PATERSON – At a school assembly Tuesday morning, Principal Vernon Maynor asked if any of his students at the town’s boys’ academy wanted to come up to the microphone and talk about things they were grateful for.
Twenty-two boys – about 40 percent of the small school’s enrollment – rose from their chairs and formed a line in front of the room. A student spoke about his grandfather who survived open heart surgery. Another mentioned his little brother. A third paid tribute to those serving in the armed forces.
After everyone had spoken, the rest of the students responded with what their principal said was a Swahili phrase roughly translated as “We are with you”.
The exercise was part of the weekly “public meeting” at the Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA), one of the changes instituted in September as education officials in Paterson try to improve a school that has been designated earlier this year as one of the worst performers. in the state.
Superintendent Eileen Shafer said the students at Prospect Park School were showing new pride and parents had become more engaged in the education of their sons.
“There is a lot of work to be done as our students strive for academic excellence,” Shafer said. “But there is an acceptable sense of purpose among these young men, and it’s a clear indicator that YMLA is headed in the right direction.”
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In addition to town hall meetings, the school holds “mending circles” in the main hall every day with the aim of creating a sense of community. The boys and their teachers sit in chairs arranged in a circle in their classrooms discussing topics designed to improve the culture of the school. Tuesday the theme was respect.
Another innovation is that students who have trouble at the academy are not sent to the principal’s office. Instead, they go to the “peace center,” a room with sofas and soothing music.
“It’s a change in mindset,” Maynor said.
Other parts of the district’s boys-only school recovery plan appear more traditional. Teachers were to undergo additional training during the summer. The school day at the academy lasts up to 4 p.m., an hour longer than most other Paterson elementary schools. In addition, the boys’ academy runs four-hour sessions on Saturdays once a month.
For students in grades six to eight, the school has created a basketball team and for students in grades three to five a pack of Cubs.
Robert Scott, one of the leaders of the parents’ organization, said the formation of the Cubs pack epitomized the changing climate at school.
“It was important,” Scott said, “that you had young men from Paterson stand up and say, ‘I want to be in a Boy Scout club.’ “
Scott said he’s seen a wide range of signs the school is improving. “You have fifth graders running around to see who can tie their tie fastest,” he said.
In a presentation at last week’s Education Council meeting, Maynor said the discipline’s alternative approach is working. In the first three months of 2015-16, when the school debuted, 20 students were suspended, he said. In each of the following two years, nine students were suspended from September to November. But this year, there was only one suspension during that time, he said.
Students who have attended the academy since its inception said they noticed a difference.
“When this school opened, the behavior was not good. Now there are a lot less behavior problems, ”said eighth-grade Jason Savage.
“We wanted to learn, but other kids were having fun,” said Rajohn Sisco, another eighth grader.
Students were informed over the summer of planned changes for the academy and were given the opportunity to return to schools in their neighborhood. The boys and their parents were told they would have a longer school day and monthly sessions on Saturdays. It scared a few. But many boys have returned, officials said.
As part of the turnaround plan developed by Assistant Superintendent Cicely Warren, all teachers and other staff had to re-apply for their positions at the Boys’ Academy. The school no longer accepted “forced placements” from educators who did not want to be in boys’ schools.
Maynor said he was looking for “passionate and committed” people when he conducted interviews in early summer. None of the teachers from 2017-18 returned to the boys’ academy, Maynor said. The new faculty includes two first-year teachers and 10 people who all have more than seven years of experience in the classroom, in Paterson or other cities.
Krista Bell, for example, had taught for 14 years in Jersey City. Keith Edghill had been in Irvington schools for about two decades, but said he was drawn to the single-sex program.
“I wanted to have the opportunity to work with young boys from an urban community,” said Edghill.
One of the first grade teachers is Avanti Ghodiwala, who stands just under 5 feet tall. She said she wasn’t sure teaching at a boys’ school would be right for her. But she said one of her college advisers convinced her to take up the challenge. She said she quickly established a relationship with her students.
“It’s nice to see that when they are grappling with something, they feel comfortable coming to see me,” said Ghodiwala.
During last week’s presentation to the school board, veteran member Jonathan Hodges wanted to learn more about the school’s academic programs. Low test scores were a big part of what drove the turnaround effort.
Hodges said he agreed with the mindset that improving school culture would also benefit students’ academic performance.
“This is our ultimate goal,” he said. “It remains to be seen how we fare in this area until we get the data.”
But Maynor said the improvements have already manifested in the classroom.
As of September, about 80 percent of the academy’s third, fourth and fifth graders were reading two years or more below their grade level, depending on the district. Maynor said that in the first three months, assessments show that the reading ability of these students has improved by one level.
Maynor said he sees the state’s decision to designate the academy as an underperforming school and the district’s imposition of a turnaround plan as an opportunity because these measures provide him with more resources.
“We want this school to work,” he said. “All we need to do for this school to be successful is great. “
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