Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

After brawls, officials boost efforts to reform Azalea Middle School

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."

• • •

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."

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

Comments
Ridgewood High faithful recall ‘Pride of Pasco’ as school forges a new path

Ridgewood High faithful recall ‘Pride of Pasco’ as school forges a new path

NEW PORT RICHEY — The line snaked through the hallways and into the cafeteria, as the Ridgewood High faithful waited for their chance to secure a piece of the school’s 40-year history.They came by the hundreds — current and former students, staff and...
Updated: 18 minutes ago
Words of wisdom from Class of 2018 on how school shootings have transformed them

Words of wisdom from Class of 2018 on how school shootings have transformed them

TAMPA — The pain of the Parkland shootings Feb. 14 was fresh on the minds of Hillsborough County’s graduating seniors when about 300 of them received an assignment. Write a 250-word essay on how decades of school shootings have touched y...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Sheriff: Weeki Wachee High student posted fake school shooting threat

Sheriff: Weeki Wachee High student posted fake school shooting threat

WEEKI WACHEE — A 16-year-old was arrested Tuesday on allegations that she created a fake social media post threatening to shoot students at Weeki Wachee High School, according to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.Deputies said the 16-year-old told...
Published: 05/22/18
Hillsborough school district, teachers move closer to pay deal

Hillsborough school district, teachers move closer to pay deal

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District and its teachers’ union moved closer to resolving their salary dispute during Monday’s negotiating session — but stopped short of reaching an agreement.The teachers, who have spent this school year work...
Published: 05/21/18
Updated: 05/22/18
Parents score victory in effort to make travel safer for Westchase students

Parents score victory in effort to make travel safer for Westchase students

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school leaders call it courtesy busing, but to Lauren Hawkins it’s more a matter of life and death.More students living close to their schools in the Westchase community used the Hillsborough school district’s courtesy bus...
Published: 05/21/18
Eckerd College hosts a royal celebration of its own

Eckerd College hosts a royal celebration of its own

A day after England’s royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, St. Petersburg hosted a royal celebration of its own. Among the estimated 500 graduates to receive an Eckerd College diploma at Sunday’s graduation ceremony held...
Published: 05/20/18
Updated: 05/21/18

Hooper: SEL lends a solution to the increasingly toxic world of kids

An incident recently arose between students at Jesuit High School and Academy of the Holy Names that involved allegations of cyberbullying, homophobia, misogyny and assault.It only involved a fraction of the students at two of Tampa’s most prestigiou...
Published: 05/19/18
Updated: 05/22/18
At vigil, another school mourns: ‘It is hope in the face of tragedy that brings us together today.’

At vigil, another school mourns: ‘It is hope in the face of tragedy that brings us together today.’

SANTA FE, Texas - They gathered here by the dozens Friday evening, wearing their school colors, T-shirts that said "Texas Tough," while huddling under the shade of a gaggle of pine trees, not 11 hours after the first shots were fired.They came to pra...
Published: 05/19/18
‘I always felt it would eventually happen here’: A Santa Fe High School survivor’s reaction to the shooting

‘I always felt it would eventually happen here’: A Santa Fe High School survivor’s reaction to the shooting

Paige Curry tried to keep calm Friday morning as a gunman tore through her Santa Fe High School, eventually killing 10 people and injuring another 10. The 17-year-old watched as a girl nearby panicked. Curry, herself terrified, considered running out...
Published: 05/19/18
Class of 2018: Meet the valedictorians and salutatorians for Pinellas private high schools

Class of 2018: Meet the valedictorians and salutatorians for Pinellas private high schools

Before they could get away, we asked the top graduates at Pinellas County’s private schools to write a Twitter-length paragraph about what’s on their mind. We suggested they reflect on the past or the future, or talk about the people who helped them ...
Published: 05/18/18