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Education: Middle School disciplinary problems spike 

A drastic one-year increase in disciplinary problems in Pittsburgh's middle schools has some education experts wondering whether public school officials should be teaching the district's code of conduct along with reading and math.

According to an A+ Schools report released on Nov. 10, there were nearly 60 disciplinary incidents -- violence, weapons and drug offenses -- for every 100 middle-school students during the 2006-07 school year. That's up from roughly 42 incidents per 100 students the previous year.

"Teachers are dealing with a lot of behavior issues," says Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an independent community advocate for improving public education. "Why is [the discipline issue] rearing its head in middle school?"

It's hard to be sure, school officials say. But district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh says the spike is most likely a result of more aggressive enforcement on behalf of the district's principals and teachers. "It depends on the diligence of reporting," she says.

Only three of the district's 10 middle schools reported less than 40 disciplinary problems per 100 students -- Classical Academy, in Crafton Heights; Rogers CAPA, in Garfield; and Sterrett, in Point Breeze.

On the other end of the spectrum, three schools reported more than 90 incidents for every 100 students -- South Brook, in Brookline; Schiller, in East Allegheny; and Allegheny, in Allegheny Center. Schiller's incidence rate actually decreased from the previous school year, dropping from more than 150 incidents per 100 students in 2005-06 to roughly 120 in 2006-07. But Allegheny's disciplinary incidents during the same period soared from 10 per 100 students to more than 100.

During the 2006-07 school year, elementary schools in the district reported less than eight disciplinary incidents per 100 students, while high schools reported less than 27 incidents. Those numbers are roughly the same as in the previous year, which makes the spike at the middle-school level more notable.

According to Harris, the district should spend some time analyzing its middle schools' discipline issues. Only then, she says, can the district devise a plan to improve student behavior. "Was this five kids just constantly having incidents, or was this every kid in the school?" Harris asks. "Those are questions that need to be answered before a strategy can be developed."

Despite the discipline problems with its middle schools, Pugh says the district is proud that district-wide suspensions have decreased in the last year. According to Pugh, one-to-three-day suspensions are down 17 percent, while four-to-10-day suspensions are down 20 percent.

Pugh attributes much of that success to the district's Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports system (PBIS), which has been implemented in 11 K-8 schools since it was started in 2007. The program, coordinated through a partnership with the University of Pittsburgh and the Watson Institute, requires staff to be trained on strict, consistent enforcement of school rules.

"It's a proactive model for addressing student behavior," says Pugh, adding that the program is being piloted this year at the district's grades 6-12 University Prep school in the Hill District.

The PBIS initiative has not yet been implemented in any middle schools, although its use in K-8 schools means it is impacting middle-grade students. Unfortunately, stats for individual grades are not available, so it's uncertain whether the PBIS model is positively impacting middle-grade students in the K-8 schools. But that could be a useful idea to explore -- it could conceivably point out the success (or failure) of PBIS, and of the K-8 school model in general.

According to Pugh, the district -- which has been moving away from the middle-school model and toward K-8s in recent years -- is confident that K-8 schools will help improve student behavior. Pugh says kids in K-8 schools tend to build strong relationships with staff while they're in the elementary grades, so that by the time they reach the middle-school grades they are less likely to act up, fearing that they might disappoint one of their mentors.

"That's why the K-8 model might be better," she says.

But school-board member Mark Brentley Sr. counters that the district's experimentation with different school models could be causing the increase in behavioral issues.

"You have to show these kids some consistency," he says. "How do you expect these children to respond when schools are changing? ... Who can absorb that kind of adjustment?"

While Pittsburgh's middle schools have seen an increase in behavioral issues, the district isn't alone in dealing with problems at the middle-grade level. Students in grades six through eight comprise less than 25 percent of Allegheny County's total public school population, but statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Education show that middle-grade students make up nearly 32 percent of the total behavior offenses county-wide.

"Kids are going through so many changes at [the middle-school] age," says Pugh. "They tend to be more rambunctious."

Because of that, some say the district should focus more of their attention on the behavior of their middle-school students.

"The district has done a good job talking about academic expectations," says John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, "but I've long felt that we have to give the same attention to behavior. ...

"Where we see situations that are disruptive, we have to address those pretty aggressively," he continues. "There is too much at risk to not pay attention."

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