Newberry High School takes fresh approach to handling student behavior issues

BY AMBER THIBODAUX, Alachua Chronicle contributor

NEWBERRY, Fla. – Last week, Newberry High School (NHS) hosted two separate peacebuilding workshops on campus during school hours, with attendees that included a diverse group of 22 students, 10 educators, and three outside facilitators. The purpose of the two workshops was to discuss various issues relevant to all parties, in hopes of strengthening communication and effectiveness of teaching and discipline around campus. According to both the students and teachers who participated, the workshop was “an awesome experience” and a positive step toward bridging the gap between administrators and students, some of whom said they’ve felt misunderstood or unheard in the past.

The Educator Dialogue Workshop was led by River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding – “a mission-driven organization working toward prevention, intervention and healing from conflict and violence.” The organization structures its services around the concept of Restorative Justice, which, according to its website, is defined as “a theory of justice that emphasizes repair and prevention, rather than punishment, as a response to incidents of harm.” The intent is to address specific incidents by giving a voice to those affected and asking questions such as: 

  • What happened?
  • What was the impact?
  • How can we repair the harm?
  • What can be done to prevent this from happening again?

Through this dialogue, the idea is for “participants [to] develop a meaningful path forward based on the needs of everyone involved.”

NHS Dean Aisha Yarn told us that the administration’s goal for this workshop was for participants to engage in authentic dialogue, which she acknowledged would require an atmosphere centered around vulnerability and trust. “Our hope was that students recognized their resilience, felt their voices were heard, and identified small changes they can make to improve student-adult communication. If teachers left the workshop understanding the importance of building and maintaining relationships, commit to checking in with students regularly, and remain inspired by the students’ passion and determination – that’s a win!”

Yarn said the participants were chosen using certain criteria that would ensure a diverse group: “For the event to be a success, it was imperative to have a wide array of student body and faculty represented. By having teacher volunteers (across disciplines and grade levels) with students of different grades, races, genders, interests, orientations, and behaviors, all of these characteristics contributed to effective group dynamics and allowed for diverse points of view.”

Workshop emphasized respecting others

At the beginning of the workshop, students and teachers were separated and divided into groups and then brought back together. According to Yarn, agreements and norms were first established to be followed for the duration of the workshop. The format included everyone sitting in a circle, where they were on an “equal playing field.” 

“There was discussion related to the most prevalent problems at NHS and suggestions for solving them.  The facilitators did an excellent job of getting participants to extend their thinking, make connections, share anecdotes, or redirect attention, when needed. Much of the training felt like a Socratic Seminar with a high level of respect displayed for the person who was speaking,” Yarn told us.

Michele Roundtree, who teaches 10th– and 12th-grade English at NHS, said that this activity was one of the more purposeful workshops she’s participated in this school year. “It proved to be meaningful for both teachers and students because it allowed for some open dialogue about school culture and climate,” Roundtree said. She pointed out the importance of teachers being “humanized” in the eyes of their students and explained that the participants were able to identify issues and discuss solutions as a collective group where everyone was equal. 

“As important as it is for teachers to build relationships with students, [and] among the push for testing and quantifiable results, it’s rare that we get to interact with students in such a close and fun way,” Roundtree added.

Food and fun activities made students comfortable

Charles Jackson, who is a senior at NHS, was one of the students chosen to participate. Jackson said that at first, he was a little hesitant about the workshop because he wasn’t sure how it would go. “I didn’t know how it was going to be with students giving an opinion about how bad the school was. But as we entered the library, we were greeted with food and very nice smiles, which made me feel more at ease.” Jackson said that the workshop was structured around fun games and other lighthearted activities to help facilitate meaningful conversation, and this helped him feel comfortable discussing the more serious topics that arose.

“One thing that stood out to me was how detailed and deep the students were in telling the administrators and teachers what needs to be done. In all, I loved it and think something like this should be done more often,” Jackson said.

“Universally loved by both teachers and students”

Jordan Marlowe, who teaches several subjects at NHS, including European History, African American History, and Literature & Composition, also praised the experience and said that he felt the workshop was very effective at opening up an honest line of communication between the students and teachers. Going forward, Marlowe concluded that teachers “need more time and compassion to develop relationships with students and vice versa.” He believes that these types of exercises should be conducted on campus on a regular basis.

NHS Dean Mark Burford told us that this is the second time the school has conducted an Educator Dialogue Workshop and both times it was “universally loved by both teachers and students.” 

