At one school, a renaissance is underway. At another, a chemistry student finds herself facing felony charges.
In two different parts of the country, two different schools are taking two different approaches to student safety and are getting radically different results.
In Roxbury, Mass., Orchard Gardens was built to be a showplace for the Boston neighborhood. When built in 2003, the school had art studios, a dance room, a well-upholstered theater and nearly every amenity imaginable for a well-funded school for the arts. An African American, low-income neighborhood, it was hoped that Roxbury would be buoyed by the state-of-the-art school and that the school would be the first of many improvements to one of Massachusetts’ oldest communities.
It didn’t work out that way.
From its opening day, the school was overrun by violence and disorder, and by 2010, it ranked in the bottom five of all schools in Massachusetts. Teachers and administrators gave up on the school, calling it a “career killer.”
After a seven-year string of five ousted principals, Andrew Bott was brought in. He had a plan: Stop hiding behind regulations and security guards. In a school where backpacks were banned because they provided a means to smuggle weapons into the school, the school’s security guards were all replaced under Bott in exchange for more art teachers.
“A lot of my colleagues really questioned the decision,” he said. “A lot of people actually would say to me, ‘You realize that Orchard Gardens is a career killer? You know, you don’t want to go to Orchard Gardens.’”
In Bartow, Fla., 39 miles east of Tampa Bay, sits Bartow High School, formerly the Summerlin Institute and Union Academy. The school is the host of the only public military school in Florida and is on the top five list of schools in America for composite SAT scores. Host of an international baccalaureate (IB) school, the school is considered the crown jewel among Floridian public schools. A feeder for many NCAA and NFL programs, the school holds the state record for most consecutive softball championships and is currently undefeated at 18-0.
Bartow, a White-majority city, has a crime rate of 22 crimes per square mile, compared with 74 crimes per square mile for the state. With the exception of the city’s center, according to neighborhoodscout.com, Barlow is considered to be a safe community. Like many other communities across the nation, however, Barlow responded to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by enacting a strict, zero-tolerance policy to any potentially dangerous devices on school property.
Last week, Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old honor student, was arrested for allegedly detonating a water bottle filled with aluminum foil and toliet bowl cleaner on school property. No one was hurt, no damage was incurred, she did not flee the scene and school personnel believe her account that it was simply an experiment. The chemical reaction has been documented numerous times on YouTube, and she was simply curious to try and replicate the reaction herself.
(The reaction worked the way it did, as a point of clarification, because bathroom cleaner contains lye — sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide plus aluminum creates sodium tetrahydroxoaluminate — a salt used in water softening and papermaking — and hydrogen; it was the hydrogen that burst the bottle.)
“She left [the bottle] on the ground, and she stayed there,” said Ron Pritchard, principal at Bartow High, in his defense of Wilmot. “We went over to where she was. She saw that we saw her, so she didn’t take off.”
The district, however, took a harder line. “Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules. We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions. We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff.”
Wilmot has been permanently expelled from school and is facing felony charges.
The power of positivity
Back in Roxbury, the school has undergone a renaissance. Brightly colored paintings, motivational posters and achievement-chronicling essays lines the halls. The dance studio — once used for storage — has been reopened, as have the artist’s studios and the band room. The state has recognized the school as a “turnaround school,” which means it was a historical underperformer for multiple years, but now operates at or beyond state expectations; the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities has singled out the school, offering it additional federal funding for its art programs.
The Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma and former ballet star Damian Woetzel have performed for and have mentored Orchard Gardens students. The hallways are quiet, the students are learning and involved, and the school is unrecognizable from what it was just two years ago.
“You’d never know that there’s 800 students in the building, there’s 250 at lunch right now, kids transitioning back from gym, heading throughout the building,” Bott said. “And it just speaks to the importance of keeping a calm, quiet environment so everyone can focus on their work.”
“Fundamentally, we came in and we had to change the history of failure of the school,” Bott continued. “The kids knew the history of failure, the Greater Boston community knew.”
Eighty percent of the teachers were replaced. The school day was expanded to a 10-hour day, with teachers being required to work an additional hour and outside nonprofits, such as City Year, staffing the additional hour. Most importantly, the staff is committed to making a positive change with the students. More time is allocated for teacher collaborations and individual student instruction. The staff is encouraged to maintain a positive mood, and Bott acknowledges student achievements with “shout-outs” during the morning announcement, which encourages students to try harder.
“Those are students who are harder to educate perhaps than some, but the school is full of people who believe they can, and look at the results,” said Chris Gabrielli, of the non-profit Massachusetts 2020.