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School's New Rule for Pupils in Trouble: No Fun

Ohanian Comment: Last year, when my own bucolic Vermont village was considering a school board resolution barring children who did not turn in homework from attending after-school functions such as athletic events and dances, I went ballistic (while remaining polite). I contacted the school board.

A kid can't have after-school ice cream because he has a bad attitude? That's sure to improve his disposition, right?

I regard the "lack of effort" label on kids as particularly destructive. Have school personnel research how much effort it takes for some kids to get themselves to school? How much effort it takes to put one foot in front of the other in very difficult family situations? How difficult it is to succeed in a curriculum that is peculiarly disjointed from the real world?

Such students â more than a quarter of the 580 at the school as of last week â are excluded from all aspects of extracurricular life, including athletic contests, academic clubs, dances and plays, unless they demonstrate improvement on weekly progress reports filled out by their teachers.

Surely this isn't why the folk in Cheektowaga went into teaching--so they could stand at the door and bar children from games and ice cream.
Cheektowaga: The name comes from the Iroquoian word Ji-ik-do-wa-gah, meaning the place of the crab apple tree. Surely, teachers and other school personnel aren't bent on living up to the roots of their town name.

The per capita income for the town was $19,627. In my village, it's 33,942. Does that suggest anything? In Marin County California, it's $44,962, Fall Creek, VA, $41,052, and so on.

Go to this article online and look at the photo of Cameron Kaeding, quoted at the end of the article. He is a very very angry boy. Hauntingly so.

I am also very very angry when I think about this policy.

And then there's the "bathroom policy," not described in this article. My potty pedagogy is this: When a student wishes to visit the lavatory, he visits the lavatory. If he violates lavatory protocol, then teach him how to do it correctly. Do NOT institute rules that forbid him use of the toilet.


As Tom Keating, who heads up Project CLEAN said in Education Week, "This is about cleanliness, safety, and hygiene. But it is also about schools respecting students and students respecting themselves. It's about learning to be a self-initiating, self-governing citizen. This is my way of building democracy." Tom has a neat phrase, "from soap to citizenship."

This school staff in Cheektowaga says it is teaching responsibility. Instead, they are teaching oppression and anger. If they want to start teaching citizenship and responsibility, then the lavatories would be a good place to start.

By Winnie Hu

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. â Like a bouncer at a nightclub, Melissa Gladwell was parked at the main entrance of Cheektowaga Central Middle School on Friday night, with a list of 150 names highlighted in yellow marker, the names of students barred from the after-hours games, crafts and ice cream because of poor grades or bad attitudes.

"You're ineligible," Ms. Gladwell, a sixth-grade teacher, told one boy, who turned around without protest. "That happens. I think they think weâre going to forget."

In a far-reaching experiment with disciplinary measures reminiscent of old-style Catholic schools or military academies, the Cheektowaga district this year began essentially grounding middle school students whose grade in any class falls below 65, or who show what educators describe as a lack of effort.

Such students â more than a quarter of the 580 at the school as of last week â are excluded from all aspects of extracurricular life, including athletic contests, academic clubs, dances and plays, unless they demonstrate improvement on weekly progress reports filled out by their teachers.

The policy is far stricter than those at most high schools, which generally have eligibility requirements only for varsity sports teams. It is part of a larger campaign to instill more responsibility in young adolescents in this town of 80,000 on the outskirts of Buffalo. Starting this week, the students also automatically get detention on any day they fail to wear their identification cards; 13 were punished on the first day of the new policy and 14 the second, including several repeaters.

And there are social rules that govern nearly every minute of the day, from riding the bus to using the bathroom, as part of a program known as "positive behavioral interventions and supports." Students are required to keep to the right of the dotted yellow line down the middle of hallways. They are assigned seats in the cafeteria and must wait for a teacher to call them up to get food. If enough students act up or even litter, they all risk a declaration of "silent lunch" in the cafeteria.

"I'd like to go to a normal school," said Anthony Pachetti, 12, a seventh grader who has been barred from activities for failing math, science and social studies. "It's not doing anything for me except taking everything away."

Such harsh regimens are rare, and generally have been found in tough urban schools like Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., where Joe Clark, an Army-drill-instructor-turned-principal, famously expelled dozens of students in a single day in the early 1980s, and inspired the movie "Lean on Me." Now tough policies are spreading to outlying areas like Cheektowaga at a time when they are facing increased pressure to improve academic achievement. Middle schools, in particular, have long struggled with performance slumps and competing theories on how to strike the right balance between structure and independence for students at a transitional, volatile age. But few have gone as far as Cheektowaga has in clamping down on the natural disorder of early adolescence.

