BROOKSVILLE — Less than a month after taking over as interim principal at long-struggling Moton Elementary School, Brent Gaustad says teamwork by educators across the district has things looking up.
Behavior has improved, he said, and innovative processes are being put in place to keep it that way. With help from administrators at other county schools, teacher lesson plans are getting better, and the district has begun to fix dilapidated parts of campus in an effort to boost morale.
"Everybody is all in, and we are getting help from all over the county," Gaustad said. "Everybody is trying to help move Moton in the right direction."
Long-plagued by high teacher turnover, a rotating administration and student behavior problems, Moton has been a thorn in the side of the school district in Hernando County.
After ranking for the second time in a row last summer as one of the state's lowest performing schools, it's been under close watch by district administrators, and as of October, the Florida Department of Education.
Joe Frana, who took the post in October 2016 as the third principal at Moton in a year, abruptly resigned last month, saying "the distance from home and the hours" had become a hardship on his family.
Superintendent Lori Romano almost immediately appointed Gaustad, who has been principal at Parrott Middle School since 2012, to replace him. Gaustad's first day was Jan. 29, three days after the state's second visit to the school.
Romano declined to be interviewed for this story, but provided this statement: "Supporting Moton has been a total team effort. The impressive campus improvements and the addition of an extended network of instructional support evolved out of a spirit of our full commitment to the Moton staff and students. We are truly 'all in' for Moton."
Since arriving on campus, Gaustad said he has been working make Moton's "whole pie work together." He said when combined, the metaphorical pie's pieces — better behavior and academic performance, more effective curriculum, updated student data and renovated facilities — make for a more productive school, and therefore, higher marks on standardized tests and state ratings.
To tackle student behavior issues, Gaustad asked the district bring in two deans from other Hernando schools to help teachers find new ways to discipline students using methods outlined by the state's three-tier Positive Behavior Support program.
Most students fall into Tier 1, he said, meaning they have had no behavior problems or only a single small one. If a student is reprimanded more than once, he or she is moved to Tier 2 and placed in group meetings with students who have similar behavior issues. That way, the deans can hear them out and give them strategies for improvement, Gaustad said.
The principal said the goal is to have fewer than 20 percent of students in Tier 2 and fewer than 5 percent in Tier 3 —comprised of students whose behavior violations are chronic. Those students meet in even smaller groups to talk through their reasons for acting out. Like those in Tier 2, they receive coaching on how to improve.
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"We want to avoid losing class time because of behavior, so we try to see how we can help them cope," Gaustad said. "Their reason for acting out could be that they are struggling in school, and they are mad ... We find that often academics and behavior go hand-in-hand."
That's why Gaustad is implementing a specially crafted app, similar to one used at Parrott, that tracks the behavior and academic growth of each student at Moton. The app and its data soon will be accessible to teachers and administrators throughout the school.
"By the end of the school year, we will be completely paperless and have real-time data," he said. "We are trying to put in systems that will allow the school to run more efficiently."
Every two weeks, principals stationed elsewhere in the district who have successfully turned around their respective schools take turns visiting Moton.
"They talk to teachers and try to give them the tools to write more quality lessons plans," Gaustad said. "Stronger lessons plans engage students and create better learning."
The district has been open to his various requests, he said, including updates to campus facilities, both inside and out.
"Many of these kids don't come from the best places, so they need somewhere that is safe and clean and beautiful," Gaustad said while walking near Moton's playground. "They need to see the other side of the coin. If they don't see it, how can they work toward it?"
District spokesperson Karen Jordan said that "in the spirit of trying to help Moton improve," maintenance staffers have done landscaping, added signs and are replacing the flooring in the school's 60-some bathrooms.
As the school year winds down and deadlines for state testing close in, "the district is excited to help push (Moton) toward the finish line," she said.
Gaustad said he will remain at his post at least through the end of the school year to provide consistency for parents, students and teachers. His endeavor to make Moton a better place is far from complete.
"Not only will the school look good and be clean, but we are helping the teachers with their teaching tool box so that instruction will be better, and hopefully, behavior will be better," Gaustad said. "Does it happen overnight? No. But eventually, the whole pie will be working together."
Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mareevs.