Friday, June 17, 2005

How one school went from F to A in just a year

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.06.17
EDITION: EARLY
SECTION: News
PAGE: A1 / Front
COLUMN: Kelly Egan
BYLINE: Kelly Egan
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Photo: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen / Schoolprincipal Charles Austin's infectious energy is being credited with helping to turn around Pinecrest Public School. Last year there were 500 suspensions at the school. There are expected to be about 80 this year. Mr. Austin, above, chats with Mariel El-Sheikh, 9, left, and Fadumo Yassin, 9, on the playground.

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How one school went from F to A in just a year: Principal Charles Austin may not admit it, but he turned Pinecrest around

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Here is the report card for Pinecrest Public School last year.

It had no parent council. It had musical instruments held together by duct tape. It had standardized test scores in the basement. It had a $30,000 debt to the school board. It had a tech room that sat unused for years.

It had a wooden railing on the main staircase that gave students slivers. It had junk stored in the stairwell. It suffered from "white flight," the trend by middle-class suburbanites to direct their children away from Pinecrest's ethnic mix.

It had a major attitude problem, evidenced by 500 suspensions given to a student body that numbers 400.

It had a new vice-principal, Laurel Piper, who heard this from a fellow educator about her job: "Do you feel like you died and woke up in hell?"

But it also had Charles Austin, the incoming principal. So it had hope.

Yet where do you even start? Well, with the small stuff.

I visited the school during an assembly yesterday and came upon a man skittering about taking digital photos of every presentation, the same man who was seen moments later picking up dog poop in the schoolyard.

The principal's flunkie, surely? No. The principal.

"I can't walk into a school that has a $30,000 debt, that has broken resources, that has a suspension problem, that has a community that doesn't speak to each other, that has a high rate of absenteeism and start talking about pedagogy," Mr. Austin said yesterday.

"You've got to set the school up for success."

Last summer, before word one was spoken, Mr. Austin did his homework on the student body and realized that a lack of respect and discipline were immediate priorities to be dealt with.

So, in the middle of August, while the staff was still on holidays, he called all the teachers in for a workshop by well-known behaviour specialist Ronald Morrish.

(He has written whole books on this stuff but here is a nugget of his approach: "If you bargain for compliance now, you'll beg for it later.")

Ms. Piper said it was an eye-opener. "I can't tell you how bad the behaviour was last year." Yes, you can: 500 suspensions is rather loud and clear.

So staff began the year addressing the little things, like entering and leaving the school and walking in the corridors. The senior students, Ms. Piper relates, used to burst into the school like an unruly mob.

Instead, lines were painted on the school yard and classes lined up in an orderly way. Students were told, then drilled, on the proper way to walk on the corridors. Respect was preached over and over.

As for discipline, students who erred were not simply punished and sent home, but directed to the "Planning for Success Room," which only sounds a little Orwellian.

Instead of a classic detention, students were given worksheets customized to their transgression: swearing, for instance, or failure to do homework, or scuffling in the schoolyard.

The result? Suspensions this year will probably number about 80.

And the school, which has 400 students from kindergarten to Grade 8, began to reach out.

One Sunday night in October, Mr. Austin and a number of staff met a restaurant for dinner then headed to a community centre in the heart of its student population. If parents wouldn't come to the school, the school would go to the parents.

They explained to parents, many of from Somalia and Arab countries, what a parent council was and how it was an essential part of a school's communal life.

The first monthly meeting attracted about a dozen people. It was unconventional, with translation into Somali and Arabic. But it made an impression. Before long, there were 50 names on a list of parent volunteers.

Yasser Awad, 35, is a computer engineer from Egypt who has a son in senior kindergarten. He is the co-chairman of the council, a body he had never even heard of before the school's appeal.

He divides the changes at Pinecrest this year into two categories: Those you see with your eyes and the intangibles, like a more welcoming spirit.

"It's mostly Mr. Austin's energy," he said yesterday. "If the principal is that active, we're asking ourselves 'Why don't we contribute?' "

The council spruced up several corners of the school this year, including a comfy reading area with armchairs and little padded stools. A generous family donated 23 trees, which livened up the school yard. The railing was sanded and refinished.

Mr. Austin, incessantly taking photos, launched PTV in the school's lobby, which all day flashes images of the students doing positive school work.

The corporate community was targeted, too.

A month ago, Mr. Austin received a momentous telephone call from Heather Reisman, chief executive officer of the Indigo bookstore chain. She was calling to say Pinecrest had been chosen from 200 applicants to receive a $150,000 grant from the company's Love of Reading Fund.

It is an astounding amount of money for a library with scarcely any current books.

Yesterday at the assembly, the Kiwanis Club of Rideau donated $2,750 to repair the broken musical instruments in time for the school reopening in September.

Later in his office, Mr. Austin, 53, an educator for 30 years, held up a blue knapsack donated by Telus. In the fall, all 400 students will receive a free one, stocked with school supplies.

The tech room, meanwhile, has reopened, with the support of Lee Valley Tools.

And the University of Ottawa men's basketball team made its second visit to the school yesterday, talking to students about the universal experience of overcoming obstacles to achieve success.

"It's unbelievable," said Ms. Piper, an irrepressible redhead. "A movie should be made about this."

It will embarrass him -- the man visibly squirms at the attention -- but there it is: Mr. Austin's Opus.

Contact Kelly Egan at 726-5896 or by e-mail, kegan@thecitizen.canwest.com

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