Teachers Take Charge

By Darcia Harris Bowman — October 31, 2001 20 min read
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This Florida district is putting student discipline back in the hands of its teachers.

In another school, 13-year-old Keisha Crooks might have been sent to the principal’s office for yelling at her teacher. But at John I. Leonard High School, in Justin Kaye’s class, her outburst earned a different punishment.

The confrontation between teacher and student started when Crooks ignored Kaye’s request to turn in class journals. He asked her again. And again. The girl continued to ignore him, so Kaye gave it one last try. “She just blew up at me, yelling stuff like ‘I heard you the first time,’ and ‘You don’t have to tell me what to do,’ ” the clean-cut, 27-year-old teacher recalls a week after the incident, his face reddening at the memory. “My students know that’s something I don’t allow,” he says. “It stops the whole class.”

But administrators at this school want teachers to try their own solutions before referring a disruptive student to the principal’s office. And so, Kaye had a plan. “I picked up her stuff and moved her to a different classroom with juniors and seniors,” for the remaining 40 minutes of the period, he says. “It’s very effective, and I don’t have to involve the principals.”

Brian Mulally, a language arts teacher at Wellington Landings Middle School in Palm Beach County, Fla., participates in a demonstration of the difference between physical and verbal martial arts. Behind him is the session’s instructor, Rick Lewis of the district’s school safety office.
—Bruce Bennett for Education Week

Did the punishment work? No outbursts have followed, and Crooks even wrote Kaye an apologetic poem. Is everything OK now between her and her teacher? “I guess so, yeah,” the girl says, casting a shy glance at Kaye as the two talk in the hallway.

Crooks’ response draws a satisfied smile from Allison Adler, the director of the safe-schools program in Florida’s 152,000-student Palm Beach County district, which includes Leonard High. For her, Kaye’s story is evidence that her 4-year-old effort to increase the role teachers here play in discipline is working at a time when educators in many schools across the country have ceded control over student behavior to administrators.

Some national experts praise Palm Beach County’s approach.

“I think any effort to put teachers back in charge of their classrooms should be applauded,” says Pedro Antonio Noguera, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education who specializes in urban schools.

Teachers in many districts are told to leave discipline to administrators and school police officers, Noguera says, a practice that drives up the number of suspensions and expulsions and makes it more likely that school-day misbehavior will be labeled a crime. The “zero tolerance” policies adopted in the 1990s further removed teachers—and, some critics say, common sense—from the disciplinary process. Stories abound of students being suspended for writing dark poetry or drawing pictures of guns or the Confederate flag.

Stories abound of students being suspended for writing dark poetry or drawing pictures of guns or the Confederate flag.

Says Noguera: “I think [trends toward centralized discipline] are a big mistake because the majority of the adults in a school are the teachers, and if you take them out of the process—and the students know that—it can lead to some pretty big problems.”

Already one of the 15 largest school systems in the country, Palm Beach County is also one of the fastest growing. Its schools cater to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, from the children of wealthy socialites who live on the coast in Palm Beach to those of the day laborers who cut sugar cane in the rural Glades. And many of the 5,000-plus new students pouring into the district each year are Spanish-speaking immigrants.

The district made national headlines last May when a 7th grader killed a teacher with a single gunshot to the head for refusing to let the student into his classroom to talk with two girls. The tragedy left many teachers fearful of confronting students.

But with Adler as their guide, a handful of high schools and middle schools are each attempting to create a “single school culture” that standardizes rules from one classroom to the next and shifts everyday discipline back to teachers.

“A single school culture really says, ‘This is how we all agree to do it, this is what we expect, this is how we enforce it,’” Adler explains. “When rules and enforcement are sporadic, we antagonize students. When teachers all work together and they’re all on the same page, ... it’s less likely kids will act out.”

To solve a persistent problem of students’ wandering in hallways without permission, Christa McAuliffe Middle School now requires youngsters to carry bright-pink passes at certain times.
——David Spencer for Education Week

Adler’s office gives the schools the tools they need: seminars on how to foster a single culture, programs on conflict resolution, tips for getting students involved in school security, and teacher training in verbal defense.

