ST. PETERSBURG — Connie Kolosey keeps a large poster board in her office filled with the thoughts and drawings of students.
Earlier this year, the principal at Azalea Middle School and her staff asked students what they want their school to be like.
Over and over, the kids wrote the same things: Less Fights. More fun. Peace.
Just before spring break, a series of fights that broke out after lunch in Azalea's courtyard put the spotlight back on discipline in Pinellas middle schools. Eleven students were arrested. Ten extra St. Petersburg police officers were called to deal with the chaos.
Kolosey doesn't shy away from talking about Azalea's challenges. Low scores. High teacher turnover. And lots of students, more than any other middle school, from struggling families.
But she and her staff say they're trying to lay the groundwork for a comeback.
"This has been a tough past few weeks, but overall I just feel like these are growing pains," Kolosey said. "Because it is changing. It is absolutely changing."
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Reforming Pinellas middle schools is a high priority, say school district officials, and Azalea is at the forefront of that effort.
A group of administrators, teachers, parents and students have spent the last several months brainstorming ideas, many of which are being tested out at Azalea, said associate superintendent Bill Lawrence.
Examples include a class to help students catch up on credits and graduate on time and new clubs to keep students engaged and connected.
"A lot of the elements that we hope to bring to all the middle schools in terms of reform we're starting at Azalea, because they have a great need right now," Lawrence said.
The D-rated school is under state oversight, and teachers have complained about a general lack of parent involvement and support. The school's PTA, largely dormant for several years, was revived after the school debuted a fundamental-like Renaissance program for sixth-graders this year.
It's also not unusual for Azalea to start each school year with dozens of new teachers, many of them right out of college.
"Because of Azalea's past, we have a lot of turnover," said literacy coach Sara McCullough, who came to the school straight from the University of Central Florida five years ago.
She said many of her peers left for other jobs because they didn't feel enough support from their bosses.
But McCullough stayed. And she and other teachers at the school say they feel a new momentum these days, and are optimistic about Kolosey's new initiatives. An aggressive tardy policy. Block scheduling that cuts down on the time students spend in the hallways and out of class. A more structured lunch period.
"This is my home," McCullough said. "I see Connie's plan for it. And I see everything falling into place."
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Police data shows Azalea logged 49 arrests from August through February, the most at any middle school in St. Petersburg. John Hopkins, another middle school with a history of discipline issues, had 43 arrests.
Azalea may stand out for its arrests statistics, but all middle schools have to contend with this issue: students who are dealing with intense physical, mental and social changes.
They want to fit in. They crave attention.
Azalea officials said the last reason may be why most fights don't start inside classrooms.
Students wait until they're released from lunch and can walk freely through the courtyard while other students are traveling between classes. There's more movement, more activity, and a bigger audience.
Students also know where all the cameras are, and the blind spots, too, said K.M. DeLaney, the campus monitor who has worked at the school for a decade.
"The transition periods are the most difficult," he said.
The fights that erupted two weeks ago, just before spring break, happened right after the school's second lunch of the day.
Officials said the incident started after two girls with a standing beef with each other started fighting. As officials rushed to break it up, more fights popped up in other parts of the courtyard. Kids started to congregate around the fights.
Kolosey, who took over as principal in August, said it didn't take long to restore order. But she also called it the worst incident yet this school year.
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For the past several months, Azalea officials have emphasized more structure.
Lunchtime is a highly organized effort, The school feeds its roughly 1,000 students in two waves. Students must file in, find a seat and wait to be called up to the line. They're not allowed to leave their seats, even after they finish eating.
To ease the boredom, they're allowed to play cards.
Last fall, Kolosey said, a food fight broke out.
So in October, some teachers started carrying flip cameras into the lunchroom. Every once in a while, they hold up the cameras and roam between tables, a silent reminder to students that adults are watching.
"It's like magic," Kolosey said. "We haven't had a food fight since."
On a recent afternoon during lunch, DeLaney, the campus monitor, stopped at the edge of a table and asked a young black male student about his grades.
The young man hasn't had any discipline issues, but he's new to the school, so DeLaney has been keeping an eye on him.
"If you want a kid to perform, you have to build a relationship with that child," DeLaney said.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a girl playing with a cellphone. He recognized her and walked over, slapping his palm down in the middle of the table.
"I'm sorry Mr. DeLaney!" she said, looking up and offering up a chastised smile. She slipped the phone back in her bag.
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The poster in Kolosey's office isn't the only one focused on creating a better environment.
Others peppered throughout the school try to make student behavior a constant topic of conversation.
Teachers and administrators drill the new motto: "Responsible, Respectful and Safe."
They reminded the kids of it again last week.
"After being out for spring break, I thought it was appropriate to revisit expectations," first-year teacher Ed Erickson told his eighth-grade reading class. "So on your paper, I want you to write 'New Tardy Policy.' "
A round of groans went up.
Erickson turned the lights off. But instead of reciting the rules, he showed a video he created, complete with a tiny character who talked about classroom and school policies in a funny voice.
As it started to play, with a popular rock song as its sound track, chatter in the classroom quieted. The students bent their heads, and started taking notes.
The majority of Azalea's students, school officials said, aren't getting into fights every day. "There are difficult students here," literacy coach McCullough said. "It really is maybe 40 kids or so. It's probably even less now."
Out of the group of students arrested in last month's brawls, five or six already have been reassigned to different schools.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.