New co-principal at Bartram speaks about changing school climate

    After a staffer at Bartram High School was knocked unconscious by a student last month, the Southwest Philadelphia school has faced increased public scrutiny, becoming the flashpoint for the district’s under-resourced schools this year.

    The district has responded to the outcry by bringing in one of its veteran school climate specialists: retired district principal Ozzie Wright.

    Since retiring from the district in the mid-2000s, Wright has been called back multiple times to help the district deal with emergencies at Germantown, South Philly and West Philly High schools.

    He arrived at Bartram to become co-principal at the beginning of this week.

    “Within the last week or so, what we’ve seen is a reduction of students in the hallways because we’ve started hall sweeps,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re seeing a reduction of latenesses. We’ve also had an increase in personnel who helps us to move students into our classes.”

    Countdown clock deployed

    One of the ways the school has reduced the number of students wandering the hallways is with a countdown clock. During an interview with Wright, Bartram’s assistant principal came on over the loudspeaker.

    “I’m going to count down from 20 to zero,” he said. “All students must be in their classrooms at the end.”

    After pronouncing “zero,” he continued: “Teachers please close your doors. Any students that arrive at this time are late. Please document them as so … detentions will be issued to those students who are late. Any student who misses detention will be suspended.”

    Wright, speaking from his first-floor office, described the scene after the countdown.

    “I’m looking right from my office into the hallways … I see two students .. .and that’s good, not like it was before.”

    Wright later amended the assistant principal’s statement about suspensions, saying that they should only be used after parent intervention.

    “Students should not be suspended for being late to detention,” he said.

    More officers, security cameras

    In addition to these hallway sweeps, Wright said, the district has taken many important measures to improve school culture: adding four school police officers (bringing the total to 12); bringing in more lunchroom aides; installing more security cameras; and training teachers to better interact with students through restorative practice techniques.

    Students, he said, used to be able to come and go through Bartram’s perimeter doors, which must be kept unlocked in case of a fire. The school has now installed security alarms on the doors.

    The school’s also gotten tougher, he said, about enforcing its longstanding policies on wearing uniforms, not using cell phones and not wearing hoodies.

    “Most of the students here … you tell them to take the hoodie off, put the cell phones away, they’re instructed to do it, and they will do it,” Wright said. “But, as usual, you have to keep revisiting that every day.”

    Since he’s arrived, he said, “We’ve had only incidents where students got into small skirmishes, no injuries.”

    Wright said developing better relationships with students is key to creating a better school culture.

    “Students will know what’s going on,” he said. “If an incident occurs in the neighborhood that’s going to be brought into the schools, if you’re listening and attentive to the students, they will let you know.”

    But, as many teachers in the district this year will tell you, that’s been a tough prospect given the lack of staff and resources schools have had to work with based on budget cuts.

    Wright, though, wouldn’t go so far to blame Bartram’s recent woes on the budget budget.

    “I’m not sure about that … because I wasn’t here at the time,” he said. “But I do know that with the additional resources that we’re getting now, that we’re addressing those issues.”

    Wright is now co-principal with Kimberly Collins, a first-year principal who started in October.

    Change in leadership

    Bartram’s longtime principal left after the 2012-13 school year. The new principal initially hired by the district was fired after just a few weeks into classes.

    Collins filled in, but the school has struggled with school climate all year. Officials later sent two conflict-resolution specialists to help address the issue. One of them, Alphonso Stevenson, was the staffer who was knocked unconscious.

    Although Bartram absorbed 100 students from a school that closed, it has fewer staffers than before – creating a very tough test for Collins.

    “The thing that she needs is more mentorship,” said Wright. “She needs the mentorship, and she’s getting the mentorship at this point.”

    Bartram will host an outreach event for parents and the community at the school Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Beyond this meeting, Wright encourages parents to volunteer in the building or set up times to visit the school to witness the progress that’s been made.

    Wright started in the school district as a teacher in 1976, then worked his way up the administrative rankings. He was assistant principal at Fels High School, principal at the Youth Studies Center, and then principal at West Philadelphia High (his alma mater) until 2002, when, as an Army reservist, he was called to active duty in Iraq.

    After a 16- month Army tour, he returned to Philadelphia and helped open the district’s Leeds Military Academy before retiring.

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