Joseph Sutton entered Rogers High School with no vision of a graduation day.
“I couldn’t really see myself having a future, or even having a job,” said Sutton, 17. “I thought I’d be in and out of jail, probably homeless.”
After more than two years of failing grades and several suspensions, staff at Rogers High School persuaded Sutton he could do better. He caught up on his credits by attending a special program, he worked with an administrator who believed in his success, and he understood that being even two minutes late to class meant possible detention or suspension.
The senior now is achieving A’s and B’s, and he’ll graduate on time.
Rogers’ leaders have made strides in shedding an image of an institution filled with ill-behaved, poor-performing students and are turning the school around.
Discipline has been a key in that transformation.
In 2009-’10, there were 1,458 short-term suspensions at Rogers. In contrast, North Central High School, with the second-highest number of suspensions in the school district, had 306.
At Rogers, a student who stands in the hall after class starts, sasses a teacher, disrupts class or even just watches a fight can no longer explain away the behavior. Students know they will be held accountable.
Before, overwhelmed administrators said they may have looked the other way.
The shift began about three years ago when district leaders and school administrators took steps to shift the culture at the high school located in the state’s poorest ZIP code. Administrators were added to handle discipline and attendance. Another resource officer was hired. A zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior was implemented, and the high school has become an environment where the goal is not just to graduate, but to go to college.
Data show the efforts are working. Attendance is up, Advanced Placement enrollment is up, college entrance exam testing is up, and police calls to the school are down.
The school’s renovation, completed in 2008-’09, made a difference. The students take pride in the school, technological resources are up-to-date, and it’s cleaner and brighter, Rogers officials said.
“It’s a good school to be at now, but if you were to come here three years ago, you would have probably felt different,” Sutton said. “You could do so many things back then and get away with it. Now, there’s no room. You are held responsible for your actions.”
The school is “at that tipping point,” said Jon Swett, Spokane Public Schools’ executive director of teaching and learning services. “Practices, protocols and structures are being put in place that will really make a difference. There’s more trust at that school between the administrators and the staff than there has ever been in the past.”
He added, “They had to hit the wall and say, ‘We need some help if we are going to make a change in student achievement.’ ”
Gaining control the first step
The most productive first step in turning around low-performing schools is to gain control of the environment, according to several studies.
According to a U.S. Department of Education study, “Creating a safe learning environment is an essential prerequisite to learning; a school cannot implement instructional innovation if it does not first establish order.”
When Brent Osborn, a Rogers assistant principal, started in 2008, his directive was to focus on discipline.
Short-term suspensions – from one to 10 days – had hovered around the low hundreds for years. The number shot up to more than 1,500 the year Osborn started, according to district data. The figures represent incidents, not number of students. About 25 percent of the student body racked up those suspensions.
Attendance, disruptive behavior, such as throwing something in class or talking out of turn, and defiance, such as refusing to obey a command at school, made up a majority of the short-term suspensions in 2008-’09 and 2009-’10. Suspensions for fights, drugs and alcohol amounted to fewer than 220.
Administrators, teachers and staff now look through the hallways and outside the school for stragglers after the bell rings.
“If you drove by Rogers three years ago, you would see droves of kids standing around the school, smoking cigarettes, not attending classes,” said Swett, the district’s director of teaching and learning services. “If you drive by today, you will not see any kids, or only a couple.”
As a statement against fighting, Osborn suspended at least 60 kids who were watching fights – some recording the action with their cell phones. The students protested, but Osborn explained that by watching, they were encouraging the behavior.
“When you start to shift a culture, you have to let the kids know you are serious,” said Principal Lori Wyborney. Mary Templeton, an assistant principal, added, “We are using short-term suspensions (to start with) to figure out what works.”
But one thing is clear, Osborn said: “There is follow-through when a student misbehaves.”
In-school suspension was added this year, and is unique to Rogers.
“Suspension can be a joke. A kid basically gets a day off,” said Kerrie Docterman, a veteran teacher at Rogers. “In-school suspension is great. They have to be here, learning, and it kills them that they can’t be socializing with their friends.”
So far this year, 42 percent of suspensions have been served in school.
Counseling groups focusing on student conflict and anger management have also been created.
“We want to turn this school around. It isn’t easy with 1,500-plus kids, but we will.” Wyborney said. “We try to send the message: We go to class here. We are here to learn.”
Mozart and a sit-down lunch
Mozart’s overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” played over the loudspeakers in the cafeteria on Tuesday as the first lunch period began.
“I’m trying to set the ambiance,” Templeton said – “everything we can do to shift the culture.”
The first lunch period – mainly freshmen and sophomores – has changed dramatically. Starting in September, those students must stay on campus during lunch. Rogers is the only high school in the district with that rule.
“We decided to treat 14-year-olds like they are 14,” Templeton said. It’s also a way to improve attendance. “There’s less resistance than we thought,” Templeton said.
Closing campus for freshmen and sophomores “is a good thing for them because if they can’t be out skipping, they have no choice but to be in class,” Sutton said. “I usually left school after lunch when I was freshman. Maybe this way, they will figure it (the importance of school) out sooner than I did.”
Another change started last week: Students in first lunch must remain seated during the lunch period unless excused.
Students were annoyed. “We’d normally sit here anyway, but the idea of you raising your hand to go empty your garbage is humiliating,” said Samantha Thompson, 15. She sat at a table full of sophomores who nodded their heads in agreement. “It’s individual immaturity being punished as a whole.”
But Templeton said too many students were leaving their trash on the tables for staff to pick up.
“If things go well, we’ll give some of their freedoms back – slowly,” Templeton said.
“When I came on board, our mission was to create a college-going atmosphere – to have our students transition seamlessly from high school to college with a college-ready transcript. That was the end goal,” said Carole Meyer, former Rogers principal who now is principal at Salk Middle School. “So then we trailed backwards. What does a college-going kid need? Attendance, accountability and the ability to manage behavior.”
Meyer made more AP classes available at Rogers, encouraged kids to take college entrance exams, increased counseling services and started working on discipline.
The number of students taking AP classes grew from fewer than 100 in 2005-’06 to more than 325 in 2009-’10. Hundreds of students are taking the PSAT as sophomores and juniors.
The current administration has added weekly meetings with the students to talk about their college- and career-readiness.
Additionally, Wyborney said, “We really push kids at registration to take four years of math, four years science, and they already take four years of English, and we don’t let them get out of it very easy. It’s really tough.”
The new principal also requires “every senior apply for postsecondary something – two-year college, a trade school, military, tech school, four-year college, something.”
And the school has started financial aid nights. “The goal is that every student fills out a financial aid form,” Wyborney said.
Goal is 95 percent attendance
The end result of administrators’ efforts: More students are coming to class. Since 2007-’08, attendance has increased from 78.5 percent to 87.3 percent, according to school data.
“Our goal for 2010-’11 is 95 percent,” Templeton said. Osborn added, “It’s easy to make good choices in a classroom, a school building. … I have never seen a good choice made in an alley.”
Behavior is changing, too. Aggressive behavior, such as fights, went down 50 percent in a year’s time. Drug and alcohol incidents have also dropped, data show.
Rogers High School used to be frequented by police and was considered a hotbed of gang activity. Since 2008, police incidents have steadily dropped and the gang reputation is waning, according to Spokane Police Department data.
“We have a long way to go,” Swett acknowledged. “But we’ve come a long way.”
Students see the change, too. “Compared to freshman year,” Sutton said, “a bunch of kids skipping school, going out to smoke, it has changed a lot. Now (the students) are, most of them, doing the best they can, to the best of their abilities.”