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Changes Bring Back Control, Respect At Rawson School In Hartford

Separating Older and Younger Students Among The Changes That Improved Behavior


December 15, 2010

HARTFORD What a difference a school year can make.

Six months ago, Rawson Elementary School on Holcomb Street was portrayed by parents, teachers and students as out of control.

Student fights were common, even some between boys and girls. Bathrooms were locked because of safety concerns, and students had to be escorted by adults to use them.

There were allegations of alcohol and drug use at the school and sexual activity in isolated areas.

Students ranged from pre-kindergarten to Grade 8, and parents of younger students said they feared for their children's safety.

Today those issues and concerns have faded to an unpleasant memory, according to parents and school officials.

"I do like the change. It really has made a difference," said Tracy Merrill, whose daughter, Arie, is now in the second grade.

Merrill, whose son, Amir, graduated from the school in June, said her children weren't targeted last year, but her daughter had heard stories about other students her age being bullied by older kids. Merrill said her daughter reports feeling more comfortable in the lunchroom now that she is eating with children in her own age group.

Separating older students from younger ones at lunch was just one part of a plan to fix the problems at Rawson that came to a head last May when a 15-year-old boy was beaten outside the school.

The assault prompted then- Mayor Eddie A. Perez to ask city police officers to monitor the beginning and end of each the school day. The department also assigned an officer to the school full time and, for a while, established patrols by plainclothes officers.

The school system sent in James Thompson, assistant superintendent of elementary schools, to lead a team of officials to make changes.

Among the responses was to create a "middle grades academy" for students in sixth to eighth grades and separate them from the younger students. The two groups of students start school 30 minutes apart, and don't enter or leave the building by the same doors. They don't commingle during the day or at lunch.

Secluded areas, such as stairwells with no windows, were placed off-limits.

School officials also created a "behavior plan" and renewed the emphasis on three school rules: respect yourself, respect others and respect and take care of your school.

"We want to teach responsibility instead of expecting obedience," Thompson said.

The Hartford police officer assigned to the school, Karen Spearman, remains, although she said her work these days is far different from what she faced last May when it seemed like all she was doing was breaking up fights during and after school.

"This year the kids have gotten to know me and I've gotten to know them," said Spearman, who does an inspection inside the school before classes begin and regularly patrols the building, inside and out. "We're developing a rapport."

Spearman said she has become more of a mentor than an enforcer this school year, but added that students know she still has a job to do if they break the rules, although she does have some leeway.

"Sometimes instead of a summons I make them write apology letters," she said. Spearman can write a summons for a student accused of bullying or breach of peace as the result of a fight. A student given a summons would have to appear in juvenile court.

Cathy Horton, principal of the middle grades academy, credits the school's staff and students for the turnaround.

She said students are held to a high standard and praised when they do the right thing. When they don't and those instances are down drastically from last year there are consequences, she said.

"I give them a ton of credit. We have kids who have made a complete turnaround," she said.

Horton said the teachers, some of whom are new to the school, have worked to build relationships with the students who are making the transition from elementary school to learning the expectations of high school.

"It's a time when kids find out who they are as students," Horton said.

Last May, some students were angry about the way their school was portrayed in news reports.

"What they want you to know is there are smart, good kids here, but that's not the reputation they have," Horton said. She pointed out that Rawson students have consistently achieved proficient scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test.

Pauline Murray, a teacher in the middle grades academy, said she's happy Rawson's problems were addressed.

"A lot of people knew what we needed. It was just overwhelming," said Murray, who said she spent part of the summer deciding if she wanted to return to the school. "Something good came out of a negative."

Gerald Martin, principal of the elementary part of the school, said he's happy that he can focus on the younger children again. Martin said he also appreciated the parents who got involved, including those who were upset and wanted change.

"I'm grateful for their stick-to-it-iveness," he said. "This is truly a community school."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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