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Home is where the teacher is
Incoming sixth-grader Tabitha Martin was ready when two of her Spencer County Middle School teachers dropped by her house in early August for a summer home visit.
“I have a list of questions,” she said, holding a paper with 16 questions carefully written down, a pen at the ready to jot down their answers.
The home visits are just one part of the school’s customer service efforts that Ed Downs began when he was hired at the school.
“When I came here as principal four years ago, school visits were something that I thought we needed,” he said. “It was really a customer service culture that this place did not have.”
-From left, Spencer County Middle School teachers Ashley McGaughey and Beth Stilton drop by the home of incoming sixth-grader Josh Brown and his mom Tammi. Home visits are just one aspect of the school’s customer service outreach.
The big picture
Downs said he began his efforts by first focusing on the children and setting expectations for them, then moving on to the staff.
“The first year I was here I had about 300 lost days, suspensions,” he said. “The kids were out of control and teachers weren’t really doing things that would keep the kids from not doing those things.”
He enlisted the help of the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline, which helped him and the staff teach the students the proper way to behave in school.
“And four years later, I think we had 37-38 days of suspension last year,” Downs said. “The first year, 800 discipline referrals. Last year, 200 maybe. It wasn’t a lot for a school our size, with 650 kids.”
And the improvement in discipline has been followed by an improvement in academics.
“Our scores have gone up four years in a row,” he said. “It’s because our kids are in class, and teachers are focused on what they’re doing.”
Changing the school culture
Downs said he worked with Mason County Schools Assistant Superintendent Kelly Middleton, whose district has led the way in creating a customer-service focused school district.
“I did an in-depth read of his book and then I made all of my teachers read it with me,” Downs said. “I said that I think we’ll have much better relationships throughout the community if we can do some simple things.”
He started in his own office by replacing the receptionist.
“My old one would argue with everyone who came through the door,” he said. “Now when you come through the door, you have a nice, sweet, cheery voice greeting you. That’s where it starts.”
Downs said he also let the rest of his staff know that if they couldn’t support these changes, they should find work elsewhere.
“I told my superintendent that sometimes I’m going to have to pull some weeds before I can plant new growth,” he said. And as a result, “Every teacher who was here last year is here this year. I haven’t had to hire anyone, except my assistant principal who left to become a principal.”
In the field
Sixth-grade teachers Ashley McGaughey and Beth Stilton praised the school environment, saying the customer-service focus – particularly the home visits – not only allows them to get to know their students better, but helps create a bond among teachers.
“Last year I had one student in first period who didn’t really behave bad, other than forgetting things,” McGaughey said. “Beth had him in fifth period and it was a totally different situation. I had done a home visit to him, so when we had to schedule a meeting, even though I wasn’t having problems with him, the Mom knew who I was and she trusted me, so I made sure I was part of the meeting.”
Clifton said that support took what might have been a hostile meeting with a parent and allowed them to focus on discovering why the child was acting out and working together on a solution.
“This really gets the teachers to support each other and work together,” Clifton said.
McGaughey said the home visits also can improve the parents’ view of the school and of education.
“Some of the parents had bad experiences when they were in school and they carry that over to their kids,” she said. “By meeting with them this way, we try to heal a lot of those old wounds.”
Downs said the home visits have created an unanticipated positive side effect
“That has allowed us to get through a lot of procedural things before school starts that we used to do on the first day of school,” he said. “It’s really shocking by how third period on the first day of school, teachers are teaching. It really emphasizes to the kids that the school year has started and we’re not going to spend the first two or three days getting to know each other again and maybe it will start next week. School starts the first day of school.”
The home visits also help allay the concerns of students making the transition from elementary to middle school.
After getting her 16 questions answered by McGaughey and Stilton, Tabitha was all smiles when they asked if she was as nervous about starting middle school. And so was her Mom.
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