Robbinsdale Middle School Principal John Cook prepared for his hourly hall monitor duties as the seconds on a red digital clock counted down to class dismissal time.
When an electronic tone sounded, classroom doors opened and the hallway was flooded with the noise and energy of youth.
“RMS, are we going to be on time for learning?” he asks, his voice booming. “Are we going to be on time for learning today? Who said no? Somebody said no!”
Cook turns another corner and is enveloped by a sea of eighth-graders hurriedly exchanging one set of books for another before their next class. Most of them, that is.
“Gentlemen,” Cook says, moving over to a group of young men clustered by a locker. “Gentlemen, what am I seeing? What are we seeing? You need to be walking and talking, let’s go y’all.”
Data released by District 281 shows some positive behavioral changes at the school this year in comparison to last. Incidents of truancy and skipping class are down nearly 76 percent since and fights were down 29 percent in the school’s first semester. Incidents of insubordination are down 25 percent and incidents of abusive language are down 38 percent.
Robbinsdale Middle School implemented a program this fall cracking down on the number of tardy slips a student could receive in a given week. The theory, outlined in a letter Principal John Cook sent home to parents, was that there would be fewer incidents in the school’s hallways if more kids were “moving with purpose to class and being on time for learning.”
“We knew (last year) that we were coming into a building that had a reputation of having a difficult climate,” Cook said. “There was a lot of dissatisfaction from parents and staff in terms of the environment that existed in this building. We knew that we needed to make some changes.”
This year is Cook’s first full year as principal at Robbinsdale Middle School. Students from Sandberg Middle School were merged into Robbinsdale Middle School in 2009. Cook said this merging, combined with the Robbinsdale Middle School’ four-story layout, made for a difficult transition.
“We knew that we had to come after some areas that would have a positive impact on the climate,” Cook said. “We decided to attack, and I’m going to use the word ‘attack,’ tardies. “We figured that if we could reduce tardies in our building … it would mean fewer issues in our hallways, with fights, with arguments, that carry into the classroom.”
Student deans work with “check-in” sheets that rate a student’s behavior on a scale from 0-2. Good total scores at the end of the week are rewarded. Administrators are now assigned posts in the hallways, as are hall monitors, during passing times. These staff members are active and engaged with kids and keep an eye out for trouble. The operative words are “Walk and Talk.”
“If there are a group of kids that are standing at a locker, I or another staff member will say, ‘Hey, I see you talking, but you’re not walking,’” Cook said. “It’s OK to talk, but you need to move with a purpose. You are moving to class. We send that message over and over – ‘Be on time for learning.’”
Student discipline is handled differently this year, too, Cook said. Teachers refer students and the administration handles the issues. The school’s administration, Cook says, wants teachers to focus on academic issues, not disciplinary ones.
Bette Blei, a seventh-grade English teacher who came to the school from Sandberg, said last year was so bad that she considered retiring.
“Horrible, horrible,” she said. “I’ve been teaching in this district for 28 years. It was my worst year, and I put that in writing to the school board. I saw what was happening. It was so out of control – where do you start?”
Blei, who teaches over the summer, said she was worried to head back in the fall. When she came back, she saw that Cook had found his voice.
“I don’t know where the voice came from, but he found his voice,” she said. “He didn’t like what he was seeing last year, but it had snowballed to the point where it was out of control. (Now) we have more paid support, EnVOY (non-verbal communication training) in our building and had made some very smart changes.”
Blei said that she noticed the difference within the first month and credited part of that to everyone having the same expectations.
“(The administration is) serious and I think it was because we had a plan in place,” she said. “It’s working. I feel like we are on a real positive course. I’ve had the fewest number of ‘F’s’ I’ve ever had.”
Lunch detentions are given for every four tardies. Parents of students at risk of lunch detention are called on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“When we implemented those phone calls, those numbers in detention went down,” Cook said. “When we call those families, you can hear those parents saying, ‘Hey, come here, why were you late to class? You need to get yourself to class, we’re not going to tolerate it.’”
Cook said he is “obsessed” with tardies now and is working on developing generating lists for eighth-graders four days a week. That group of students has the most tardies, he said.
Aileen White has three students in District 281 and works as a test aid. Her youngest will be a sixth grader at Robbinsdale Middle School next year, and her older children went through on their way to high school.
“The climate has changed dramatically,” White said. “I used to be a substitute education assistant, one of the silent people, and we’d see a lot of things,” she said. “It was the first year they were here. You got a lot of attitude, to the point where you didn’t interact with kids. I could see the toll it was taking on the teachers. I could choose whether I could be here or not.”
Something needed to be done last year, White said. Parents, she said, would talk to the board and hear that things were under control, but would hear differently from parents. It was evident that Cook returned to school this year with a plan, she said.
“John has connected with the teenage culture with his short expressions,” White said. “The kids get it and it’s easy for them to remember. There is no gray line. It’s right there and they know where it is. I think it makes for a more settled place. I don’t hear fearful concerns as much now.”
Robbinsdale Middle School, White says, is going to be “a fun place” for her youngest child next year.
“Kids can be sucked into negative behavior, but what we have found is that kids can (also) be sucked into positive behavior,” Cook said. “That’s one of the changes that we’re seeing. Kids are making an effort to get to class and learn on time. In some circles, it’s becoming socially unacceptable to be late for class.”
Cook said this year revolves around a simple message: we hold kids accountable, we are out and about, we praise them when they do well and we’re on them when they are not meeting expectations.
“They know that expectation is you have four minutes to get to class,” he said. “In time, this is just the way we are going to do business.”
Another dismissal time looms. Cook is soon up with the eighth-graders again, encouraging and engaging them.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we need to get moving,” he said. “Get in those classrooms, guys. When that (timer) hits zero, I want these hallways empty. On time for learning. Let’s go.”
Contact Joseph Palmersheim at [email protected]