It is well-documented that the 2013-14 school year did not go well for Murray Middle School. After a year of weathering what some perceived as chaos created by the school district’s implementation of too many changes in one year, a number of teachers and Murray families left the school, and the district.
Last year, nearly 900 students were enrolled at the school as it transitioned from a grade 7-8 junior high school to a 6-8 middle school. Classrooms were overcrowded and a new disciplinary policy established districtwide left teachers feeling unsupported and families worrying about their children’s safety and negative academic experience.
But for those who stuck it out and returned in fall 2014, the year has gone better than expected.
“We got off to a great start this year,” said Murray Principal Stacy Theien-Collins. “We did a lot of work last year. We did a lot of listening, learning and collaborating with families, students, teachers and administrators. We got a lot of input.”
A 200-student drop in enrollment—due in part to the graduation of a large class of eighth graders who were grandfathered in after the district changed attendance boundaries in 2013—and a $2 million remodeling project that created a new wing for the sixth grade created more elbow room in the building.
But one of the biggest changes this year is a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to issues, according to Theien-Collins. “We are now driving where we want the school climate to go,” she said. In the 2014-15 school year, the school has implemented policies that support staff and help those students who struggle most, Theien-Collins said.
New support staff has been added to help counselors and teachers with student behavior issues, one of the biggest concerns families had last year. The additional staffing enables counselors to spend more one-on-one time with each student, and while special education specialists once worked separately from classroom teachers, they are now teamed with each grade and have a better grasp of what each grade’s specific needs are.
“Last year, 20 percent of students had two or more behavior-based referrals. As of midyear, that number was closer to 7 percent,” Theien-Collins said. “Students who have between two and five referrals are placed in Tier 2, which allows them to receive more support.” Fall semester data shows the improvements. Dismissals have seen a 55 percent reduction and suspensions have seen 32 percent fewer students being suspended.
“Last year, we didn’t have enough resources to help those students and it became a cycle of being sent back to the classroom before their needs were met, further disrupting the classroom,” Theien-Collins said. This was a common complaint from teachers last year as well: having disruptive students returned to their classroom without much, or any, repercussion for their actions.
“We now have a better menu of services for Tier 2 students so we can better respond to the needs of each individual student,” Collins said. “Disruptive students are kept out of the classroom longer, which means a better classroom experience for the rest of the students.”
Additional changes, such as added recreational and movement time, the implementation of a Positive Behavior Intervention (PBI) program, a partnership with New Lens Urban Mentoring, input from a parent advisory board council, a School Climate Improvement team, new behavioral intervention staff and the Murray Core Values Program have also helped move the school in the right direction, she said.
“The Murray Cores Value Program, for example, intentionally teaches students behavior expectation at our school,” she said. “These core values are taught in a Core Values Foundation course and reinforced during all-school assemblies so that everyone is on the same page.”
Assistant Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams is proud and supportive of the work that Theien-Collins has done at Murray. Sayles-Adams has been in her position since last year, having previously served as principal at Battle Creek Middle School.
“At Battle Creek we had a similar experience as Murray last year,” she said. “We had a lot of changes, too. We all weathered that storm.”
While she is aware of the negative impression the community had of Murray last year, she is hopeful about the continued improvements in the future.
“I know what the narrative is out there; there are lots of rumors,” she said. “I hope people look at the data and see that it didn’t take long to turn things around significantly.”
“Stacy was confident that we can all work together,” Sayles-Adams said. “She really heard the parents, she was very transparent, and she focused on all the kids.” Sayles-Adams believes that Murray now has a strong administrative team that is working together with the community to create an even stronger school.
“We are a public institution; there are going to be challenges,” Sayles-Adams said. “I don’t know if you can really show it with data—although we have the data to support this—but the building just feels different. It’s a totally different school, we are figuring it out.”
Several teachers who left Murray and other SPPS schools last year were not willing to go on record to talk about their experiences last year, citing fear of retribution, even for those who left the district. Of the 14 Murray teachers who left, five were part of budget cuts, according to Sayles-Adams, and two retired.
But many who stayed say they are glad they did. Erin Dooley, a seventh-grade science teacher, returned to Murray in February 2014, after serving as a support coach in the district.
“I was really happy to come back,” she said. “Both my kids went to Murray.” While she admits space was an issue last year, she does not see much of a difference in the way her students are behaving this year. “We had to be creative with space last year, but personally it does not feel that different this year. My students seem to be doing very well at Murray,” she said.
At the end of last year, many Murray families were frustrated and disgruntled. Last May, the district held a meeting with stakeholders, including several disheartened families, to discuss Murray’s woes and possible solutions. According to Theien-Collins, the meeting was a turning point for Murray administration.
Bill Mills, a Murray parent and a member of a parent task force that was asked to work on behalf of Murray families, was at that meeting. Mills said the meeting got off to a negative start.
“It started with angry parents with pitchforks and burning torches,” he explained. “It took hard work on the part of everyone to turn the energy into something productive.”
“Families were up in arms,” he said. “Last year the teachers were just trying to keep their heads above water, which does not make for a productive learning environment for our kids.”
Over the next few months, the task force started gathering data on the problems at Murray in an effort to target assistance to the right students. “Murray staff looked at data about which kids were struggling most, at what time of the day, days of the week, etc.,” he said.
The environment has improved, Mill said, but he is still frustrated with the district’s upper administration’s decisions and with what appears to be lack of action on the part of the school board. “The school board works for us; they are supposed to be our voice,” he said. “At this point it seems they are busy defending past poor choices.”
But he acknowledged that everyone seems to have the students’ best interest at heart. “I feel that these are all passionate people who care about the kids, about doing the right things for the kids, and that goes a long way with me,” he said. “But I come from a business world where you are held accountable for poor execution. Were the teachers and local administrators given the resources they needed to succeed?”
Sara Veblen-Mortenson is one parent who was happy at Murray last year and still is. She has one daughter at Murray and another at Laura Jeffrey Academy. “It was just a matter of fit,” she explained. “My Murray student is enjoying it so far and has not seen too many of the problems we have heard about.”
“Last year we were just trying to keep the wheels on. It’s all relative,” Mills said. “My son used to report fights, the police being called in, this was normal to him last year. This year, it’s completely different. This year, it’s good, and now the conversation can turn to how to make it great.”
Louis Seeba relates as both a parent and as an SPPS school board member. “At the board we are often the recipients of complaints, but I have to say that this year we have barely gotten any,” she said earlier this winter.
“If you flash back a year ago, parents were worried about sending their kids there. My message last year was ‘give us a chance.’ I see what’s planned and I know what we are moving toward.”
Seeba is grateful for the faith that parents have shown in Murray. “I haven’t heard of anyone who stayed that has regretted that choice.”
When asked why so many changes were implemented at once, Seeba was candid. “I have to say that I didn’t agree with all of the changes at once,” she admitted. “The changes definitely impacted the middle schools the most.”
“My seventh-grader is reporting that it is better this year, but honestly she didn’t complain much last year. She has a pretty high threshold of chaos,” Seeba joked.
“Murray administration and staff are miracle workers to be where we are now at Murray. I am a parent and I want to do what’s best for my kids, but I really want to do what’s best for everyone, and I believe in public education. We’ve got this, and it’s getting better.”
Consensus is clear: It was a mess last year, but it does seem to be getting better. Perhaps Seeba put it best: “Things are improving at Murray,” she said. “Whether that is thanks to leadership at the district or in spite of it is up for debate, but things are improving nonetheless.”
Alex Lodner lives in Como Park and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.