But principals must be willing to share power, and teachers have to step forward to assume greater responsibilities and risks.

On an October morning in Leonard High Principal Nora Rosensweig’s office, Adler reflects on the difficulty of spreading her message. Although she has lived for 22 years in the state of Florida—stamping grounds for Republicans named Bush and the site of the nation’s only statewide experiment in government-backed vouchers for private school tuition—the Massachusetts native’s liberal leanings remain as undiluted as her New England accent.

Adler is a believer in the public school system. And she is one of a growing cadre of experts who support shifting the focus of the nationwide drive for safer schools from metal detectors and surveillance cameras to relationship-building and communication.

In Palm Beach County, Adler does not promise overnight success to any school seeking to transform its culture. But she does pledge the support of her department.

Still, converts can be hard to find. “Some of our schools have this attitude of, ‘Toss ‘em,’ ” Adler says, jerking a thumb over her shoulder and shrugging. “They say, ‘I’ll do what I do and when that doesn’t work, those students are outta here.’ ”

Facing off with an angry student poses risks, as Palm Beach County teachers saw firsthand in the shooting death of one of their own.

Teachers were once synonymous with discipline, leaving lasting images of dunce caps on troublemakers and rulers across knuckles. But facing off with an angry student poses risks, as Palm Beach County teachers saw firsthand in the shooting death of one of their own.

When Barry Grunow, a 35-year-old educator at Lake Worth Middle School, tried to stop Nathaniel Brazill from charging into his classroom one day last spring, the 7th grader shot him between the eyes. Brazill had returned to school with a gun after being suspended earlier that day for throwing water balloons. In a courtroom drama broadcast around the country, the 14-year-old was tried as an adult and sentenced in August to 28 years in prison for second-degree murder.

The fatal shooting happened just two miles from Leonard High, but the principal here says neither she nor her teachers wavered in their decision to share responsibility for student discipline.

“That [shooting] was the result of a societal problem outside the school, the easy accessibility of guns and other weapons in this country,” argues Rosensweig. “It has nothing to do with the discipline in my classrooms. It had nothing to do with what was happening in that classroom.”

When Rosensweig became the principal here five years ago, she insisted the high school adopt a discipline system that requires teachers to handle common student misbehavior, such as eating or sleeping in class, talking out of turn, cheating, and behaving disrespectfully.

According to the school handbook, the teacher first issues an oral warning. If the bad behavior persists, a call home is in order, and the teacher can assign one day of after-school detention or three days of cleanup duty in the cafeteria. If the student continues to break the rules, the teacher should call home again and order two days of detention or five days of cafeteria duty. Only after all of the above has failed should the teacher ship an unruly student to the principal’s office.

“When I first got here, I’d see 20 kids lined up outside to see the [assistant principal], because if teachers didn’t like what kids were doing, they just sent them out of the classroom,” Rosensweig recalls in a voice tinged with exasperation. “This kid violated the dress code, that kid didn’t have his homework, this kid didn’t have a pencil.”

“Now, if you send [a student] down to the office for not having a pencil in class, are you going to do that every time he doesn’t have a pencil?” she asks. “Pretty soon, it will be like crying wolf, and you won’t be taken seriously.”

‘Every time you kick a kid out of class, you've given up your power.’

Rosensweig ordered her assistant principals to start sending back to teachers all but the most serious offenses. “I told [teachers], ‘Every time you kick a kid out of class, you’ve given up your power. When you send that kid to me, you give me your power,’ ” Rosensweig says.

If the school’s discipline data are any proof, her methods are working. The number of behavior problems sent to the principal’s office and reported to the district has dropped steadily at Leonard High over the past five years—from 4,539 incidents in 1996-97 to 2,861 last year—even as the number of students crammed into the aging school building grew from just under 2,900 to 3,025.

Many of Leonard High’s teachers seem comfortable in their roles as frontline disciplinarians.

Chemistry teacher Jackie Burgess sees 160 students in seven periods each day. In an effort to prevent problems, she uses every available opportunity to review classroom rules—the same code students must abide by in every classroom. “The very first week, I set down the rules and I have a contract parents and students both sign, so I know everybody knows what to expect,” Burgess says. “I even give students a quiz on the rules.”

