“It’s a new day.”
That is the mantra at Willard Middle School, where a new principal, Michele Patterson, has helped to galvanize an institution roiled by a high-profile assault and inner turmoil last year.
“Michele has really brought the community together and the staff together,” said Mark Coplan, parent of a sixth grader at Willard. “She’s tremendous.”
Last year, discipline problems, a sexual assault on a 12-year-old student and widespread discontent with Willard’s administration left a once-strong school in poor shape.
“When I got here, the teachers were very frustrated with what they called a lack of leadership, and student discipline was not what it should be,” Patterson said. “Parents did not think their kids were safe here, and there was a lot of fingerpointing about who was to blame.”
Patterson began with a two-day faculty retreat in August at a Sonoma County ranch.
“There was a lot of laughing, a lot of talking, and a lot of tears,” she said of the retreat, “and we’ve been working ever since.”
Vana Jones, an eighth-grade science teacher at Willard, said the retreat was a turning point.
“We saw that we had a leader who could provide direction,” Jones said, and now, “the sense that we have a united staff is very strong.”
When school began, Patterson and her leadership team made safety their top priority. The administration beefed up the adult presence on the playground, cut off access to secluded balconies, which had once been open to students during lunch and implemented a conflict resolution program to prevent student disputes from escalating.
Students say they notice the difference. “I think this year there’s a lot more teachers around,” said Jonathan Jardim, an eighth-grader at Willard.
“It’s a lot safer,” added Andy Spellman, another eighth grader.
Still, administrators have encountered a few obstacles along the way. Funding and personnel issues led to the closure of Willard’s in-house suspension program earlier this year, Patterson said, cutting down on the number of discipline options available at the school.
Compliance on new safety and discipline initiatives has also been an issue. “Anytime you change policies, you also have to change habits,” said Greg John, Willard’s new vice principal, “and the teachers have picked up some bad habits.” For instance, he said, a few teachers still leave students unattended in the classroom for short periods of time.
But the school has made significant progress. John said he used to deal with 12-16 discipline cases per day, but the numbers have decreased.
“Now we’ve gotten to the place where we can shift and begin to look at instruction,” he said.
One of Patterson’s top instruction priorities is the school-wide implementation of a “coring” system, already in place in the sixth grade.
Under “coring,” a school is divided not into academic departments, like math or history, but into small “families.” A set group of teachers, one drawn from each of the major disciplines, works with a set group of students. That way, a math and history teacher in the same “family” can collaborate on how to best educate their students.
Jones, the eighth grade science teacher, said she worked in a pilot coring program several years ago, before it fizzled under the previous administration. “Some of the best years I had were those years,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it being reinstated.”
Patterson said she hopes to put coring in place at the seventh and eighth grade levels next year, but noted that some teachers are already meeting with each other, and coordinating, on their own time.
“Teachers have really been going above and beyond,” Patterson said. “That’s the best thing that can happen to a principal.”
The missing link, at this point, has been parent participation. Patterson said that only five parents have been heavily involved at Willard this year.
“We were under the impression that we could get parents out to help turn around the school,” the principal said. “It’s moving forward, but it’s moving slowly.”
Marcia Masse, mother of a seventh grader at Willard who volunteers frequently at the school says she is disappointed with the lack of parental involvement.
“There’s this culture that says you don’t need volunteers at junior high,” Masse said, “but these kids are itching for validation.”
Masse said the school needs to offer busy parents very specific tasks and time slots to encourage participation. But she also said that Patterson’s energy will ultimately woo the community.
“She’s present, she’s on the campus, she’s visible...she’s raring to go,” Masse said. “I think she is an amazing person.”