St. Petersburg's John Hopkins Middle School 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 almost every account, better. Brown spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about what changed, what worked and why he's cautiously optimistic.
Are things better with student discipline and how do you know?
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. … When they write referrals, our goal is to address those issues immediately.
So, is morale better?
We completed a staff survey (on morale) before the break. … 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. ... 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.
Besides arrest numbers are there other stats 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. … 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.
What still needs work?
We still need to maintain our consistency with our discipline. …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. … Throughout the year we've consistently tried to do things to build bridges between our students and our staff. … My APs and I went through the community, took pictures around the neighborhoods of our zoned school, 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.
The magnet application period is coming up. How much of a hit did you take because of publicity as far as magnet applications and 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.
Whether it's traditional parents or magnet parents, they have safety concerns. 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.
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.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.