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Focus on Building Character Turns Around Struggling School

By guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

When Kristen Pelster took over as assistant principal of Ridgewood Middle School 11 years ago, fewer than 7 percent of students could do math as well as the state of Missouri thought they should be able to. Just 30 percent were proficient or advanced in reading.

The school in the Fox C-6 school district outside St. Louis was known for being the worst in the district, the place where teachers who had lost their passion were sent to work, Ms. Pelster said. Every square inch of the hallways, bathrooms, and gym were covered in graffiti, including plenty of racial slurs. The school piano sported gouges and carvings. The benches in the courtyard were so rotted they couldn't be used as seats. The school required full-time police to deal with the violence and drugs.

Ridgewood is now a very different place. It's an award-winning school where nearly 70 percent of students are proficient or advance in reading and 71 percent can say the same about math. Ms. Pelster, now Ridgewood's principal, said the school was able to transform because of an intense focus on building students' character and tending to emotional well being, along with some time-consuming attention to detail. She shared some of that work Monday during this week's U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools national conference in Oxon Hill, Md. The theme of the conference is, aptly, "Making the Connection: Creating and Maintaining Conditions for Learning."

When Ms. Pelster joined the school, she saw there were 600 F grades among the school's 500 students. The problem, she discovered, was that many students never did their homework and were repeatedly given zeros for all that undone work.

"Not one teacher told me it was because the student is incapable," Ms. Pelster said.

Now, every day, Ms. Pelster finds out which students didn't hand in their homework, and they are placed on the ZAP list, as in "zeros aren't permitted." It's her job to make sure the students do their homework, often at the same time they eat lunch, and hand it in by the end of the day. At the end of this year, there were just six F grades among her 500 students.

The school, which teaches only 7th and 8th graders, also has had major problems with truancy. So Ms. Pelster set up a truancy court on campus with a local juvenile court judge, although that doesn't stop her from driving to students' homes if they don't show up at school two days in a row with no explanation. And if they miss the bus and call her for a ride, she provides one.

"I have to make the extra effort to make sure that they're there," she said. "I have to show that I care."

The year she arrived, the school had 3,000 discipline referrals, most involving out of school suspension. During the school year that just ended, there were 317, most for minor infractions such as being tardy or having a cell phone out in class that resulted in detentions. That decrease means Ms. Pelster has more time for things like getting students to do their homework.

When asked whether teachers cooperated with so many dramatic changes, Ms. Pelster said she and the principal she joined the school with sent a stern message to educators who were unmotivated or not buying into the new administration's tactics. If they didn't want to be a part of it, they could leave. She said the district's superintendent, who had put her and the principal in place, backed her up, allowing them to skirt pushback from teachers and the union.

Now, every teacher sponsors some kind of after-school activity or club, for no extra pay, Ms. Pelster said. Teachers agreed to have their class sizes a little larger than they could have been so students can squeeze in a leadership class every day, one that starts with basics like how to introduce yourself to someone with a handshake and a look in the eye.

Ms. Pelster also created a character council that meets weekly to discuss issues brewing in the student body, and it was that group that brought cheating among students to her attention. There are student groups to empower boys and girls in a poor community—about half her students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and the rest are on the cusp of qualifying—that deal with bullying, eating disorders, and other issues.

"This has been transformational for our school," Ms. Pelster told the crowd. Students now know "you don't have to take what life has given you and let it defeat you."

In addition, rising 7th graders have a sleepover at Ridgewood, a cookout with the school's teachers, and other activities, so by the time the first day of school arrives, they already have friends and a sense of place, Ms. Pelster said. She set up an account at a gas station near the school that is fed by donations from teachers and anyone else who wants to contribute so that families who can't afford gas can fill up on the school's dime. She has opened the school's locker room showers to families who live in their cars.

How does she have the energy and bottomless well of compassion to have done this for so many years?

"I won't say it's easy," she told the crowd. "There are times when I thought I was going to put my head through the brick wall in my office. We are not perfect. But compared to those first few years it feels like every year is a vacation."

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