Showing children the right way to go; Unruly pupils improve with support of club

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Membership in the Right Way club at Lindale-Brooklyn Park Middle School isn't open to all pupils. It must be earned.

But good grades or athletic achievements won't open the door. Skipping school, yelling at the teacher and getting poor grades might do the trick.

Created by Donald Lilley, an assistant principal at Lindale-Brooklyn Park, the Right Way is a 2-year-old initiative to reach some of the school's most disruptive eighth-graders. Pupils see it as a social club, one where bad behavior gets you in and good behavior lets you stay.

Pupils are required to speak daily with Right Way coordinators, who keep close tabs on their conduct and grades. The club meets weekly to discuss progress and problems. Members who fail to abide by the rules enjoy none of the perks -- roller-skating field trips, visits to the Naval Academy, club T-shirts and pizza parties.

The program's mix of rewards, structure and attention seems to be working. Among Right Way members, school officials say, behavior problems are down and academic achievement is up. Pupils say the club gives them a reason to go to school.

"They just want somebody to listen to them; they're dying for attention," said science teacher Jolyn Newhard, a Right Way coordinator. "They really take ownership of the program, and good behavior becomes more of a habit."

She said that other kids at the school who follow the rules sometimes wonder why they don't get the same attention.

"Everyone wants to be in the Right Way," Newhard said.

Right Way members may be drawn to the program because of the field trips, but they decide to stay for other reasons.

"Last year I was real, real bad," said 14-year-old Joelle Hunter. "I was in the [school] office every day, and I've only had three referrals this year."

"I was cursing out teachers, throwing temper tantrums, getting up out of my seat," she said. "Miss Newhard taught me how to respect teachers."

The Right Way's results have impressed Anne Arundel County school board member Janet Bury.

"When I first came on the board five years ago, we'd look at the monthly discipline surveys, and Lindale-Brooklyn Park was always on the high side for [pupil] referrals to the office," she said. "Two years ago, I noticed that it was on the low side, and I said, 'What's going on?' "

Bury said it's important to get children on the right track before the transition to high school.

"They come from little neighborhood schools and are thrown in with kids from other neighborhoods," Bury said. "They're coming from a nurturing environment to an environment where they need to be more independent, and they're still so young."

Despite the program's successes, Lilley said it's unclear whether the Right Way will be continued next year. A state grant that for the past two years has covered the annual $5,500 cost of field trips and coordinators' time expires this year.

Lilley began to develop the Right Way program 2 1/2 years ago when he became an assistant principal at Lindale-Brooklyn Park.

"After talking to a lot of students, getting information on their backgrounds and just watching them, my assessment was we had a good 50 kids [who needed help], and if we could change their behavior, we'd really change the culture of the school," Lilley said.

In the summer of 1998, the school's discipline committee established the guidelines for the Right Way. Rules include mandatory attendance at monthly and weekly meetings, following the school dress code and demonstrating improvement in behavior and academics. The pupils' subject teachers fill out weekly progress reports that go to the coordinators. The maximum enrollment in the program is 30 -- 15 girls and 15 boys.

The centerpiece of the program is the involvement of two seventh-grade teachers who serve as club coordinators. Science teacher Newhard works with the girls, and the boys report to Scott Edwards, a social studies teacher.

Each day before school, Right Way members must check in with their coordinator. The teachers ask the pupils about their attitude for the day, make sure they're dressed appropriately and have the proper school supplies.

"The key is listening to them and letting them say whatever they need to say in any way, shape or form, and it doesn't go beyond the two of us unless it's absolutely necessary," Edwards said.

Newhard said she tries to help her pupils understand that teachers are in charge -- a concept that many had never grasped.

"They don't have general school social skills," she said. "They don't understand the idea of the teacher being an authority figure."

Right Way members say they look forward to their morning discussions with the coordinators. They say the brief talks help them deal with some of their anger about school.

"I'm a lot happier now," said LaToya Harris, 14, who said she spent a lot of time in seventh grade "disrespecting" teachers by walking out of the classroom. "Miss Newhard, she's the kind of person you can talk to. She shows us there are ways we can talk our problems out."

"When teachers get on my nerves, I can go ask for a pass and go see Mr. Edwards to calm me down a little bit," said Maurice Merritt, 13.

Coordinators say pupils' anger and aggressive behaviors stem mainly from peer pressure or problems at home.

"A lot of the girls don't have much direction, support or consistency at home," Newhard said.

Although field trips are the initial motivating factor for pupils to change their behavior, school officials say that the importance of these incentives gradually diminishes as good behavior becomes second nature.

But will these improvements continue when the Right Way pupils go on to high school?

"It depends on where the problems are coming from," Newhard said. "Some have serious, serious home issues that aren't easy to resolve. Some will carry the changes with them."

Fourteen-year-old Sabrina Selassie said she doesn't plan on going back to her old ways.

"It all just changed. I figured out that I needed school," she said. "My goal is to get on the honor roll and keep up in all my classes because I'm trying to make it to college."

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