The bottom line: “If you don’t have control of your classroom,” Burgess says, “you can’t teach.”

The school Adler hopes eventually to use as a model for the single-culture theory is only a short drive from her Boynton Beach office, straight down Interstate 95 to the seaside resort town of Delray Beach.

Like other areas of Palm Beach County, the community surrounding Atlantic High School is a study in sharp contrasts. Along A1A, Florida’s coastal highway, pastel-colored mansions shielded by wrought-iron gates and thick hedges overlook the glittering waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s main boulevard, Atlantic Avenue, is lined with outdoor cafes and brightly painted antique and gift shops, the products of an ongoing downtown revitalization effort.

Allison Adler, the director of the district’s safe-schools program, wants teachers to take more control of discipline problems. But some administrators are skeptical of that approach.
——David Spencer for Education Week

The scenery changes abruptly just west of the intersection of Atlantic and Seacrest Boulevard. The trendy shops are replaced by empty lots and faded storefronts with barred windows, the mansions with meager bungalows that house many of the city’s Guatemalans, Haitians, Hispanics, and African-Americans. Just a few blocks north on Seacrest is Atlantic High School.

When Adler arrives at the school on a recent morning, classes are already in session and the campus is quiet except for the sound of heavy rain pelting the windows and roof. Principal Kathleen Weigel is seated behind her desk, giving an animated history of how she forced Atlantic High into the single-culture mold she had used in her previous job as the head administrator of a district middle school.

Weigel falls into the category of administrators Adler calls her charismatic leaders, the principals who can whip their schools into shape through sheer force of personality. “She’s a pistol,” Adler says as she watches Weigel bark orders over a walkie-talkie.

‘I set down the rules and I have a contract parents and students both sign, so I know everybody knows what to expect.’

In her first years here, Weigel admits, it was her way or the highway when it came to setting and enforcing the guidelines for student behavior. And so, she might seem like an unlikely administrator to embrace putting discipline into the hands of teachers. But that’s exactly what she’s trying to do.

“My expectation for my teachers is that we all sing the same song, and that everybody treats each other with respect,” says Weigel, a high-energy personality who emphasizes each point with a swipe of her manicured hands. “I changed a lot of things here and made things very strict, because I had to operate under a strict set of parameters—at first.”

To begin with, teachers had to agree not to send a disruptive student immediately to the office, something they had felt should be their prerogative. And they had to agree to enforce a standard set of rules for student behavior.

If a teacher didn’t agree with Weigel’s approach? “One of two things happened,” Weigel says. “They either left or they bought in to it, and it worked so well for them that now they’re my biggest advocates.”

Whether the teachers who remain at Atlantic High believe they’re more involved in disciplining students is unclear.

“Our role hasn’t changed dramatically,” says Hank Davis, a lanky veteran teacher in the school’s International Baccalaureate program. “Teachers have always been pretty much responsible for the discipline in their own classrooms. It would really have to get out of hand before I send it down to the office.”

But there is no longer a different set of rules in every classroom, Davis acknowledges, and teachers and administrators work together more closely. “I think there’s a lot more communication,” the teacher says. “There’s a lot more consistency in how the rules are enforced. That’s probably the key—consistency.”

Atlantic High Principal Kathleen Weigel visits a Junior ROTC class during one her walks around the school. The school’s JROTC cadets are helping teachers improve safety and security in and around the school.
——David Spencer for Education Week

Only last year, Atlantic High was still struggling to get a handle on discipline problems. Tensions often ran high, and district records show the school reported 108 fights, up from 64 the previous year, along with 42 incidents of disorderly conduct, seven cases of battery, and nine cases of weapons possession in the 2000-01 academic year.

There hasn’t been a fight yet this year on the campus—a fact administrators and students alike are eager to share. And some of Weigel’s assistant principals reluctantly admit their work has slacked off as teachers have assumed greater responsibility for problems in their classrooms.

