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Bill Maxwell

Fixing school's problems will require community effort

Pinellas County School superintendent Julie Janssen last week told board members she had heard "loudly and clearly" that they wanted something done about the "handful" of "disruptive kids" at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg.

In addition to highlighting regular brawls and unruly behavior, the St. Petersburg Times reported that between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31, the police made 60 arrests there — and 22 in February, three of them on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer.

Only about 30 students out of some 1,300 are responsible for the trouble, the Times reported. How can that be – a mere 30 kids? This is unacceptable in a public school.

To her credit, Janssen has taken decisive action and is accepting outside help. For starters, some of the unruly students have been transferred to other schools, with more to be moved. Hopkins will get two additional behavior specialists. A not-for-profit organization, Community Tampa Bay, will conduct mediation workshops for students and staff. Janssen also will make some personnel changes. Hopkins assistant principal Carolyn Altenore, for example, will switch places for the rest of the year with St. Petersburg High assistant principal Barry Brown. The NAACP and a few pastors have promised to assist.

Although these are positive moves, they do not go to the heart of the problem. How on earth is it possible for some 30 students to regularly disrupt a campus? Surely, dozens of adults, including two police officers, can control 30 kids. A handful of kids have been disrupting the campus because of a lack of effective leadership, outreach and accountability from school district headquarters in Largo.

Janssen is experienced, creative and receptive to new ideas. I have no doubt she cares deeply about the welfare of schoolchildren.

That said, as the district's top administrator, Janssen carries the burden of being the consummate insider. That is good and bad. It is good because over the years, the insider gets to know the important players in the system, develops loyalties and knows the issues. Ironically, being the insider is bad for the same reasons. Longtime loyalties often make it difficult for the insider to do what is necessary. One necessity is to get rid of those who do not measure up to the job of operating schools where teachers can teach effectively and where students can learn at their best.

Several teachers told me Hopkins has a leadership problem and they have no confidence in the principal, Claudius Effiom. They said their "hands are tied," preventing them from controlling their perpetually disruptive students. Another teacher was sympathetic to the principal's predicament for the reason that he is not getting the degree of support he needs from the director of discipline, the area superintendent and Janssen.

Many people blame Hopkins' problems entirely on parents and the Hopkins-area community. Indeed, parents are responsible for their children's behavior, and the community plays a critical role. But the district office must be in command and call the shots.

Now, officials are learning, as they have been warned, that they have an obligation to solicit the help of all Hopkins' stakeholders.

Last August, Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis and community activist Watson Haynes sponsored an education forum at Eckerd College, where Claudius Effiom, the new Hopkins principal, was given a resource list of the 100 elected officials and other leaders in attendance. Valerie Brimm, new director of strategic partnerships for Pinellas County Schools, was introduced. She said then that she wanted to establish effective collaborations between the schools and the public. She especially wanted to involve the Hopkins-area community, and Effiom was encouraged to contact the people on the resource list for help and advice.

A week or so later, Davis, Haynes, Brimm and others met with Effiom in his conference room to offer their help with problems and issues. Brimm had everyone complete the paperwork necessary for volunteering at Hopkins. She also devised a plan of action.

From all indications, the school never implemented the volunteer plan. Now that trouble has erupted at Hopkins, the general impression is that the community does not care. I know that this is not true for many.

As I said, officials have made a positive beginning at fixing the problems at Hopkins. But unless neighborhood residents and others are encouraged to get involved, all efforts will be mere bandages for systemic problems that require the input of the whole village.

For sure, the problems at Hopkins will not be solved by a cadre of insiders who, up to this point, have not made the tough decisions that are required.

Fixing school's problems will require community effort 03/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 7:04pm]

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