Murray Middle School’s year of transition saw many challenges

Murray Middle School’s nearly 900 students dispersed for summer break earlier this month, allowing the school a chance to catch its breath after a year that saw seismic changes across St. Paul Public Schools.

As it transitioned from a grade 7-8 junior high to a 6-8 middle school, Murray officials promised they would continue looking for ways to better serve their students.

Many parents lauded new principal Stacy Theien-Collins and her staff for working, in the face of budget cuts and overcrowding, to create an environment where students can feel safe and focus on education.

But progress was slow to come, and toward the end of the school year some parents’ patience began wearing thin with Murray’s growing pains. Theien-Collins was hired last year from the East Metro Integration District, a consortium of 10 school districts in Ramsey, Anoka and Washington counties, to lead the new middle school.

The school has had “many, many successes this year in welcoming the sixth-graders into Murray, and there were also many challenges in transitioning to a middle school and the sheer amount of change Murray in particular faced this year,” Theien-Collins said as she sat in her office on a recent morning. “Our goal is to build on the successes that we had and address the challenges and continue to improve.”

She pointed out that a few bumps in the road are to be expected, considering the major changes the district adopted.

Among the other changes made at the beginning of last school year were expanding the day to seven periods and going to the quarter system.

The school ran into many of the same problems facing other schools in the district, such as swelling class sizes (the current student-to-teacher ratio is 35-1, officials said) and disciplinary issues that parents say distract students from learning.

The challenge of reducing overcrowding in classrooms is particularly vexing, officials and parents agree. Theien-Collins said the school will add classroom space for incoming sixth-graders as part of a $2 million remodeling project that, when completed in the fall, will also include a new cafeteria.

“Discipline is another area that community members and families have expressed concern about,” Theien-Collins said. “One of the things, as the new principal, that I was certainly challenged with and set a goal around was addressing culture and climate in the building, and we made many steps forward in that respect and we also know that there is still work to do, and we’re committed to that work.”

She continued: “The great part about this community is that we have stakeholders who are committed to doing the work and continuing to address culture and climate.”

In a significant program rolled out last year, teachers and administrators adopted a more restrained approach to disciplining disruptive students.

This change came as a result of a community meeting held last year that invited all “stakeholders” to share their concerns with the transition, officials said. Among the approaches discussed at the meeting was the

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program, seen as an alternative to suspensions, in which students who were repeatedly disruptive were sent to see a behavior specialist.

Parent Mary Hamel said she had heard “through the parent grapevine” about bullying and disruptive classroom behavior, but added that her seventh-grade son, Alex, had had a positive experience.

“I think some of the teachers thought that their hands were tied a little bit, in terms of sending distracting students out of the classroom,” Hamel said.

Another long-term concern is whether schools, in moving away from the junior high model, can establish stronger relationships with adolescent students during a tumultuous period in their lives.

To that end, the district introduced several programs and initiatives aimed at cultivating these relationships. One such program was Camp 67, a daylong orientation for district sixth- and seventh-graders that encourages students to interact with their peers and teachers before the start of school.

Beth Commers, whose two older children will transfer out of the district after this year, said school officials missed an opportunity to give students a chance at a better education by not directly addressing overcrowding and violence in the classroom.

“I do have high hopes for Stacy, but I don’t think the district is giving her a lot of resources,” Commers said. “I think the problem is bigger than Murray. I think the problem is how we treat the middle school; I don’t think that we use it as an opportunity to connect with them. I think they just see it as a step.”

Libor Jany, a St. Anthony Park native, is a journalist who has worked in newsrooms in Oregon, Mississippi, California, New Jersey and Connecticut.

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