“I personally received about 20 to 30 referrals a day last year,” Assistant Principal Lena Roundtree says. “I got everything—talking, playing, walking, no books, no pencils, disrespect, insubordination, bad language, you name it. This year, I’m averaging—" Roundtree pauses to cast a cautious, sidelong glance in Weigel’s direction before continuing in a near whisper. “I don’t really want to admit this in front of my boss, but—three a week.”

‘If you don't have control of your classroom, you can't teach.’

Assistant Principal Marshall Bellin, too, recalls the days when the main office was overwhelmed by students cast out of their classrooms.

“It used to be you couldn’t get in here,” Bellin says, standing outside the entrance to the administrators’ offices. “There’d be 10 kids lined up out here, with 10 parents, from 7:15 in the morning until the school closed.” He throws his arms out and looks up and down the hallway. “Now you could roll a bowling ball down this hallway, it’s so empty.”

Still, it’s clear the principal and her lieutenants remain the chief authority figures.

When the bell signaling the end of the class period rings, Weigel and her team of assistant principals jump out of their seats. Walkie-talkies in hand, they file into the open-air corridors and spend the next seven minutes herding more than 2,400 students who pour out of 34 different buildings and squeeze into the narrow hallways and cramped courtyard of the 52-year-old school.

“This is the most dangerous time for any public school in America,” Adler says, raising her voice over the din as she watches students shuffle past. “Whenever you have large numbers of students, small numbers of adults and kids of all different [ethnic backgrounds] and races and economic backgrounds, there’s the potential for violence.”

Students at the school speak a combined 27 different languages; more than half are black or Hispanic.

Kathleen Weigel, the principal of Atlantic Community High School in Palm Beach County, Fla., advocates putting responsibility for student discipline back in the hands of teachers. That approach is an experiment under way in a handful of schools in the Florida county’s 152,000-student district.
——David Spencer for Education Week

But the staff at Atlantic appears to have the change of classes under control. Weigel, who stands at least a head shorter than many of her students and calls them “my babies,” nods to passing teachers who also are in the crowd. They are weaving their way to their next classrooms and—the principal expects—watching for trouble along the way.

Some Atlantic High students say they definitely see changes in the way teachers manage classrooms.

“Teachers have been more willing to keep kids in class and get to what the problems are,” says Kristine Wachniak, a 17-year-old senior. “They seem more willing to work things out with students instead of sending them to the office.”

Weigel says her drive to instill a new culture at Atlantic High is almost complete. Getting all of her teachers trained this winter in “verbal judo” and conflict-resolution techniques will be one of the final touches. But she warns of a long, rough road for anyone hoping to emulate the school’s new culture.

“Is this a process you do in six months? Nah-ah,” she says. “It took me two years. I had people who wanted to take me down. They saw it as a power struggle, and I said, ‘I don’t want power over you. I want to give you power.’ It took a while to convince them of that.”

Allison Adler has the support of Palm Beach County Superintendent Art Johnson. But the popular schools chief—whose demeanor can change quickly from jocular to stern—says his 25 years as a principal leave him skeptical of putting teachers in charge of discipline.

“I’m sure he calls me a bleeding-heart liberal and worse,” Adler says with a laugh.

In a cafeteria in the district’s central offices, Adler is seated across from Johnson, who glances periodically at his watch and a red cellphone positioned next to his plate. It’s lunchtime, and the two are debating the definition of effective leadership between forkfuls of salad.

‘There's a lot more consistency in how the rules are enforced. That's probably the key— consistency.’

“Dr. Johnson and I have had numerous discussions about this,” Adler says, shooting a grin at the superintendent. “There are people that come to that leadership role and they are charismatic, and they don’t question their decisionmaking; ... they feel very comfortable in that role.

“But there are other people who grow into the role, ... and there has to be that opportunity because not all of them come with the skill set Dr. Johnson has,” Adler says. “He looks at a high school, sees what needs to be done, and has the ability to get people to follow him.”

For the principals who aren’t natural-born leaders, Adler argues, the power-sharing central to a single school culture helps.

At this, Johnson puts his fork down.

