It’s not just a change of names and grades that has made the Normandy 7th and 8th grade center a calmer place this year.
What used to be Normandy Middle School now has just two grades, with sixth graders returning to the district’s elementary schools. At a community forum held at the school Wednesday night, the consensus was that a school that had been in the news last year for a host of disciplinary problems has calmed down a lot.
As Erika Henderson, whose son is in seventh grade, put it, “Last year, it was out of control.” Now, she added, the principal is “doing his job.”
That principal is Andrew Miller, who took over the school this year. He told the forum that he knew the culture of the school would have to change, so he instituted policies that would show students that “we were not just teaching them but giving them a reason to come.”
First, he said, the school’s 415 students were divided into four groups, what he called academies. The first included students who were doing well academically but may have been lost in the shuffle and overshadowed by their peers.
“These students are really doing just fabulously this year,” he said in an interview.
The next two groups were separate academies of seventh graders and eighth graders, meeting on separate floors of the school to help give them a sense of pride. “Students want their team to succeed,” Miller said, adding that the school is giving them a double dose of reading instruction.
The final group is made of up of students in both grades “who needed something extra to be successful,” Miller said. “These were students who were having issues behaving in class and meeting the expectations of teachers and principals.” He said with smaller class sizes and strong teachers, the students get more individual attention.
With the restructuring, he said, “we see students being excellent and kind to each other on a regular basis. And we’re able to track data, because students are separated out throughout the building.”
And, Miller added, one more policy change has made a big difference.
“We have taken a very strong stance against cell phones,” he said. “There have been multiple studies that cell phones damage students’ learning. They distract learning. So from day one, we put a strong policy in place that students are not allowed to ever have cell phones on them in the building.
“They’re locked away in their locker in the morning. If they don’t, and we see them, then we take the students’ cell phones and the parents have to come and pick the cell phones up. The thing that’s been great is that not only are students more focused on learning, there’s also a lot less cyber bullying going on, a lot less Facebook stuff going on.”
The changes were all part of a makeover that Miller said was clearly needed after last year.
“Some of the things that we saw last year,” he said, “with teacher turnover, teacher morale and student morale, were not where we wanted it to be. So we knew that if we were going to really turn the school around, we wanted to make it a place where teachers wanted to come, parents wanted to come, students wanted to come.
“We are promoting a collaborative culture of kindness and excellence. The big focus was kindness. We wanted to teach our students how to be kind to each other. It’s an important life skill, and it also tells students, 'Hey, we don’t just care about your academics, we care about you as a person. We’re here to shape you.'”
Stop the blame game
At the forum, Superintendent Charles Pearson asked those present – a few dozen people gathered at eight tables, including a number of Normandy staff members – to come up with ways to help the entire district improve. Answers ranged from more parental involvement to a stronger sense of pride in the district.
Greg Robinson is a Normandy graduate with two children who went through the district and has another now in third grade. He said that people who are unhappy with the schools have to stop blaming others and take more responsibility for improving conditions.
“Stop trying to blame administrators,” he said. “Administrators, do what you have to do as administrators. Teachers, do what you have to do as teachers. Me as a parent, I’m going to do what I need to do as a parent, not just for my own child but for any child I come in contact with.
“We have to meet that child where he stands. We just need to quit throwing blame. Let’s open every door that can be opened and quit making excuses.”
Pearson noted that one big change that could help would be increased attendance. On the state report card for Normandy, which will be made public next week, 10 points are awarded to districts that have 90 percent of their students attend school 90 percent of the time.
Assistant Superintendent Candice Carter-Oliver said Normandy is striving to reach 95 percent. “We cannot boost achievement if students are not in school,” she told the forum. “When a child is absent, they don’t get the same experience even if they complete the work.”
She said the district is looking at various incentives for students, teachers and schools to boost attendance, including movie days, dress down days, extra recess and gift cards for teachers.