Staffing changes, fighting top parents' concerns at Urbana district forum

Staffing changes, fighting top parents' concerns at Urbana district forum

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URBANA — Increased fighting. More than 20 teachers leaving Urbana Middle School this year. Confusion about the removal of dean positions at both the middle and high school.

These were the most cited concerns community members brought to an impromptu, district-organized forum Monday night at the Urbana Neighborhood Connection Center. Families and teachers alike sought answers from Superintendent Don Owen about Urbana's decision to implement a new system of discipline that doesn't include deans, but some left unsatisfied.

Leslie Sherman, a parent with multiple children in the district, listened quietly to many of the questions before taking the microphone.

She disagreed with Owen's downplaying of the number of teachers who've said they plan to leave Urbana — 22 confirmed so far, largely from the middle school — as natural turnover.

"To be honest, 20 to 30 teachers leaving — and tenured ones, at that — that's a high number," Sherman said. "I'm not buying what you're trying to sell."

UMS Principal Scott Woods told The News-Gazette he knew of at least 22 teachers who had already accepted work elsewhere, but said more could come as other districts finalize hires.

Woods himself will also be stepping down at the end of the school year for a principal's position in another district.

Owen contended that this year's turnover rate didn't compare to the worst years in Urbana.

"Twenty-two are confirmed leaving," he said. "Four years ago, it was 28. A few years before that, we had more than 35 leave. We live in a transient community."

Owen told the group that new staff were in the process of being hired and that the new administrators would play key roles in how the district functions without deans next school year.

Still, some in the audience said they were worried that the dean positions were disappearing just as the number of violent incidents among students seemed to increase at the middle school.

"The thought of not having deans is scary," said Tori Exum-Johnson, a UMS parent.

But Owen disagreed.

"I hear a lot of people saying this isn't new, that the middle school has progressively been getting worse," Owen said. "Adding more deans is not necessarily the best solution. If you have people who aren't necessarily trained in social-emotional learning or restorative practices, and we add a bunch more of those people, I'm not sure we're making the change we need to make."

Owen referred several parents to the district's strategic plan, which outlines its goals in upcoming years and includes objectives like hiring more student support staff and improving "interpersonal relationships among staff and historically marginalized groups."

That plan won't be finalized until December, though plans call for a working draft to be available by August.

Other parents at Monday's meeting said the disciplinary problems weren't contained to the middle school, and that their own elementary-aged children had been struggling. Stacy Jordan said her kids, enrolled at Wylie Elementary, had spent the past school year in classrooms where they did less learning than should be expected.

"This year, it seems like there have been so many discipline problems in the classrooms that they haven't been able to learn," Jordan said.

By hiring more student support staff, Owen said, the district will be able to curb bad behavior before it happens and implement a culture that focuses less on kicking a student out of class and more on hearing both sides.

Tonight, the Urbana school board will vote on a proposal written by middle school staff. It outlines staffing plans and policies that will guide the school on how it moves forward without deans.

UMS Associate Principal Shawna Scherer said the lack of communication from district leaders about all of the changes was a mistake.

"Hopefully, as we continue to roll things out, we'll better engage you guys," she told the crowd.

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