Urbana school officials find a change in disciplinary approach is in order

Urbana school officials find a change in disciplinary approach is in order

URBANA — Plans to continue implementing new disciplinary systems in Urbana secondary schools have the blessing of school board members.

During a marathon meeting that started Tuesday night and lasted until early Wednesday morning, Urbana High School Principal Matt Stark detailed new plans for his building, which he said are part of a district-wide effort to focus more on restorative practices and less on punishments that send students out of class.

The shift is intended to create a culture that is less punitive in nature, school officials said.

"The purpose of school discipline is not to punish," Stark said. "It is to change behavior."

To help that behavioral change, Stark requested and received permission to hire a new assistant principal, a student engagement advocate and a clinical professional. The assistant principal would deal with "exclusionary" punishments, such as suspensions, that deans did in the prior system.

While the dean positions are being eliminated under Urbana's new structure, those who held the positions would have an opportunity to transition into newly-created "student interventionist" jobs, officials said.

Superintendent Don Owen said the high school assistant principal post comes with an annual price tag around $90,000. The district will tap its education fund to pay for the new position.

"That's salary and fringe benefits," Owen said. "Again, we do these kinds of budget things on rough estimates. We have to."

The other positions would be funded by various grants that would total about $80,000, according to Owen.

A similar proposal for the middle school was presented, but the board did not plan to take a vote on it at the meeting.

The middle school proposal also includes the hiring of an additional assistant principal, as well as three student engagement advocates, two clinical professionals and an extra social worker.

And similar to the high school plan, those occupying dean roles could have the option to transition into faculty positions — in this case, as restorative practices facilitators.

"I also want to say there is an urgency to this," said UMS Associate Principal Shawna Scherer. "What we've been experiencing at UMS this year has been particularly challenging."

Scherer's comments came after Monday night's community forum, where Urbana families voiced concerns to district officials. Many said their students had witnessed accelerated amounts of fighting at the school, even in the classroom.

The staff supports that Scherer requested are intended to help adults figure out root causes of behavioral issues, as well as provide more people to watch the students.

"We need more support in our building," UMS teacher Megan Stenzel said. "As a teacher, I need more support in my classroom. Looking at this plan going forward, I think having additional hires is part of the first step in getting there."

The plans come after administrators' controversial recent rollout of the new discipline system, one that called for eliminating dean positions in the middle and high schools.

Among other duties, deans often determined how misbehaving students would be punished. With the implementation of restorative practises, district administrators aimed to create a system that focused on hearing both sides of the story and attempting to figure out why an offender acted the way they did.

Driving the change: a growing disparity the past three years in the way white and black students were punished, with the latter group receiving far more suspensions.

During board meetings in the weeks after the announcement, teachers used public comment sessions to let administrators and board members know that they felt left out of the planning process.

School board President John Dimit acknowledged that the district could have handled the rollout better, but also said the board supported the new plan as a way of reducing racial disparity and creating more positive school settings.

"We have a lot of board members that have been very concerned," Dimit said. "There was a stumble made right out of the gate. Central office has been doing a lot of damage control.

"Just so there's no misunderstanding, there's not one board member that's been opposed to this. But we've had significant issues with the process that has been taken. If you can tell me you have your building ready to do this in a successful way, we'll find the money to make it happen."

In other board action

— Members approved an increase in substitute pay rates. Daily rates will go from the current $105 to $110.

The plan the board approved also includes a four-level system that provides higher rates of pay to substitute teachers and teacher's aides who work more frequently throughout the quarter.

— Also OK'd: an expansion of the district's dual-language program. It will add a French program at Yankee Ridge Elementary.

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