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Parent forums, staff turnover spark changes at Gainesville Middle School
Principal responds to complaints, alters policy on discipline, pick-ups, communication
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Gainesville Middle School students get on buses to leave school Thursday. The school is implementing several changes this school year, including a new emphasis on student behavior, changes in discipline, new procedures for picking up kids and communication. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Gainesville Middle School administration has made a number of changes in procedure this year after hearing complaints and questions from parents in the spring.

Changes include a new emphasis on student behavior, changes in discipline, new procedures for picking up kids, a new assistant principal for the sixth grade and consistent communication for 2016-17.

Second-year principal Rose Prejean-Harris made a presentation about the changes to the Gainesville school board in early September.

The school held three meetings with parents in the spring and summer.

“I suggested the initial forum after parents voiced some concerns about several different issues at the middle school. Although opportunities to meet, greet, and discuss were available throughout the school, participation was low,” Prejean-Harris said in response to emailed questions.

“The May 18 meeting was an opportunity to dialogue, answer questions, provide accurate data and information to parents, and to get feedback about the community’s perception of the school,” she wrote. “The subsequent meetings were for parents to provide feedback about the school improvement plan for the 2016-17 school year.”

Two women who identified themselves only as mothers of GMS students called The Times in May. Both complained about “chaos” at the school, but they declined to provide details.

One woman said a group of parents would attend the next school board meeting and air their complaints. But she called back and said they would not attend the board meeting and would instead meet with administrators. Neither woman called back afterward.

Prejean-Harris told the board discipline “has been our No. 1 concern from parents.”

The school district has initiated the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports system this year.

The principal said discipline referrals were up dramatically for August, more than double the number in 2015. Discipline referrals for August 2016 were 87, up from 37 in 2015.

However, she said, “Implementing successful changes in school environments requires a three-to-five-year commitment to address proactive change.”

She also emphasized the school is committed to processing behavioral referrals in a timely fashion.

“It is normal when first beginning consistent school-wide PBIS implementation to see an increase in discipline referral data because educators are found to be more consistent with consequences based on the framework,” Prejean-Harris said. “We are already starting to see progress, and we are very encouraged.”

She said 6 percent of the students at GMS account for 11 percent of discipline referrals.

The PBIS program, Prejean-Harris said, is a way to establish “a model of how we are doing things in our school. We want to teach kids how to ‘do’ school.”

Another subject of comment from parents last spring was the number of staff changes at GMS.

Prejean-Harris told the board the school has had a 70 percent staff turnover in three years. She said the school had 24 resignations and “several retirements.”

Between March and June, the school district’s personnel list includes 20 resignations but no retirements. One teacher transferred to Gainesville High School.

According to the Chuck McCampbell, chief information officer for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, the average annual turnover rate for Georgia’s public and charter schools has been between 9 and 10 percent “for the past few years.”

The GMS principal said the administration sought a diverse faculty when it hired teachers. She said 66 percent of the faculty has a master’s or higher degree and 62 percent of the staff has six or more years teaching experience.

“When polled about the reason for leaving, about 21 percent were moving closer to home, another 30 percent wanted a change of environment, 30 percent were seeking advancement in leadership positions or going back to school, and the other 20 percent were retirements and various family reasons,” she said about the staff changes.

The biggest staff change might be the addition of a second principal for sixth grade. The sixth-grade principals are Titia Sargent and Curtis Shelton. Sargent has been a teacher and academic coach at the elementary level in the system. Shelton was hired for the new position.

The school still is seeking a counselor for the sixth grade. An assistant principal and counselor are assigned for the seventh and eighth grades.

Prejean-Harris also outlined multiple changes in communication with parents, additions meant to emphasize academics.

The school will have parent teacher conference times available each Tuesday and Thursday, quarterly parent forums will be scheduled and weekly parent meetings will help with learning the PowerSchool software to see students’ results. The school will provide weekly updates via emails and phone messages.

“I send weekly updates via School Messenger,” Prejean-Harris said. “The messages are delivered via telephone, text message and email. Parents can also respond back with questions about the weekly activities or any other questions or concerns.”

She also said the school’s car rider procedures have changed. Parents rotate through a two-lane system that moves in intervals. Students are directed to cars once it is safe for them to enter the vehicle, Prejean-Harris explained. Cars are then allowed to move as a group once the students are loaded.

“This allows the constant movement of cars through the pick-up lane,” she said. “In the past, parents parked or idled in the pick-up lane and waited for students, thus holding up the line and increasing wait time. We now have a much faster and safer system of picking-up students.”

Prejean-Harris emphasized, “Elementary (school) levels tend to have greater parental participation, but we believe that parent feedback and involvement are important at all levels.

“We value each and every voice, and in order for these voices to be heard, we want our parents to know that their opinion matters. The forums (in the spring) helped us make that happen.”

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