Even Joe Clark's Paterson district backed away from requiring that 10th, 11th and 12th graders maintain a 2.5 grade-point average to participate in extracurricular activities in 2006. Instead, it adopted a lower standard â a 2.0 average only for athletes â after community opposition.

Critics of the tough-love approach cite studies showing that students active in extracurricular activities tend to perform better in class, and they worry that without structured activities after school, troubled youngsters will be more apt to find trouble.

"A child who only has detention to look forward to at the end of the day is less likely to come to school," said Laura Rogers, a school psychologist in Harvard, Mass. and the co-author of "Fires in the Middle School Bathroom."

Deborah Meier, a senior scholar at New York Universityâs Steinhardt School of Education and a former New York City principal, said that such "law and order" approaches are counterproductive.

"Sounds like prison," she said of Cheektowaga. "It's such a sad, sad commentary because, in my opinion, the improvements that it can make in behavior are marginal, and it does not begin to touch upon what engages the students in school."

Some similar tactics have been tried recently in places as varied as rural Twin Falls, Idaho, where high school students with grade-point-averages below 2.0 were barred from competing in extracurricular activities and required to attend tutoring starting this year, and in the Pittsburgh suburbs, where the Penn Hills school district set a 1.5 minimum average in 2006 to qualify for activities, raised that to 1.75 this school year, and has bumped it up again, to 2.0, for next fall.

Here in Cheektowaga, the new policy arrived with a new principal, Brian Bridges, who said that over four years as an assistant principal at the school, he saw less and less respect â and more and more attitude â from students growing up in a society that he believes is too permissive.

At the same time, many teachers were not prepared for the new students brought by the demographic changes sweeping the school, he said; its enrollment has gone from overwhelmingly white and working class to 35 percent black and Hispanic in recent years as minority families have moved in from Buffalo. And nearly half the students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Mr. Bridges, 39, is a former social worker who said that he was raised by a strict single mother who smacked him when he so much as gave her a disrespectful look. Teachers here nicknamed him "Joe Clark" and gave him a bullhorn, which he gladly accepted and sometimes uses in the hallways and to direct students to buses. He said that bringing more structure and discipline to the school creates a safer environment and teaches students to be members of a community.

So along with barring failing students from after-school activities, he has added things like pep rallies and hat and pajama days during school hours, and rewarded those who succeed under the new rules with raffle prizes.

On Friday afternoon, Mr. Bridges straddled the yellow line in a hallway to force students passing in both directions to stay on the right side.

"Go back!" he roared at an eighth grader bounding by him.

The boy stopped, protested, went back, then made the trip down the hallway again â at a fast walk.

"I'm the first one in the hallways wanting to have fun with my kids," Mr. Bridges said. "But I know I have to have a stronger hand."

It is too soon to see whether the policies will have an effect on state test scores, since this yearâs results will not be released until late spring. Last year, 53.8 percent of eighth graders passed the stateâs standardized math tests and 51 percent language arts, compared with 58.8 percent and 57 percent statewide.

Ms. Gladwell and other teachers said that there has not been an overall improvement in classroom grades, but that they had seen more homework turned in, more class participation, and fewer fights in the hallways and cafeteria. Attendance has stayed steady at about 95 percent.

The new eligibility policy for extracurricular activities drew complaints from more than two dozen parents last October after the school barred 75 students from attending the first dance, Mr. Bridges said.

But Sondra LaMacchia, a stay-at-home mother of five, said that after years of telling her 14-year-old daughter, Cortney, to study harder, the message came through much clearer when Cortney had to watch her friends and younger sister attend school dances from which she was barred.

"It's nobody's fault but hers," said Ms. LaMacchia, 35.

Some teachers have complained that enforcing the policy takes time away from academic instruction and burdens them with paperwork. There have also been concerns that the eligibility policy was keeping students from pursuing academic interests like the math and science clubs.

Ms. Gladwell, who is also the school's volleyball coach, benched one of her top players in October because she forgot to bring her progress report. Afterward, she said, the playerâs mother came up and thanked her.

"She never forgot again," Ms. Gladwell said. "It's about teaching them responsibility."

Ellen Pieroni, 13, an eighth grader who is co-president of the student council, had considered boycotting a dance in December because her friends could not go, but now says that she supports the policy. "I think they get lazy and don't do the work," she said. But other students said that the school had too many rules.

Having forgotten his identification card for the seventh time this year, Cameron Kaeding, a sixth grader, had to wear a temporary sticker and wait to get his lunch because students without their ID cards are served last. He has also been kept from a pep rally and two dances because of his struggles in math and social studies. "It's horrible," he said. "I think it's going a little too far because kids arenât perfect, and this school thinks that they are."

— Winnie Hu
New York Times





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