Principal Says Sligo Middle School is Improving

Principal Says Sligo Middle School is Improving

Other parents support steps taken by school administration

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After a Nov. 9 Education Matters post ignited an emotional debate among parents over issues at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring, Principal Richard “Jeff” Rhodes is defending his efforts to improve the school.

“There are a whole series of issues out there. I want to make it really clear that I am working with staff and the parent community to address these issues,” Rhodes said during an interview last week that was attended by PTSA President Victoria McCarthy and two Montgomery County Public Schools officials.

“I may not necessarily agree with every issue raised or the data used,” he said. However, “we do make an effort to address issues of concern to the school community.”

Rhodes had not responded to a request to comment before the Nov. 9 post was published. But when contacted again, he agreed to discuss the controversy that erupted after some seventh-grade parents publicly expressed concerns about discipline, academic rigor, teacher turnover and school grounds maintenance at the diverse school.

Several other parents criticized the seventh-grade parents’ comments, pointing out that they have been working with Rhodes and his staff over the years to improve Sligo, which has suffered from a troubled reputation among parents in the Silver Spring community it serves. These Sligo parents said their children have done well at the middle school and they were upset by what they considered an unfair portrayal that also seemed to disparage dedicated teachers and staff who want their students to succeed.

Rhodes, who has run the school since 2006, said “we have been making progress” on issues including the school’s physical plant, teacher retention and academic rigor. He has been meeting with the seventh-grade parents about their concerns and both sides agreed that issues were being addressed.

Susan Morawetz, a seventh-grade parent who was not one of those who came forward, said in an email that the Nov. 9 post did not “acknowledge that Sligo kids are doing much more writing now than they did three or four years ago, the number of substantive and well-planned field trips has dramatically increased, the principal successfully revamped school/parent communications this year in response to parent complaints last spring, and a lot of the disciplinary approaches put in place over the last two years have resulted in large decreases in behavioral problems and bullying in the hallways and cafeteria.”  

Since the original post was published, some parents have called for all members of the school community to come together to address issues that divide them.

Melissa Polito, one of the seventh-grade parents who had voiced her concerns, took issue with those who referred to her as an “angry mother” because she spoke out. “To the contrary, I am an excited parent,” she said in a message posted on the school listserv. “I am excited because when I (and some others) identified some real issues at the school, we were met with an administration that was ready, willing, and able to take on the issues.”

Rhodes noted that he’s moved in recent years to improve discipline, safety and security—issues raised by parents as long as five years ago. In 2009, Sligo implemented its version of the U.S. Department of Education’s Positive Behavorial Interventions and Supports program to improve order at the school, he said.

Sligo went on to win awards in both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years for its program, he added.

But the school did not implement the program during the 2011-2012 school year, and experienced an increase in discipline issues and drop in student performance, Rhodes said. He was “not sure” why the school’s improvement lost momentum that year, describing it as “an anomaly” that was caused by “a series of things.”

“There has been significant improvement” at Sligo, Rhodes said “I don’t think one year’s data is reflective of the entire school.”

He said he plans to implement the behavioral interventions program again this year and noted that discipline is improving. The school’s suspension rate is dropping, he said, with only four suspensions so far this academic year. That compares to 20 suspensions during the first quarter of the 2011-2012 school year, seven in 2010-2011, and six in 2009-2010.

Meanwhile, he’s working with staff on delivering instruction that fully engages students. If students are busy learning in the classroom, there’s less opportunity to misbehave and fewer issues with classroom management, he said. “We hear concerns about consistent rigor for all, particularly for high-level support,” he said. “How do we teach kids high and pull our kids up? It’s a process. We, as we speak, are working on it.”

He points to signs of students’ academic success: 41percent of sixth-graders, 45 percent of seventh-graders and 51 percent of eighth-graders made the Honor Roll in the first quarter of this year. And the school has hit the state’s standardized test benchmarks annually, except for the 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 school years, he said.

Despite the ongoing improvement efforts, there are parents who wonder whether Rhodes is the right man for the job.

Seventh-grade parent Karen Lee is a staunch defender of the school, where her older sons received a “solid education” that prepared them to succeed in high school.

Still, “Sligo, like other middle schools with similar demographics is challenged with creating an environment where all students can be successful,” she wrote in an email. “While the solutions for change are complex, my biggest concern is the apparent the lack of confidence the community has in the principal to successfully lead the school in achieving these goals in a timely manner.”

For his part, Rhodes said he’s focused on making sure all parents know he’s willing to listen as he works to improve Sligo.

“Ultimately, the kids are at the end of all of this,” he said. “I’m concerned about all of my kids, not just some, not a particular type.”

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