Parents, Students see a difference in Englewood middle, high schools.

October 16, 2011

ENGLEWOOD — During a recent assembly Superintendent Donald Carlisle told the district's middle school students they were the talk of the city — in a good way.

"Everywhere I go in this community people are commenting about you," he said at an Oct. 5 anti-bullying program. "You have made a big difference."

The Janis E. Dismus Middle School and Dwight Morrow High School had gained such bad reputations that parents, such as mother of three Rosa Ruddock, sent their children to private school to avoid them.

When St. Cecilia Interparochial School closed this year, Ruddock and her husband Wayne contemplated moving, even though they grew up in the city and are middle school sweethearts.

"I'd heard really bad stuff," she said.

But their son Justin, who plays on a travel baseball team, pushed to attend Janis E. Dismus with his teammates, so they enrolled him in eighth grade and their daughter Melanie in seventh grade — and they're glad they did.

"The experience has been awesome," she said. "I've spoken to a lot of other parents, and they feel the same way. It has changed. It's great."

Team approach

When Carlisle came to the district in February he focused on the middle school, making some staffing and program changes to create a better environment. But he also gives the students the credit for improving things.

The middle school kicked off the year split into two teams for each grade — including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale — designed to create smaller learning communities within the school. Carlisle said the team approach allows a group of teachers to work with the same students, sharing information across subject areas and allowing better tracking of problems.

Carlisle also shook up the administration. He named Lamarr Thomas, a district teacher and 1987 graduate of Dwight Morrow, assistant principal, and the Board of Education is in the process of hiring a new principal.

The school also has a dean who is responsible for disciplinary issues and a principal consultant who works three days a week.

Carlisle also hired Yonalda Amparo, a bilingual social worker, whose door is open to any student with any problem.

Library Media Specialist Audrena Campagna was hired to fill the vacant librarian position and turned the underutilized room into a bustling multimedia center with 20 computers, 20 iPads and three large television screens — one inside and two others in the hallways — that display announcements and student-created programs.

The school instituted two new courses for all students this year, Gateway to Practical Living, which teaches financial literacy, public speaking and career skills, such as resume writing; and culinary arts, where students learn about food safety, nutrition and basic cooking skills.

Carlisle made changes at Dwight Morrow High School and the Academies @ Englewood at Dwight Morrow, a magnet program also open to students outside the district that was created nearly a decade ago with the goal of desegregating the high school.

Peter Elbert, the former middle school principal, now oversees the high school programs.

There are three assistant principals, up from two last year, Garry Dennis at the Academies and Daniella Smalls-Bailey and Joe Armemtal at Dwight Morrow. Three new deans — Morris Lucky at the Academies and Carol Bender and David Murphy at Dwight Morrow — serve as disciplinarians, and Carlisle moved his own office to the school.

More interaction

Between classes, the principals and deans walk the halls interacting with students and making sure everyone follows the dress code and other school rules. Bender stands guard at the cafeteria, checking students' schedules on the back of their identification cards to make sure they aren't cutting class to grab a snack or meet with friends. The class-to-class transitions are no longer rowdy, Carlisle said.

"It's all about how we interact with our young people," he said. "The old adage holds true: treat people the way you want to be treated."

In addition to staff changes, Elbert has plans for new career programs at Dwight Morrow and said he hopes next year to add culinary arts and training for skilled trades jobs, such as being an electrician or carpenter.

The administration is also encouraging students from Dwight Morrow and the Academies to interact more with each other.

And the students seem to be taking pride in the programs. When residents questioned the schools at a recent board meeting, Dwight Morrow student Kayla Williams spoke out and said the students aren't a bunch of "hoodlums."

"I know we're trying to do things to keep kids in the schools," the student government vice president said. "We're trying to have programs and clubs. We're actually making progress. We're not what people call us."