“While I completely respect the work of Dr. Adler,” he says with a meaningful pause, “in that it’s effective, and it’s replicable, and it’s teachable, what I’ve found is if you take a simple problem like tardies, I was much more successful in making tardiness an administrative function rather than an instructional function.”

Johnson says when teachers managed the school tardy policy, enforcement was all over the map. “The only way to counter that was basically to say [to teachers], ‘It isn’t your job to determine whether a student is tardy or not. We’re going to be in the hallways, and anyone that goes into that classroom after the bells rings better come out, or we’re going to go in there and get them.’ ”

“Now is that doable?” he asks. “I did it with over 3,000 students, so I know it is. And when I handled it, the teachers certainly appreciated it because they didn’t have to sit there and jawbone with the student about whether they were late or not. They would just tell them, ‘You go down and debate that with the administrator because I have a class to teach.’ ”

After Johnson departs, Adler admits she’s had difficulty convincing a man, who seldom walks through a room unnoticed, that some administrators need help managing their schools. “It’s really tough because he thinks if you’re a principal, it’s because you’re like him and you have his skills,” she says. “But I’ve got some principals who can’t do what he does, so I’m trying to give them a different approach.”

If Art Johnson and Kathleen Weigel are on one end of the leadership spectrum, Adler says, Christa McAuliffe Middle School Principal Terry Costa is probably on the other. Costa is not a one-woman show. She is not comfortable ruling with an iron fist.

“I worked for that kind of authoritarian principal, and quite frankly, I don’t want that kind of atmosphere where the principal leaves campus and everybody just goes, ‘Aaaahhh,’ ” Costa says, releasing a feigned sigh of relief.

Instead, the principal relies on her teachers to help make the school’s rules stick. As McAuliffe Middle School’s student population has grown from 1,200 to 1,500 over the past five years, discipline problems have increased as well. Between 1996 and 2000, the number of student fights reported to the district more than doubled, from 94 to 205, and then dropped to 154 last school year. The overall number of incidents at the school, minor and serious, jumped from 2,049 five years ago to 3,029 in 2000-01.

Now, Costa and her staff are in the fragile, early stages of applying the single-school-culture theory. The evidence of their project is visible all over the campus when classes are in session. The few students walking the hallways during those hours carry hot-pink sheets of paper attached to clipboards. During an afternoon visit, Adler pulls one of the students aside. “I work for the school district, and I’m just doing a little experiment,” she tells 8th grader Karina Brez. “Can I see your pass?”

‘Teachers have been more willing to keep kids in class and get to what the problems are.’

The 13-year-old readily hands over her clipboard and points to where a teacher wrote her name on the pink paper, the time she left class, and her destination.

“What would happen if you were out in the hallway without a pass?” Adler asks. The girl turns around and points to a teacher standing at the opposite end of the corridor. “That guy there, he walks around and says, ‘You don’t have a pass, you’ve got detention,’ and stuff like that.”

But “everyone has a pass,” the student adds quickly. “Everyone.”

A hall pass may seem like a small triumph, Adler concedes, but she urged the teachers and administrators at McAuliffe to look at the bigger picture as she guided them last year toward a solution to wandering students. The point is to get everyone on the same page, she told them, to get each teacher and administrator involved in tackling a problem.

Many teachers initially balked at having to spend hours of planning on what they saw as a small matter. Yet now, nearly all support the planning process and its outcome without reservation, says social studies teacher Marcellus N. Alexander, who heads the faculty’s discipline committee.

“Teachers were buying into it, right down to deciding the color [of the hall pass],” Alexander says. “Ms. Costa is very good at being participatory. She comes in and says, ‘OK, these are the things you need to do.’ ”

Adler’s methods worked so well for Costa the first time that she plans to apply them again to deal with the problem of tardy students. Teachers will once again be asked to play a central role. “There’s a very large group of teachers who have worked in this school since it opened 15 years ago, and they have a strong commitment and loyalty to the school,” Costa says. “They want to be involved in the decisions.”

“A wise principal better tap that,” she adds with a laugh, “or you’re not going to succeed.”

Facing off with an angry student poses risks, as Palm Beach County teachers saw firsthand in the shooting death of one of their own.
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