A handful of sixth-grade parents are working with Orcas school administration to remedy what the group is calling “chaos in the classroom.”
“We’ve come to the conclusion that there is an abnormal amount of disruption, bullying and harassment, and we believe that it goes beyond just this class,” said parent Ayn Carrillo-Gailey. “Overall, the superintendent has been helpful and receptive, once we got past the school’s belief that these are isolated incidents.
The issues were first brought up to former principal Teresa Mayr during the 2015-16 school year. Parents presented to the school board in late May, saying that the fifth-grade class was still out of control. That same month a teacher had been put on administrative leave following a physical incident with a student. He was later found innocent of any wrongdoing.
Since then, Mayr left her position and the school promoted teacher Lorena Stankevich to principal.
“We have new leadership who is taking an active role,” said Superintendent Eric Webb.
In December, Stankevich restructured the school’s discipline plan to “reflect the research, training and work of the Positive Behavior Team at OIES.” In setting clear, consistent consequences for students, she looked at what other elementary schools in the country are doing and aligned her practices with what the middle and high school are doing.
“Detention and punishment don’t really work,” she said. “Our team of teachers has really tried to work with all of the kids on an individualized basis.”
The main part of the plan is centered on the Orcas Big Three school-wide rules: be safe, be respectful, be responsible. There is a list of consequences for minor infractions and major infractions as well as details on in-school suspensions, suspensions and expulsions.
“There are multiple layers for students who have challenges,” said Stanvekich. “To impart change, you build relationships with the kids. We do have things to improve upon, and I know parents have concerns about disruptions, but we are always reevaluating what we are doing.”
Other changes this year for the sixth-grade class include two parent/teacher meetings a month, individual student check-ins, math groups for different skill levels, student council for third to sixth grade, student leader jobs, music during lunch and first to 12th-grade buddies (sixth graders are paired with seniors). The school just posted an opening for a part-time Para Educator to help the sixth-grade class through the rest of the year.
Stankevich says it’s important for parents and students to report incidents immediately so they can be dealt with at the time – not months later.
“Bullying is designed as persistent, targeted teasing – physical or emotional – of one person. We’ve had three reports of bullying filed this year: one parent pulled the complaint and the other two were ruled as one-time incidents, not bullying,” said Stankevich. “Parents need to trust us. We are taking these things seriously, and if we don’t respond to something, it’s because we don’t know about it.”
In early January, she sent a survey to sixth-grade parents who had kids in class last year and this year in order to gauge improvements. A total of 24 surveys were sent out and 15 responded. Every participant said there has been an improvement with the current school year in class experience and management; parent communication; academic preparation and administrative response to concerns.
In the comments section, parents wrote such remarks as: “(There is) disruptive behavior in the classroom and a lack of disciplinary response and standards for behavior and the need for more help so the teacher can focus on lessons;” “This year has been far better than last year;” “My child is happy and cannot wait to go to school;” “A full-time second adult in the room would be extremely helpful;” and “I am still hearing about lots of talking and disruptive and defiant behavior from a small group of students. It sounds like it is still a bit unpredictable and alarming.”
Parents say there is still work to be done
Despite improvements under Stankevich’s leadership, students are still telling their parents about chaos in the classroom, physical altercations on the playground and inappropriate language used by students. In September, a sixth grader allegedly pushed a classmate down a few stairs; the victim hurt his ankle and 911 was called. Parents and kids have created a list of additional incidents that include: a child slapping a classmate in the face with a notebook; boys talking about sex in a way that makes others uncomfortable; students not finishing quizzes because of disruptions; kids getting up and leaving whenever they want; students are being pushed and physically intimidated by classmates.
Stankevich said the incidents that were reported to her have all been addressed following the standards of the school.
“Students are learning rough-housing at home, and then trying to interact that way with students,” said Stankevich. “And swearing and inappropriate language can happen so quickly and subtly.”
Added Webb: “What we were faced with in middle school is what our kids are facing much younger now.”
Parent Angela Douglas feels the primary issue is a lack of leadership and discipline.
“Talking about feelings and a plan for next time is not discipline,” she said.
Parent Matt Willis agrees with Douglas and says he wonders if the disciplinary actions are effective.
“There are multiple distractions, and getting back on track is critical,” he said. “No one is looking for perfect. We are looking for normal and safe.”
Added Samuel Gailey: “We don’t see this as something that Eric and Lorena caused. It’s a legacy issue. There have been six principals in 11 years at Orcas Elementary.”
Diane Boerstler, PTSA president and the parent of a second grader, says she has seen a vast improvement in the elementary school this year. Her child was physically bullied in kindergarten and first grade.
“Miss Lorena and Eric have been great to work with. I’ve seen them make huge improvements in the school,” she said. “Teachers and administration have the hardest job in the world and they get blamed for everything but get little support to fix it.”
Willis and the Gaileys have been instrumental in launching the Parent, Administration and Community Taskforce that will meet quarterly starting in 2017 under the leadership of the superintendent. It will focus on maintaining and creating effective procedures and programs that address school culture and academics in order to create a safe and inspiring environment where all k-12 Orcas public school students can thrive personally and academically.
“This is draining our school. Kids feed off each other whether they are behaving badly or behaving well,” said Carrillo-Gailey. “We are not here to complain and bitch. We are here because we believe the school can be really amazing.”
If you know of someone being bullied at school, fill out an Orcas Island School District – Bullying and Harassment Report at http://bit.ly/2ka5nuV.