The school day was less than an hour old, but already a fidgety Aydyrus Abdirahman found it impossible to sit still. So Marcus Freeman, a first-year assistant principal at Ramsey Middle School, met the seventh-grader at a stairwell for an “energy break.”
As Freeman stood atop the stairs, iPhone stopwatch in hand, Aydyrus scrambled up and down the steps. After a minute of running, Freeman walked a quieter, calmer Aydyrus back to class.
“It’s our thing,” the former professional football player said of the relationship he’s formed with the high-energy boy. “Whatever it takes.”
Change has been dramatic in St. Paul’s middle schools over the past 18 months, and the fallout from the district’s decision to put sixth-graders into middle schools and mainstream more special-education students and English language learners has been messy.
While the goal behind the switch from traditional junior highs to a middle school model — strengthening adolescent relationships — is shared by districts across the state and country, the unruly behavior and disruption it caused in St. Paul caught district leaders off guard and outraged parents and teachers who demanded a fix.
Squeezing 30 percent more students — some with special needs — into the district’s 14 middle schools created so much strain in 2013-14, the first year of the change, that middle school suspensions jumped by 63 percent — 141 percent in sixth grade alone.
Perhaps nowhere has the strain been felt more than at Ramsey, home to 650 students in the city’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. Unruly behavior there caused so much tension last fall that some teachers quit, parents threatened to pull their kids from class and administrators acknowledged that, for some, there wasn’t much learning taking place. At one point, parents were so distressed by the district’s slow response to their concerns that they packed a school board meeting to demand immediate changes.
Those changes finally took hold in December, when Freeman and new Principal Teresa Vibar — who came to Ramsey in August — were joined by several specialists hired to work closely with disruptive students, restore calm and create a better learning environment.
Since then, the number of student referrals for discipline has been cut in half — from a high of 951 in October to 486 in March. Suspensions, too, are down — 15 in March, compared to 48 in October.
“The hallways now are night and day,” said Elaine Gillespie, whose son is a Ramsey seventh-grader. “It still is not perfect. But it’s normal. It’s a normal middle school now.”
Fighting was common
It’s 11:30 on a Monday morning as the unmistakable buzz of an impending fight spreads through the bustling hallways between classes. In a corner of a stairwell, two eighth-grade boys stare each other down after one apparently yanked headphones off the other.
With one boy gripping the other’s hand, Freeman and a security guard swoop in, separate them and escort them back to class.
Tense as the moment is, it doesn’t compare with last year or even last fall, when fights between students were frequent, and, on several occasions, students were abusive to teachers, parents and teachers say. One incident involved a student allegedly striking a teacher with a belt.
“I remember walking in the building and a kid just went off [verbally] on a staff member,” said Michelle Atlas, whose daughter is a seventh-grader.
Some students even insulted Superintendent Valeria Silva as she walked through the school last spring. Community members were called in to work with those students, who were scolded and persuaded to apologize.
By the end of November, nine teachers, including longtime math teacher Angela Mahrt, had left the school. Mahrt, who has three small children, said she wanted to someday teach closer to her home 25 miles north. That day came sooner than expected.
“The way the school was going, I thought, ‘Why put myself through this?’ ” said Mahrt, who now teaches at Centennial Middle School. “It was just getting harder and harder.”
At the same time, Ramsey parents, who had been begging for changes since before last summer, were so incensed by the lack of corrective action that they embraced the union-powered Caucus for Change movement that resulted in three incumbent school board members losing DFL endorsement two weeks ago.
“I want people fired,” Gillespie said recently. “It should not have taken this long.”
As one of three behavior intervention specialists hired in December, Michael Walker is part inspirational speaker, part stern uncle as he works with the misbehaving students teachers send his way.
“We’re the bridge between the teachers and the students and the parents,” said Walker, who saw 20 students a day when he started. Now? Most days, he gets fewer than 10 referrals.
Walker recently worked with a boy who was sent to his office for “play-fighting” with another student. The boy, who has emotional and behavioral disabilities, is sent to the intervention office two to three times a day.
Walker handed the boy a referral form to fill out and be entered into Ramsey’s computer system as part of the student’s behavior improvement plan.
“Do you expect me to get hit?” the boy whined.
“No,” said Walker, “I expect you to let the teacher know if you are having a problem.”
After calling the boy’s home, Walker gave him a pep talk and sent him back to class.
“Come on now, time to man up,” he said.
Hiring the intervention specialists was a big part of Ramsey’s new “behavior support program.” So was helping teachers better manage their classrooms, adding a second security guard and boosting the number of teachers and staff members monitoring the halls and lunchroom.
It’s all helping restore calm, staff members said. So is getting to know the most challenging students on a more personal level.
Of the 650 students at Ramsey, Walker knows 20 to 25 — generally, the ones who get into trouble — very well. “Nine out of 10, I know their parents,” said the Central High School graduate and former middle school basketball coach. “It’s all because we’re a product of St. Paul.”
Courtney Brown, another intervention specialist, is Ramsey’s boys’ basketball coach — assisted by Jeremy Mcintyre, a Ramsey security guard.
“It really is about building relationships and getting to know our students,” said Vibar, who took over as principal with the goal of revamping Ramsey’s environment and curriculum. “Sometimes, the community piece is the stumbling block. A lot of why they’re acting out has nothing to do with us.”
More to do
Over the past four months, teachers and students have noticed a change. Parents, too.
Scott Daleiden, whose son is a Ramsey seventh-grader, said he was so alarmed by what he saw last fall that he visited other schools while contemplating a transfer. But his son “wanted to stay here,” Daleiden said. After visiting classes at Ramsey several times this year, he’s glad his son stayed.
“Now, they’re pretty on top of it,” he said.
Vibar said the challenge now is to improve teaching to engage all students. To that end, she holds Wednesday meetings with teachers to pore over strategies. Vibar knows there is more to do.
“Middle school kids are a different breed,” she said, smiling.
From Anne Sawyer Beach’s English class to Tamra Wollner’s American history class to Michael Kowalski’s science class, students were hard at work on a recent morning. In Byron Carter’s math class, the second-year special education teacher reviewed a lesson with five students, coaxing answers from each with patience and persistence.
“You have to build a relationship, learn their strengths and weaknesses. Know how to give them nourishment,” he said.
Sometimes, that’s not easy.
As most of Chris Lutz’s math students tended to their projects, one boy stood in the middle of the room swinging a medal hanging from his neck like a hula hoop.
As the veteran teacher moved from table to table, he kept checking with the boy to see his work. When Lutz went to another table, the boy bounced up to swing his medal. By the end of the class, Lutz was clearly frustrated.
Later, he was asked why he didn’t just send the student to an intervention specialist.
“I do not like referring them unless it is necessary,” he said in an e-mail. “I work with middle school students and they bring energy with them. I don’t think it is in anyone’s best interest to completely shut down that energy.”