By Sally Absher

Last Tuesday, Principal Taiwo Sutton and the administrative team from South Doyle Middle School hosted a “State of the School” address. The school has been in the news recently with reports of fights and discipline, and behavior problems. Linda Holtzclaw, a 32 year veteran teacher, resigned from SDMS mid-semester last fall, citing behavior and discipline issues that were not being addressed.

SDMS is an urban middle school with a diverse student population, including 67% White, 26% Black, 5.7% Hispanic, 0.7% Asian, and 0.5% Native American. The student body of 1069 students includes approximately 57% economically disadvantaged, 1.6% English language learner, and 21% students with disabilities.

There are many positives at SDMS. Prior to the presentation, parents, teachers and KCS administration were entertained by the highly talented SDMS Jazz Band, directed by Mr. Steve Rodgers. The Cherokee Singers performed in the auditorium during this time. Advanced Art student work was also on display in the Foyer.

Mr. Sutton highlighted recent academic gains, including increases in TCAP reading language arts (RLA) of 0.3% across all grades, and increases of 1.6% for 6th grade and 4.5% for 8th grade; and increases of 3% overall in TCAP science scores. The school also closed achievement gaps for some student groups

But he said there are three areas for focus or improvement, including numeracy; culture/climate, and TNReady.

The school is focusing on improving numeracy scores from Level 1. They hired a math coach, and also started an afterschool tutoring program with bus transportation available.

To address the transition to TNReady assessments, SDMS purchased 400 Chromebook tablet computers to allow 8th grade student to have 1:1 technology. Eventually 7th and 6th grade students will receive Chromebooks.

Sutton spoke extensively on school culture/climate issues including discipline, behavior, and expectations. He said the school has hired additional staff, and currently has two Knoxville Police Department officers, a KCS School Resource Officer, two school counselors and a behavior liaison, and a Dean of Students. The school has set up a “positive behavior support system” to teach behavior expectations using a reward system.

Behavior liaisons from the District have also worked with 7th grade staff to promote team-building. The school recently added a separate in-school suspension program for 7th grade students.

SDMS is initiating Positive Patrol, a program designed to welcome parents, grandparents, relatives, and community members to participate in promoting positive behavior. Volunteers seek out those students meeting behavior expectations, and present them with SDMS Cherokee (athletic team) tickets and other rewards.

Board Member Amber Rountree shared several personal examples of positive interactions with students and staff while volunteering at the school. She urged parents to meet with teachers and the administration to discuss concerns, and contact her if they needed further assistance.

Parent feedback during the public forum was mixed. Some parents asked about reports of weapons, fights and other discipline issues that they felt were not being addressed. Other parents praised the administration for addressing issues and said their students felt safe at SDMS and were “thriving” academically and socially.

The SDMS administration has good intentions, but communication could be improved. When asked about reports of weapons at the school, Sutton said, “We can’t prevent it, but there will be adequate quick response.” When pressed, he said there have been “zero instances of guns” at the school, but didn’t mention any other weapons.

He admitted that there have been fights, but said “A fight for 10-15 seconds shouldn’t overshadow everything else that happens.” We learned later that there had been two fights that morning.  Positive rewards such as admission to an in-school basketball game, which 86% of the students earned, aren’t helping some of these kids. More needs to be done.

Sutton also made a curious statement about expectations, saying, “We don’t expect parents to teach kids how to behave in a classroom.” Commissioner Mike Brown called him out on that statement, and said, “Teachers can’t teach academics when they are having to spend all their time disciplining students.”

And a parent asked what was being done to keep good teachers (SDMS has lost over 60 – about half – of their teachers in the past two years). Sutton mentioned professional development, more coaches, and the addition of a curriculum principal. But he didn’t mention Teacher of the Month and other incentives that teachers say are helping retain quality staff.

Sutton said SDMS has two goals: 1. Provide a safe, orderly, and respectful environment for all students; and 2. Increase achievement/proficiency for all subjects. He said the first goal “will take time.”