Professional Educators

Transformation Continues at Belmont

By Len Paolillo, NEA Executive Committee

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of going back to Belmont High School in Dayton, Ohio. I first visited Belmont back in November and was instantly struck by the excitement and change evident at the school. The collaboration and cooperation between Principal David White, the staff and the Dayton Education Association that was initially so impressive has been maintained through two school years now.

On this visit I spent some time with Principal White to learn more about his leadership philosophy. He believes in looking carefully at every aspect of the school day and creating a strategic plan on how to handle each aspect. As he explained to me, “What is the first thing that happens in a school day? The kids show up. You need to welcome them.”

One of those plans involved “sweeping the alley.”

Prior to White’s arrival, Belmont was notorious for fights and chaos. One of the most dangerous areas for students was the half-mile alley leading from the school to the bus stops. Dayton doesn’t offer public school busing, so students ride on city buses. At parts, the alley is fenced in on both sides, making it impossible for a victim of an attack to escape, leading to brutal fights.

Principal White decided to monitor the alley every single day at dismissal, walking with the students from the school and standing by the bus stops. Staff and administrators stand at the school doors, alley entrance, in the alley and at the end of the alley making sure students leave school grounds safely. It may sound simple, but it’s that kind of detailed structure that has lead to a dramatic improvements.

The transformation at Belmont has been strategic and step-by-step. White’s plan was to focus solely on improving behavior for the first year. Create a safe learning environment first, then you can focus more on the learning part. At a school where teachers didn’t feel safe and students seemed to spend more time in hallways than class, than plan makes sense. In the age of standardized test pressure, that plan wasn’t popular with some.

But Principal White and his staff stuck to the plan. They knew that if they tried to do too much at once, the change wouldn’t be sustainable.

In the first year (2009–2010), the number of fights went from 143 down to 17. There had been 83 reported assaults, down to 10. And there was only one arrest that year, compared to the 58 arrests the prior year.

That focus on behavior and discipline has paid off with academics as well. The year before Principal White came to Belmont, 8 percent of students took the ACT. This year, 80 percent of juniors took the ACT.

School transformation is exhausting work. And while one person may take the charge, it takes an entire team to make it all work. Principal White takes that leadership position seriously, but part of what adds to the positive environment at Belmont is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I had the chance to attend the last after-school staff meeting of the year, where Mr. White was presented with a gag gift signed by all the staff. It was their way of thanking Mr. White for all the support he has given them.

Belmont is an example of the positive change that can occur in a priority school when all stakeholders work together off the same plan to do what’s best for their students.

Read more about Belmont at neapriorityschool.wpengine.com.

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