you think about and work on a lot.
That’s they key to anything relative to an academic environment. It’s providing a safe environment. …We feel like we are there as far as our discipline. Do we have infractions that happen on our campus? Yeah, every middle school does. Have we had fights? Yeah, we’ve had fights on our campus. Middle school kids fight. Have we had instances where students have been reassigned? Reassignments from middle schools come from all over the place. But are we dealing with those issues and addressing those issues and not losing focus on academics? We are.
I know lots of folks from the Hopkins community didn’t like the stories from last year. So what would the headline be that you would like to see?
Look at what these kids are doing. Strictly the kids. Get away from the principal and his background. Get away from all the past things and let’s get back to focusing on what’s really important - our kids, traditional and magnet kids, and the great things they’re doing to represent John Hopkins and their community and our school district.
Are you happy with the school zone? How it’s been drawn? And how it’s proposed to change?
Send the babies here. We’re going to service them. I don’t care anything about that. Send them here. Send us the babies. We will service them. Send us the kids. We will service them. We can’t get caught up in that. I trust in our district and the decisions that they make. I’m a company man and I got a job to do. Period.