Blue Ribbon Babies 

Maybe the Memphis City Schools' Blue Ribbon Plan should be recreated throughout the community.At a recent meeting, MCS board president Wanda Halbert complained that the Blue Ribbon magnets that both she and Commissioner Tomeka Hart had on their cars were gone.

"We don't know if anyone has taken them," Halbert said. "Maybe they fell off when we washed our cars ..."

"I didn't wash my car," interjected Hart.

"Well, we don't know, but they're gone," Halbert said.

If they were taken, it's the only bad behavior that has increased since the plan was implemented. Put in place by the superintendent after the board banned corporal punishment last year, the Blue Ribbon Plan includes increased personal interaction (less paddle, more prattle?) to improve student behavior and school safety.

Figures comparing the first 20 days of the new school year to last school year were encouraging. Fights decreased 40 percent; officer referrals dropped 34 percent; and district suspensions decreased 57 percent.

"I think it's probably due to a more conscious effort on the part of teachers, administrators, and the support teams at the schools to be more proactive in dealing with the kids. In other words, letting them know what the expectations are and recognizing when [students are] doing well," said Denise Johnson, the district's Blue Ribbon Plan coordinator.

During Johnson's 10-year tenure as principal at Sherwood Middle, an orientation was held at the beginning of each school year at which the kids were read the rules. Under the Blue Ribbon Plan, Johnson takes children to the physical location where certain behavior is expected.

"For example, if you have a certain procedure in the cafeteria -- in terms of where students line up, which door they go into, what do they do with their trays -- you actually take the kids to the cafeteria and walk through it," she said. "You display what the appropriate behavior is. I never did that as a principal. Never."

The dress rehearsal gives children an explicit understanding of what's expected and a chance to practice the rules.

"Sometimes when we tell the kids to walk on the right side of the hallway and to use their inside voices, you have to have them practice, because, to a kid, what's an inside voice?" Johnson asked. "We used to say things to children like 'Be respectful' and 'Be kind.' What does that look like? What does that sound like?"

The idea is impact the overall climate and culture of the schools and, in the process, increase student achievement, attendance, and participation.

"You have some kids who come to school every day. They never miss a day, but they're not engaged at all," Johnson said. "They're not being disruptive, but they're not achieving academically because they're not engaged. There are a lot of children who have been allowed to progress to a certain level just because they're quiet and obedient, not because they were actually mastering all the work they needed to master."

Though the school district recently made enough progress to get five schools off the state's "high priority" list, there's still room to improve. And reasons to do so.

One thing that has come up in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina is the poor performance and fiscal difficulties of New Orleans' public schools. But, in many ways, the fate of New Orleans rests on those very schools. The city might be ready for visitors in time for New Year's, but with its schools shuttered until next fall and its teachers looking for jobs in other cities, New Orleans isn't ready for families to move back.

We'd be wise to remember that New Orleans isn't the only city whose future rests on its schools.

"What we're trying to do is get people to think differently about dealing with children," Johnson said. "In the past, our way of trying to do that was to put out the bad kids, just put out those kids who won't do what you want them to do, but we can't afford to do that. They're part of our citizenry and our community."

Without this change, we'd be missing more than our magnets.

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