PINELLAS PARK — Trinity Obregon has faced down her share of bullies.
One of seven children, the 11-year-old sixth-grader at Pinellas Park Middle School said there are times when it’s hard to keep her cool among her siblings or unruly classmates. But violence prevention programs and other efforts to improve student behavior in Pinellas County’s struggling middle schools are helping Obregon and her classmates handle their emotions in their changing school environment.
“I liked learning how to control yourself when you get mad so you don’t hurt other people’s feelings,” Obregon said. “Now when I get anxious or nervous about stuff I try to take deep breaths, like when I had a big science test.”
Everyone at Pinellas Park Middle could benefit from taking deep breaths, said new Principal Dave Rosenberger. Pinellas Park is one of five county schools going through a state-mandated turnaround process after years of “D” and “F” school grades. More than one-third of the school’s approximately 60 teachers have been replaced, and the school has new leadership, a new curriculum and a new coat of paint. Some students arrive at Pinellas Park as early as 6:30 a.m. and stay for after-school programs until 7 p.m.; and if kids are there that means the teachers are there, too. Students now can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for free at school, have their teachers help them with their homework after class and play games or indulge in other relaxing pastimes with school faculty on a social level instead of instructional.
But none of those efforts to change the school’s culture will be effective unless the students also adopt good behavior and character traits, said Nancy Friedman, program director for Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.
“Research shows a very strong connection between social and emotional skills, behaviors and academics,” Friedman said. “When students and employees at a school practice empathy and are willing to see everyone’s perspective, students are more motivated to do well. If they’re afraid of being harassed by other students or harbor lots of anger, they’re going to spend more time out of school and that’s going to be reflected in their grades.”
The school district as a whole is making a push for students to become model citizens, particularly in middle school when students are dealing with more responsibility and tendencies to develop bullying behaviors. The Juvenile Welfare Board and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services are offering the violence prevention classes at 10 middle schools with low FCAT scores and high numbers of suspensions, absentees, special education students and students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Pinellas County sheriff’s officials spent Saturday with students at Osceola Middle School in Seminole, participating in a 12-hour drum circle and speaking with students about bullying intervention and prevention.
School district officials also are working on ways to curb the number of on-campus arrests in schools by reviewing recent cases and ensuring students have opportunities to work out their issues with mediators and counselors before police have to be involved, said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of operational services. So far this semester,121 students have been arrested, while at this time last year 154 students had been arrested.
At Pinellas Park Middle and Azalea Middle in St. Petersburg, campuses with many students who live in poverty, there are still challenges, principals said. Students still are begin suspended and students still struggling with classes. But the atmosphere is calmer, and students and teachers seem happier, said Azalea Principal Connie Kolosey.
“Kids will talk about some of the problems we’ve had over the years like they’re really in the past now,” Kolosey said. “We’re focusing on building stronger relationships with our students and everything else is falling into place.”
The work might take a toll on the teachers, who still have to grade papers and prepare lessons after working 12 hour days, but fatigue has not become an issue, Rosenberger said. The extra one-on-one time is fostering stronger bonds among classmates and faculty, and participation is continuing to skyrocket, he said. On any given day, 40 students eat free dinner at school and more than 1,000 of the 1,100 students enrolled are taking advantage of free lunches.
“The programs are a godsend for the school,” Rosenberger said. “With all of the changes going on this year, and with some coming from difficult home lives, these kids have a huge need for stability. Outside of us, many of these students are surviving on their own.”
The ever-evolving anti-violence courses also might save other middle schools from fates similar to those at Azalea and Pinellas Park, said Helen Turner, who has taught the course at Pinellas Park Middle and John Hopkins Middle in St. Petersburg. Of the 10 schools teaching the semester-long class to students, John Hopkins Middle, Largo Middle and Tyrone Middle all were given “D” grades by the state Department of Education last school year.
At Pinellas Park, hallways are lined with posters promoting peace and cross-culture friendships. Students are split into small groups based on their needs to practice leadership skills, foster friendships and learn to be kinder to their classmates. Turner keeps her office door open in case any of her students or their families need to come to her confidentially, rather than discuss their situations with school guidance counselors or social workers. Students are increasingly comfortable letting her in on their problems.
“The students are learning to be the type of friend that they would want to have, and are learning to own up to their mistakes and that no matter what we do we can correct ourselves,” Turner said. “We’re all learning to give our best together.”