New conduct pledge called academic aid Voluntary student code seen as creating more instruction time

Aim is classroom civility

School board backs effort, which includes parental involvement

September 16, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Howard County public schools. Pub Date: 9/16/96SUN STAFF

Can Howard County's new voluntary student conduct pledge end misbehavior in the county's classrooms? Not by itself, say county educators and school discipline experts.

But, they say, the pledge can set new standards for classroom conduct that allow teachers to spend more time on instruction -- leading to improved academic performance that is the real key to better student behavior.

The new voluntary code also has the potential to draw more parents into the schools, another essential component to improving discipline.

"Part of improving academic performance is creating the right kind of learning environment," said Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "If we have something that can help reduce the number of disruptions and disturbances, that will provide more time for instruction."

The pledge -- introduced last week by Howard's teacher, parent and student leaders in an effort to return civility to the classroom -- was endorsed by the Howard school board Thursday night and is expected to be adopted by many, if not most, county schools.

The pledge itself is voluntary, and violating it carries no consequences, unless a school decides to adopt particular punishments as part of the pledge.

Students, parents, teachers and administrators will be asked to jointly sign a pledge in which students promise to be courteous and punctual, not swear, respect others' "personal space" and follow directions. It is the first such pledge offered systemwide in Maryland.

The pledge comes as Howard schools face rising misbehavior at all levels. During the county school board's meeting Thursday night, members learned that suspensions continue to increase far faster than growth in enrollment.

In the past three years, the number of suspended middle and high school students grew almost six times faster than enrollment increased. And in just the past year, the number of suspensions for insubordination in middle and high schools doubled.

Howard school officials say that, in trying to find ways to curtail student misbehavior, they are relying on several system studies of suspensions and youth violence completed in the past year.

While details of the studies varied, all essentially concluded that the keys to improving student behavior are:

Helping students perform better in the classroom.

Intervening early with troubled students.

Encouraging more parental involvement.

The pledge won't be a magic bullet for any of those elements, but county educators and experts say it could prove to be a big part of the solution.

"This won't solve everything, but it's an important step," said Karen Dunlop, president of the Howard County Education Association, which represents the county's teachers. "While we're raising the bar of academic achievement, we need to be lowering the bar of our tolerance for misbehavior.

"That's the only way for us to keep the misbehavior from getting in the way of achievement."

Just a couple of misbehaving students can disrupt the education of an entire class, say teachers and students. A set of basic behavior standards such as Howard's pledge can restore some order and help academic achievement.

"If you can get them to be better behaved, then their performance is likely to improve," said Gary Gottfredson, president of Gottfredson Associates Inc. of Ellicott City, an educational and psychological research and development company. "Some type of basic behavior standards are essential to that."

In Columbia, Howard High School Assistant Principal Stephen Wallis, a nationally recognized expert on student discipline, agreed: "Helping students improve academically cannot be done without first establishing some degree of civility in the school."

An important element of the pledge is that it calls on parents to join their children in signing it.

"I don't think anyone has any illusion that a simple pledge will solve everything," said Thomas Proffitt, assistant dean of the college of education at Towson State University. "But if it represents a coalescence of groups that want to improve classroom behavior, it can help bring about substantial changes."

That's what has happened during the past two years at North Laurel's Hammond Middle School, whose behavior code became the basis for the county's new pledge.

"By setting the standards and enforcing them, teachers had more time in the classroom to be on task," said Hammond Middle Principal David Oaks. "That has led to more students being engaged and produced improved behavior."

Working with Michael Rosenberg, chairman of Johns Hopkins University's department of special education, Hammond Middle's teachers and administrators created a system of basic standards of behavior, made sure students and parents understood them and enforced them firmly and fairly.

"It takes time and energy to change the environment of a school, but they were willing to do it," Rosenberg said. "The whole community has to get involved. That's what happened at Hammond, and we've seen some real improvement."

If nothing else, the pledge likely will further the school system's goal of producing better citizens and teaching character.

Students "could have all of core knowledge in their heads," said school board member Sandra French, "but if they do not have these behavior skills, they will not be good, producing workers."

Howard County suspensions

.. .. .. .. .. ELEMENTARY .. .. .. .MIDDLE .. .. ..HIGH

Offense .. . 1994-95 1995-96 ..1994-95 1995-96..1994-95 1995-96

Alcohol/drugs ....0 .. ...0 .. ....20 .. ...32 .. ..82 .. ..121

Assault on pupils 30 .. .33 .. ...322 . ...452 .. .239 .. ..318

Assault on staff .19 .. .18 .. .. ..9 .. ...23 .. ..13 .. ...14

Insubordination ...6 .. .12 .. .. .76 .. ..189 .. .170 .. ..320

TOTAL* .. .. .. ..72 .. .89 .. ...614 .. ..753 ..1,000 ...1,250

* Reflects total number of suspensions during the year. Some students were suspended more than once.

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