September 17, 2013

Big 10: Mountain Creek Academy celebrates zero suspensions, new policies

Principal wants to disprove labels given to students, school

By Christopher Smith

— CHATSWORTH — “Boom.”

Writing that word in a Bagley Middle School bathroom sent then sixth-grader Corey Tilson to Murray County Schools’ Mountain Creek Academy, a school for middle and high school students who have faced disciplinary action.

So it’s a big accomplishment, said Tilson, now a 16-year-old senior, when the school goes 10 days with zero reported suspensions or referrals. The school celebrated its 10 days Monday afternoon. Within the first 10 days of school last year, there were about 45 suspensions or referrals, officials said.

Most of the students are there because “they did something stupid,” Tilson said, adding that his own actions as a pre-teen fall into that category. Ultimately being transferred to Mountain Creek “is for the best” for most, he added.

Tilson stayed at Mountain Creek even after he would have been allowed back to a regular school because of the one-on-one teaching style it offers. In that time he says he’s seen the place go from “basically prison” to “a real alternative school.”

“The place has gotten better,” Tilson said.

That’s because Mountain Creek staff have spent the last two years trying to change the school’s focus by making changes and adding new policies, Principal Marcus Richardson said.

A safer school?

Richardson said he’s “excited” for the new policies he credits for the reduction in the number of suspensions and referrals (when a student is moved from the student’s “home school” to Mountain Creek for a period of time).

One of those changes is using hand-held metal detectors — or wands — to search students for weapons, a policy put in place after Richardson said a Mountain Creek student was arrested after he took a sawed-off shotgun to Bagley Middle School on Sept. 11 of last year.

Richardson said the student, who was expelled from Murray County Schools after a school tribunal, had been at Mountain Creek two days after moving to Chatsworth from North Carolina. No one was hurt and the shotgun was never fired, school and law enforcement officials said.

But it was a close call, school officials said, so implementing a search-at-the-door policy was important.

“It does affect us,” Richardson said. “But what have we done? We now search our students. We take their shoes off and their personal electronic devices go into a locker while they are here. At first, students were upset. But when they realize it is for their safety they became OK with it. Now it’s just part of the day.”

A survey last year provided by Richardson said 78 percent of the approximately 65 students at the school felt safe. This year, 92 percent of students said they feel safe.

Tilson is one of those students.

“There’s been less fights, less students sneaking in drugs, less — well — anything negative,” he said. “It’s better.”

Ashley King, a senior one class shy of graduating a year-and-a-half earlier than her peers, agrees. King said she came to Mountain Creek both in seventh and 10th grade for drug use, opting to stay for an early graduation in a place that lets her “work at her own pace.”

Now, King said, she’s been avoiding bad influences and is on her way to starting tech school and getting a forensics nursing degree. She will always remember Mountain Creek as “a great place,” she said.

No public spectacles

Richardson said there’s more to making a good alternative school than safety alone.

Other changes this year include how students are brought into the lunch room (walking in a straight line and waiting until everyone has food before eating to cut down on the stress of a lunch room rush), being clear with expectations in and outside the classroom, and motivational stories in the morning.

Staff have started using much of the Boys Town Education Model this year whose website ( pitches itself as “a school-based intervention strategy that focuses on managing behavior, building relationships and teaching social skills.”

One example of the program, Richardson said, is an emphasis on clear and respectful communication.

“When someone hollers at you from across the room, what happens? Everyone just kind of looks right at you to see what you will do,” he said. “As educators, when you holler and say something like ‘Hey, sit down,’ who would sit down to that? Students refuse to sit down because they’ve got to save face.

“So what we’re teaching — not just our teachers, but the students, too — is that they should walk up to each other and talk to them one-on-one without the audience and public spectacle. It helps us a lot in those kinds of situations (where students are acting out).”

Tilson said simple policies like that have “changed the school a lot.”

“It’s just really better” as a result, he said.

Working on communication skills during a would-be referral has also helped school officials across the county prevent students from having to come to Mountain Creek, Richardson said.

“Most of the time, we meet the student they might be refereed to us and talk to them and it turns out they have something going on in their home life or something they’re working through,” Richardson said, adding that getting to know the students’ problems has got down on the need to take disciplinary action.

Not ‘white trash,’ ‘dropouts’

Richardson said both students and the school are often labeled bad by members of the community because of the rough nature of some of the students.

“You’ve got to understand,” he said, “when these students come in they come in having been told they’re failures, nobodies, white trash, stupid and ignorant. They’ve been told they are dropouts. And we try to take that child and make them believe in themselves again.”

The derogatory label “white trash” is something both Tilson and King are familiar with, they said.

“I hear it a lot from teachers, students, everyone,” Tilson said.

“I’ve had teachers at the high schools tell me there wasn’t a point in me trying,” King said. “They said I’d never pass a test. I was an outcast.”

Teachers like that ought to think twice, Richardson said.

Kevin Tackett, a teacher at Mountain Creek, said believing in students — even the ones who are violent or hard to deal with — is “very important.”

“I had a student last year say that I was the first one that didn’t call them a loser,” Tackett said. “These students just need to see that the system remains the same, the process remains the same: positive behavior is rewarded and negative behavior isn’t tolerated.”

Tackett says emphasizing respect, along with the changes in policy, have fostered “massive behavior improvement.”

It’s also fostered better learning, Richardson said of the 60 to 70 students he sees annually (though the official student body count is 110, including a night school program held elsewhere). The school has shown improvement in the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), a reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies exam taken by middle-graders.

Richardson said scores have gone from 76 percent of students passing to 91 percent.

“We see the effects (of a positive environment),” Richardson said, crediting former principal Paula Martin who “laid much of the groundwork.”

Richardson said he believes Mountain Creek is better off with the changes and he hopes to visit the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga soon. He said he’s promised his students a free field trip there if the school goes 30 days without a suspension.