By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
Perception can be a powerful force, especially when it is based on incorrect information. That's the view of Dr. Alvin Taylor, superintendent of the Meridian Public School District.
The perception of some people in the community is that MPSD has a serious discipline problem that is causing teachers to leave the district in droves. That perception became more public last week when Rep.Chuck Young of Meridian made statements during a Council of Governments meeting that the consent decree which MPSD signed with the Department of Justice was causing discipline problems that led to teachers leaving in frustration.
"In the last 45 to 60 days, we've had more teachers walk out than we have in 30 years," Young said. "The plan they put in place is not going to work. Period. DOJ came in here and made it worse. It's time for us to take control of our own situation. There's no nice way to put it. I've never seen anything this bad."
The consent decree to which Young referred came as a result of a DOJ investigation of the school district that began in 2008, before Taylor was superintendent. It is connected to a long-standing school desegregation lawsuit filed in 1965.
The 44-page decree directed the school district to form a rating system for infractions and establish a job for a director to oversee discipline policies and train teachers. It also establishes a committee to review disciplinary actions, and it provides a means of appeal when students are suspended or expelled.
Young said classrooms have become chaotic.
"It's extremely difficult for good teachers to have good classroom management," Young said. "It's extremely difficult for them to have or exercise control in the classroom."
Taylor said in fact, fewer teachers have left this year than the previous three school years. About 2 percent of the district's 500 teachers (about 10 teachers) have left during the first four months of school, Taylor said on Friday.
Data from previous school years show that in 2010-2011, 27 percent of school teachers left over the course of the school year; in 2011-2012, 21 percent left; and in 2012-2013, 20 percent left the district.
Those figures are for those entire school years and it is not known what the 2013-2014 figures will be by the end of the year.
"It's coming down, not going up," Taylor said.
Taylor said teacher turnover rate is not a problem unique to MPSD.
"Based on statistics from the United States Department of Education, the national teacher turnover rate for our country is around 17 percent a year in the average school district," Taylor said. "If you look at urban schools or schools districts of high poverty, then the teacher turnover rate is around 20 percent or more every year."
That rate is even higher for new teachers.
"Research shows that 33 percent of all new teachers leave the profession altogether within the first three years," Taylor said. "Nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession altogether within the first five years. Teachers leaving this profession is not a Meridian issue; that's a national issue."
Taylor said MPDS's turnover rate was its highest in 2010-2011, long before the DOJ consent decree or the implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) the new discipline program implemented at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. The primary focus of PBIS is to keep children from being suspended or expelled from school for minor infractions, Taylor said.
"The core of PBIS is that, for minor offenses, that the teacher's first reaction is not to put them out of class or put them out of school, but to try to work with them," Taylor said. "Good teachers have been doing that for decades. We all had experiences where we know we got into trouble and that teacher could have sent us to the principal's office, but they didn't. They talked to us and they worked with us and we love those teachers to this day."
As to the question of whether teachers who have left this year did so because of discipline problems related to the consent decree, Taylor said the most common reason teachers leave any school, across the country, is student behavior and classroom management. The other reason many teachers leave is because of what he referred to as high-stakes testing.
Taylor said that no one policy is going to make everyone happy.
"If 15 percent of our staff is unhappy with the system, that's a lot of people, but you have to make data-based decisions. If you start making perceptional-based decisions, you'll be making decisions for the minority of the personnel and not the majority," Taylor said. "We have to do research; we have to look at the numbers and we have to make objective-based decisions. The vast majority of our teachers are making PBIS work. I commend our teachers for that."
Taylor noted that the DOJ's consent decree does provide for the possibility of changing some parts, if MPSD can show proof that it's not working. For instance, reports of fighting have risen in secondary schools, but are down in elementary schools, Taylor said.
"There are provisions in the consent decree where, based on the data, if we see an area that is getting worse, a disciplinary area that is getting worse, we can appeal to the DOJ and say this area is not working for us. We need stiffer consequences," he said.
At any rate, there's no point in complaining about the DOJ's orders, Taylor said.
"This is not something we chose to bring in; this is something mandated by the United States Department of Justice. We are required to do this for the next three years," Taylor said. "Our community has a choice. We can either sit here and fuss about it and fight about it and fight against the consent decree and PBIS, but all that's going to do is hurt our school district and hurt our children. Or we can decide to take the high road and be positive about and say, 'Look. We know this is a challenge but we have to do this for our children.'"