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School 90's success built on teaching and discipline

(Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, Chalkbeat wrote about the departure from Indianapolis Public Schools of School 90 Principal Mark Pugh, who led the school during a five-year run of dramatically improved test scores. In 2012, I wrote about School 90 in a story for the Indianapolis Star that looked at five Indiana schools that were rated A despite high percentages of students with three big challenges — family poverty, a need for special education services and those who are still learning English as a second language.

The five schools also included IPS School 79, Warren Township’s Sunny Heights Elementary School, Clinton Young Elementary School in Perry Township and the Christel House Academy charter school. Each school shared five attributes: Careful hiring, a systematic approach to discipline, routine use of data to make decisions, good leadership and efforts to reduce wasted time in the school day. Below are some excerpts from that story about Pugh’s work at School 90.)

What most distinguished Pugh’s work at School 90 from that of the other challenged A schools was his aggressive recruiting of quality staff:

Mary Mayfield was pretty shocked when Mark Pugh — a principal at another school — showed up to observe her teaching the day after she put her name on the district’s list of teachers seeking transfers.

“I hadn’t even told my principal,” she said.

Pugh, the principal at School 90, doesn’t wait for good teachers to come to him. Watching the transfer list like a hawk is just one strategy he employs to build the best teaching staff he can.

“When I’m bringing somebody in, I want to find the right people for the job and allow them to do their job,” Pugh said. “I try my very best to hire quality teachers. Then I try to provide them with tools and the environment and support they need.”

Crafting an effective team, one that works well together and has good skills for the types of issues children bring to school, is a focus for all five principals.

Pugh worked with the staff at School 90 to build trust and collaboration:

Still, building an effective, cohesive team is not easy.

“It is a challenge to build camaraderie,” Pugh said. “Teachers by their nature are territorial. It is unique to have a group of teachers work as well as they are working here.”

At School 90, Pugh interviews a job candidate and then lets teachers interview the candidate as well. Afterward, they discuss the candidate’s individual strengths and how well the person might fit in.

“It isn’t magic,” School 90 social worker Lisa Spurrier said. “It’s something we’ve worked toward. When we get a new person in, it takes time.”

Why does it work so well at School 90 right now?

“We like each other,” Mayfield said with a smile, “and we’re all quirky.”

School 90 was very demanding when it came to discipline:

At School 90, Pugh is accustomed to explaining to parents why their kids face discipline even for small dress code violations, such as missing socks or lacking a belt. It doesn’t matter if it’s an A student.

Violators head to the “guided learning center,” a sort of penalty box classroom where students complete the day’s work without any contact with others.

“I had a conversation at recess one day with a girl who was new to our school,” said Mary Mayfield, the School 90 teacher. “She said, ‘You know how it’s really easy to get in trouble here? At my old school it was really hard to get in trouble.’ It’s because we care so much. We’re on them.”

But it’s not just about punishment.

Take School 90’s approach to attendance. Students with perfect attendance are announced daily. At the end of the week, they are entered in a drawing for a small prize.

When problems arose at School 90, the staff looked to data to try to solve them:

Three years ago, Pugh noticed teachers were reporting a large number of students who were disciplined for not finishing homework.

He went room to room, asking, “What’s going on?”

“You could see the patterns,” he said. “We talked as a staff about making sure homework assignments are relevant. The intent of homework is to review what you’ve done that day and prepare for the following day. You can’t just send home spelling words to be written five times.”

Better homework assignments — more interesting and intellectually challenging — worked. The frequency of students disciplined for failing to complete homework dropped.

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