“It’s nice to be able to devote three hours toward that kind of conversation – and it could’ve gone longer,” he added.

Model can be used by other schools

NHS’s proactive approach to tackling the school’s specific issues and concerns regarding discipline and behavior could set a standard for other schools struggling with the same thing. Alachua County School Board members have continuously addressed the issue of student discipline during board meetings, but with differing viewpoints on how best to handle it. During the last school board meeting held on January 17, District 2 Board Member Diyonne McGraw discussed student discipline and behavior and encouraged other board members to become more involved by visiting classrooms and observing what goes on. “Of course academic is first, but we can’t do anything about these academics until we get this behavior under control,” she pointed out. 

McGraw believes the discipline problems need to be dealt with in the next 60-90 days because “people are leaving – they are leaving because of the behavior.” McGraw went on to say that Alachua County needs to develop a marketing plan – “we must re-brand ourselves as Alachua County Public Schools… we have to say, ‘Hey, look at Alachua County Public Schools. This is a great place to work and come,’ but we got to deal with that behavior before we get to anything else.” 

McGraw acknowledged that the county is losing staff and administrators because of the ongoing discipline problems, and she announced, “I have a plan to share with my colleagues.” 

McGraw told the board that “strategically, we need to workshop this sometime in February.” 

School Board Chair Tina Certain, however, said she believes that workshopping may not be the best way to approach student discipline. She suggested that McGraw meet with Superintendent Shane Andrew and staff and bring back a plan that the board, as a whole, can discuss.

Referencing the staffing shortage, District 4 Board Member Leanetta McNealy said she’d recently spoken with a teacher who was leaving her (unnamed) school in June, but she said six other teachers had left since August. “I couldn’t believe it; it just had not registered in my mind until she said, ‘And I’ll be gone in June.’ What are we going to do differently to keep our staff intact?”

The next school board meeting is scheduled for February 7.

  • This is where the rubber meets the road. All these ladies will do is talk talk talk instead of figuring out real disciplinary solutions. Vote better next time around.

  • Leanetta McNealy said she’d recently spoken with a teacher who was leaving her (unnamed) school in June, but she said six other teachers had left since August. “I couldn’t believe it; it just had not registered in my mind until she said, ‘And I’ll be gone in June.’ What are we going to do differently to keep our staff intact?”
    Tiny Minds and Bullies should be removed from the School Board Member regime. How blatanly disfunctional and wasteful of valuable time.

  • “Misunderstood”??? Try learning how to speak (and act) coherently! Behave and follow the rules. Most of these problem kids just need boot camp, or a properly placed boot (or boot them out entirely).

    • Does the school board have a racial breakdown for the troublemakers? Are they children from one parent households? Are the parents employed or welfare recipients?

      • The push to reduce both the achievement and discipline data gaps are omnipresent. When white students receive referrals, I have heard both administrators and deans say that it will help the school’s overall numbers. While it is meant as a joke, it underpins the expectations from both county and state.

        While looking at backgrounds is encouraged when dealing with problematic students individually, the background info is reduced to race when overall numbers are shared with schools. There are ways to drill down to type of offense, locations, teachers, etc., but nothing I saw involves the indicators you mention.

        Unfortunately, the middle and high school magnets/other programs are achievement based for the most part (but now with a lottery for 25% of the admissions). I know it means money (or mega involvement from corporations or local businesses, but I would love to see an expansion of these programs. We still teach everybody like they are college bound, and that isn’t the case due to money, grades, or simple choice. There is a real chance to capture genuine interest through these programs as opposed to setting up some students for failure, regardless of race.

      • We all already know the racial breakdown. We can already figure out what racial group has the most single parent homes. We just can’t say it.

  • Alachua County has long failed in literacy. You expect a kid who cannot read to behave all day? Next – the curriculum must be relevant – I am not advocating WOKE indoctrination. But Algebra for all? We are top heavy in positions that do not teach. Good teachers are leaving for a myriad of reasons.

  • B.S. is not a fresh approach. Bullies and thugs are created at home, not in school. Unfortunately, democrats discovered that truth-bearing messengers get shot and liars get elected. May they wallow in their many pounds of flesh.

  • Things have gotten worse since they have weaved wokeness into the curriculum. The forcing of masks on children and the closing of schools because of C19 was the worst thing
    The ACSB could have done.

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