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JPS Super Speaks On Improving District, JHS

Jamestown Public Schools District Superintendent Bret Apthorpe believes improvements must be made at Jamestown High School, adding that he’s holding himself and other administrators “accountable.”

“I better be able to show improvements,” Apthorpe told The Post-Journal.

The Board of Education was met by more than 100 people with more than 20 speakers at Tuesday’s meeting. Of those who spoke, ongoing concerns included the Jamestown High School culture and leadership, implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in the district, bringing back a form of night school or alternative education for misbehaving students and current protocols for maintaining school safety.

“I thought it was terrific that we had such a large turnout and I thought so many of the speakers were so accurately insightful, recognizing that the school is different like the community is different and has changed over the decades and this is a community issue with 70% of our students in poverty; and we know that with so many kids in poverty the data tells us the trauma that many of those kids experience,” Apthorpe said.

The turnout at the meeting followed a Nov. 6 fight among students at JHS that led to an emergency lockdown and Jamestown police responding. Also, votes of “no confidence” for Dr. Rosemary Bradley, JHS principal, were held Nov. 14 with the 86% of the Jamestown Teachers Association at the high school in support.

Apthorpe spoke with The Post-Journal on Wednesday to discuss many of the issues raised at the board meeting.

JHS CULTURE AND LEADERSHIP

Many described scenarios where students disrupt ongoing instruction and showing a lack of respect toward teachers and administrators. Speakers often referred to incidents where teachers are cursed at by students.

“Of course it concerns me,” Apthorpe said. “Schools for me are no different than places of worship. They’re meant to be sanctuaries –sanctuaries for people to go without fear — and places for people to go where they belong, where they find hope and encouragement. That’s a complete non-negotiable for me. It deeply troubles me with the stories and examples of disrespect toward adults. That’s just flat out not OK.”

While Apthorpe believes addressing the students who are promoting a culture of disrespect is attainable, he noted that the issue needs a community-wide response. He said much of the disrespect is coupled with trauma among students. Citing JHS as being in the lowest 10% of the state in terms of student achievement, the superintendent said the culture must change first.

“We can’t do what we need to do until our culture is in the right place,” Apthorpe said.

As for leadership at the high school, many called Bradley out by name and criticized the handling of the Nov. 6 incident. One person, like many others, alluded to vote of no confidence and asked that board members not forget what it meant. Apthorpe said he understood the criticism and reiterated that there will be accountability at Jamestown.

“I think it’s a logical place to go when there’s a problem in the building to go to the principal,” Apthorpe said. “Just like it’s a logical place for people to come to the superintendent when there’s a problem in the district. Everybody in the school district, myself included, is accountable for creating that culture that we talked about. And that’s for everybody.”

ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION

“Bring back night school,” numerous people said during Tuesday’s public comment portion of the meeting.

Many of those discussing night school asked for its implementation to return to the district or some form of alternative schooling for disciplinary students.

Apthorpe announced at the same meeting that 40 to 50 JHS students with high rates of absences and discipline referrals were identified for a personalized learning program at the school district’s Tech Academy. But he maintained that alternative placement for certain students should be more than just removing them.

“The reason that those programs were changed and went away were because they didn’t work for those kids,” Apthorpe said. “Our goal is, of course, let’s have alternative program for these kids but one that’s evidence based that will have successful outcomes because it has to be much more than removing a difficult kid. It has to be about taking a difficult kid and providing them with the structure and resources to be successful.”

Currently, the students who were identified at the high school will be provided with a blended learning environment that is a combination of a teacher-led classroom, online learning and social and emotional support services. Apthorpe said the blended approach allows more flexibility for the students who have high absentee rates and discipline rates.

PBIS AND DISCIPLINE

Various sentiments shared Tuesday included an accusation that the current PBIS system at Jamestown was rewarding high-discipline students and not high-achieving students. Many called out a ticket system that awards students for good behavior. However, those who discussed the topic said the system was only rewarding bad students for not misbehaving.

Apthorpe believes the criticism at the meeting was with Jamestown’s current implementation of the system and not the concept of PBIS as it is known in the educational field.

“PBIS, its concept, is very well proven to be successful,” Apthorpe said. “The term PBIS in our district refers to a practice that is somewhat different than what the general field would recognize as true PBIS.”

He admitted that he would have to investigate further of where the ticket system is being used, whether it’s a problem and why it’s being managed the way it is. Also, the use of tickets through the PBIS system was in place prior to Apthorpe’s hire in 2017.

“I think how it was incorporated and used didn’t go according to, probably, how they wanted it to,” he said of the ticket system’s implementation.

Additionally, when Apthorpe was appointed as superintendent he eliminated a hiatus that was placed on suspensions. However, he said an emphasis was placed on having a “clinical” plan for those students when they returned to school.

Another concern raised Tuesday was the idea that administrators were being told to not fill out disciplinary referrals or detentions. Apthorpe was unaware of where that concern began.

“I have never pressured any administrator to not report detentions. That’s never been my M.O. (modus operandi). I’ve never been that way,” he said.

GOING FORWARD

Apthorpe told the board and those gathered inside the Jefferson Middle School auditorium of recent updates to improve Jamestown. He focused on 13 points in his presentation that included providing Jamestown Police Department officers with keys and access cards to JHS; partnering with Chautauqua County Health Homes to provide additional support for mental health illness, emotional problems, and/or behavioral problems; offering multiple deescalation training sessions to staff; improving emergency drills, logs and debriefs; moving the middle school resource officer to JHS when the current SRO is absent; and adding nine radios to the JHS communications system, among other target areas.

Additionally, he’ll have a full report for the board at the March 10 board meeting to address current concerns. He noted that he’ll continue to update the board each week of upgrades and improvements. Regarding JHS, Apthorpe said, “if we’re doing a good job there should be less kids being disrespectful with adults.”

Apthorpe also said better efforts can be made with the transition of eighth grade students into the high school. Citing current freshmen rates, he said 30% are chronically absent and 30% are failing. He believes allowing them to visit the high school in eighth grade more frequently will at least help with that transition.

With 12 pages of notes from the meeting, the superintendent said the community’s input has been shared with the district’s leadership team to address ongoing concerns. He also believes the use of the online forum ThoughtExchange will help bolster community input once its implemented for parents and students to share ideas.

“We have to get the high school in a better place. That’s a non-negotiable for me,” Apthorpe said. “I’ve talked about the many exciting things in our district. We can’t do those things at the high school until that’s in a better place.”

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