Man of the (Young) People
Matt Hopewell is serving as Henley Middle School’s Dean of Students, a position unique to Henley among county schools, and he takes his job to heart. Formerly the school’s health and P.E. teacher, Hopewell has nearly completed his Master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from JMU and is enjoying his set of responsibilities this year. “I’m technically half-time Dean and half-time testing coordinator,” he said. “This is my first year not having any students on my own roster, but, in a way, I now have all the students on my roster.”
Supporting Hopewell’s goal of entering school administration, school principal Beth Costa came up with the Dean of Students moniker after observing the role at other schools in Virginia and approached him with the idea. “As a school, we’re growing,” said Hopewell, “and some of our newer approaches with respect to behaviors and discipline benefit from having someone with that specific focus on staff.” While other administrators have duties that include observing teachers and dealing with personnel issues, Hopewell’s job is “all students, all the time.”
In his position, Hopewell works with students and their teachers to resolve behavior problems and intra-student conflicts by floating between classrooms and responding to teacher requests. “I really want to be in the classrooms as much as possible,” he said, “and I sit in on several rooms each day. I think teachers appreciate having someone they can call who can come over right away and help deal with what’s going on.”
In cases of unproductive behaviors in class, Hopewell tries to give the student as many chances as possible to redirect themselves, preserving the student’s autonomy in these situations. “However, there are times when those things aren’t working, so I might pull a student out and take a walk around the school to try to figure out what’s going on with them,” he said. “I really try to get to the root of why that behavior is happening, what’s going on that we can’t necessarily see.”
Initially, Hopewell dealt with mostly “low-level, persistent behaviors,” but as students and teachers have become more familiar with his presence and style, he now takes on full “investigations,” which may involve a larger disruption. “It could be if something happened, say, in the cafeteria between a teacher and student, or if there was a fight,” he said, though he stresses that fights are rare at Henley. “In the past, a student would be moved out and might just sit alone, but we are working to be more ‘restorative’ in trying to recover what has been lost, like a friendship or a trusted relationship with a teacher.”
As Hopewell described his days, a bell rang and he jumped up to take his post at a hallway intersection during change of classes. Students flooded the halls, shouting greetings or questions his way, and he watched the throng keenly. Hopewell says that just being observant can sometimes help him forge a connection with a student or understand underlying dynamics. “Being at lunch or at recess or in the hall, I try to pick up on little things, like who’s sitting together at lunch today and then the next day they’re not sitting together,” he said, “or one interesting fact about each kid that I can remember.”
Hopewell seems genuine in his desire to enlist parents in his work as well. “I love calling parents,” he said, “because that’s how you build up the relationships. They want what’s best for their kids, though sometimes it’s hard for them to hear some of these things. I stress that it may have been just a poor choice by the student, and parents are often very supportive of how we’re handling the situation.”
Empathy and understanding are the keys to Hopewell’s interactions with his middle school charges. “Every behavior has a reason going on behind it,” he said, “and there are so many things going on in [the students’] lives and ways that they’re changing. I like helping and making situations better. I think that because I’ve been the P.E. teacher and they know me, they can trust that I’m going to listen.”
Under the direction of Superintendent Matt Haas, county middle schools are debuting two new initiatives to address the problem of achievement gaps among students. The first is called Away for the Day, which requires students to keep their cell phones in their lockers during the school day, or not to bring them to school at all. “Now that students use computers, which have everything they need on them, there’s no need for a cell phone, even to take a picture,” said Henley Middle School principal Beth Costa.
“We had noticed over the past few years that although kids were allowed to have them at lunch, they gradually began having them on their person all day,” said Costa, “and they were going off in class and causing too much disruption.” Two language arts teachers, Holly French and Sally Logan, created a project for their students last year to review the acceptable use policy, do research on technology, and make a recommendation to Dr. Costa on how to change the school’s practices regarding cell phone usage.
Costa’s own son Gryfin found a study measuring how many minutes it takes for one’s brain to go back to the level of concentration it had before it was distracted (upwards of 20 minutes!), and the students recommended that phones be left in lockers for the day. To even the playing field, the staff is also putting their phones away, as Dean of Students Hopewell demonstrated by brandishing a small spiral notebook where he keeps track of appointments. “The kids have been really responsive and have gotten used to it, and the parents are supporting it 100%,” said Costa.
The second initiative is a dramatic reduction in required out-of-school suspension time for students who violate the division’s policy on drug or alcohol possession. In years past, such infractions resulted in a 10-day out-of-school suspension, but this year the penalty is reduced to a three-day in-school suspension. During the in-school time, students will focus on academic work and participate in a Region 10 substance abuse prevention and counseling program called Teen Intervene.
In a division news release, Superintendent Haas noted that suspensions have had a disparate impact on students of color, special education students, and students who come from economically disadvantaged homes. “Students belong in school, learning,” said Haas. “Our new approach will strengthen the bond between teacher and student as we eliminate dozens of missed school days for some students.”
Get Your Wiggles Out
Front office administrator Carla Dodson took on the job of coordinating the overhaul of a lovely but neglected spot at Murray Elementary, and ended up creating an enchanting space that didn’t cost the school a penny. A long, narrow outdoor courtyard sandwiched between two classroom wings had become overgrown with weeds and housed a huge dense bed of juniper that was home to a few snakes.
Dodson felt a re-do was in order, and started recruiting some muscle. “It began last year during ‘WAHS with a Cause,’” she said, referring to the annual spring day of volunteering for all students at Western Albemarle High School. “My son plays on the football team, so I suggested they come here and work on the landscaping. There were 49 of them, and they removed that whole bank of juniper in about an hour and a half, literally yanking it all out by hand.”
Once the bank was cleared and grass began to fill in, Dodson’s second phase was to install a rock garden based on an idea from the children’s book The One and Only Me, by Ariana Killoran. “Every student in the school chose a rock and painted it,” said Dodson. “Going forward, at the end of each school year each Kindergartener will paint their own rock, so eventually the whole garden will be colorful and individualized.”
To make the area even more usable for students, Dodson’s vision included a “fidget pathway,” a long, illustrated stretch of walkway filled with colorful images, letters, numbers, and spaces to step along, trace, or draw on. “It’s a great thing if you have a fidgety child or a class that just needs a break,” she said. “There’s lots to do, and we have a box of chalk out here so students can interact with it in any way they want to.”
Dodson worked with WAHS art teacher Nancy Mehlich, who recruited two students, Erin Driscoll and Savannah Brown, to paint the gray sidewalk running the length of the courtyard. Starting with some general ideas from Dodson, Driscoll drew from her recent experience at NASA Space Camp and designed a vivid, trailing solar system, including the sun and all of the planets with shapes and paths connecting each and ending with an enormous googley-eyed space alien.
The painting phase took about three weeks, finished in the nick of time on the Monday before school started. “They drew the whole design with chalk first, then painted over top so it would be nice and neat,” said Dodson. “They had to redraw it a few times when it rained, but they kept at it.”
Dodson has more plans for the space, such as installing a sensory playground, but for now she’s pleased with how the courtyard transformation turned out. “It’s so interactive and the kids can really stay busy with it, so it’s just what we’d hoped for,” she said. “Plus, it was great to have the older kids come in and do something good for the community.”