Champaign teens take part in dialogue

Champaign teens take part in dialogue

CHAMPAIGN – Veonia Gross knows all about discipline issues in Champaign schools: She's been there, and now she's back.

"I've been through most of the things we're talking about," said Veonia, a Central High School freshman who was one of a handful of students invited to participate in a school safety forum at Stratton School on Tuesday night.

Parents, school board members, staff members and others who attended the meeting picked one of eight discussion groups, each with a different topic, to participate in. Veonia's pick: how to help struggling students.

"I've struggled," she said. "I got removed from my home school because of incidents, but I got to come back. I learned to keep to myself, keep getting good grades and stay out of disputes."

Members of the groups brainstormed about ways to improve communication, school environment, safety and security, parent and community involvement, academics, staff training, student engagement and creative discipline. They listed actions to take and summarized them for everyone.

"One member of our group suggested closing high school campuses," said Sam Smith, one facilitator.

Travis Simmons, a ninth-grader at the Columbia Center alternative school, said he decided to participate in the "creative discipline" discussion for a very specific reason.

"Columbia needs some creative discipline," Travis said.

Centennial High School psychologist Ondine Gross said members of her group focused on creating a welcoming environment in schools.

"Somebody should say something positive every day to every child in a school," Gross said. "We also suggest that teachers talk about 'our' classroom, not 'my' classroom."

Mallory McMahon, a Central senior, said she accepted the invitation to attend the meeting to talk about struggling students because she's worried about the schools.

"Our scores are going down," Mallory said. "This is an important thing to focus on. Everyone has struggles. Sometimes it's hard to get motivated. I think discipline should be better and teachers should try harder."

Caitlin Mooney, also a Central senior, said she's interested in addressing problems in the schools, even though she'll soon be leaving them, because she's proud of her school.

"I think Central has a bad reputation because of fights we've had at the school, but it's really a good group of students," Caitlin said. "I'm here to learn more."

Assistant Superintendent Ecomet Burley said he and other officials will compile a final list of suggestions made at Tuesday's meeting and at an initial meeting held before Christmas.

"Now it's time to prioritize and synthesize their work so we can look at it in smaller committees," Burley said. "We can't do everything, but we can tackle chunks, a different focus every year."

The district is also taking other action to address safety concerns. Burley said a St. Louis safety consultant is now touring each school, talking to principals and drawing up safety plans.

The consulting was underwritten by a $253,074 grant from the U.S. Department of Education through University of Illinois- based Science Applications International Corp.

"We're meeting with principals next week to get feedback," Burley said. "The plans will be somewhat generic for elementary, middle school and high school levels, but they may have individual nuances. Our goal is to have something for the board in March for a first reading."

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