SUNDAY EDITION | Troubled Minor Daniels Academy hopes for turnaround in second year

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Michelle Ising vividly remembers what she found upon arriving at Minor Daniels Academy on the third day of school last year.

“Kids would walk out of class, they would yell at their teachers,” says Ising, who spent six years as a guidance counselor at Seneca High School before moving to Minor Daniels – the newly combined JCPS middle-high school for students sent away from their previous schools due to persistent behavioral problems.

“A lot of the students who came to us thought that there would be no discipline, so they would just run out of their classrooms, refusing to listen to anyone,” she said. “One day, we had 30 kids in the assistant principal’s office that had walked out of class. It was chaos.”

Seven days into the start of the 2016-17 year, Ising says the atmosphere at Minor Daniels is much different. She described it as calmer,  more controlled and said that, unlike last year, “teachers and staff want to be here.”

JCPS has taken a number of steps aimed at improving the structure and climate at Minor Daniels following what some in the district acknowledge was a tumultuous first year filled with violent student behavior. At one point,  86 percent of the school’s teachers felt unsafe.

Among the changes: giving all teachers and staff the option to transfer from Minor Daniels following the 2015-16 year and providing more training on “restorative practices,” the method the school is using to address discipline issues.

Katy Zeitz, the former Waggener High principal recently named an assistant superintendent with the sole job  of overseeing JCPS’ alternative schools, says the changes at Minor Daniels are a “work in progress.”

New approach for alternative education

The opening of Minor Daniels Academy was the result of the district’s decision to close Buechel Metro High and Kennedy Metro Middle at the end of the 2014-15 school year and combine them into one school located at the former Buechel site on Bashford Manor Lane.

At the time, officials said they believed the changes would better meet the needs of individual students, as well as reduce drop-outs and increase the graduation rate.

One of the biggest centerpieces of the plan was to fully implement so-called restorative practices, a method that moves away from strict discipline and requires teachers and staff to help kids resolve their issues, as opposed to simply punishing bad behavior.

Many criticized JCPS for not allowing the school enough time to plan and organize before it opened – the proposal was approved by the school board in March 2015 and implemented five months later.

Indeed, the school’s principal, Don Dillard, took over just eight days before school started and he hired only two of the school's teachers.

“I think that one of the largest obstacles we had last year was that because most of the staff was brought in so late, there was not much training on how to best implement restorative practices,” Ising said. “Teachers had some training over the summer, but it wasn’t much and it was not very practical.”

JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens has acknowledged that the school’s quick launch was rough. She said it faced the same challenges as any new institution– scheduling logistics, staffing and making sure the facility was ready to go.

“We created this new approach while simultaneously trying to change the culture and focus of the school so that we could make a more meaningful impact in the lives of some of our most at-risk students,” she said during the school’s dedication in March. “It was not an easy task.”

Throughout the year, Dillard spoke about the difficulty he had about getting teachers to “buy in” with the new approach, adding that some of the teachers should not have been placed at Minor Daniels. He also noted running into problems with teachers who were "resistant to change."

Dillard also noted the district assigned to Minor Daniels students who are charged with crimes, involved in the juvenile court system or who previously lived in juvenile residential facilities – despite JCPS’ initial plan not to place so-called “adjudicated” students there.

Minor Daniels enrolled 146 adjudicated students last year, according to documents obtained by WDRB in an open records request.

Zeitz said “there was not another middle school alternative option for (adjudicated) kids,” so they ended up at Minor Daniels

In addition, there were high school-aged students charged with crimes who could not be sent to Breckinridge Metro High – the district’s other alternative school for kids with behavior problems – because they had a conflict with another student at Breckinridge Metro, she said.

In a letter sent to district officials in February, Dillard specifically mentioned the difficulty of having students with moderate behavior issues being placed in the same classroom as students with severe violent and aggressive tendencies.

"You can’t put those kids in with those that are pistol-whipping others and stealing cars," he wrote.

Zeitz said the district is still working to address the assignment of students.

“There are still a small number of middle school students at Minor Daniels who are adjudicated,” she said, adding that JCPS is looking at a number of options such as adding an eighth grade to Breckinridge Metro or creating a “transition center” someplace else.

“I really want to get to the point of looking at each kid who has been assigned to one of our alternative programs and trying to find the best possible place for them,” Zeitz said.

‘I felt like they really cared about me’

According to new data released by JCPS, the vast majority of the 532 students who attended Minor Daniels in its first year were in 7-9th grades. Most of them were sent there for assault, fighting other students, harassment or threatening teachers or staff members at their home schools.

Of those students, 241 completed the year at Minor Daniels – with six graduating from the school and 203 others returning to a regular school.

Shane Logsdon is one of the students who returned to his home school – Valley Prep Academy at Valley High School– this fall.

He was sent to Minor Daniels twice last year – the first time for striking a teacher during a fight with another student and the second time for an altercation with a student.

Shane’s mother, Alicia Cornell, said she was “scared to death” when she found out Shane would be assigned to Minor Daniels.

 “I cried, screamed, yelled…it had been in the news what a bad school it was and how horrible the students were,” she said.

Indeed, during the first few months of the school year, one teacher was locked in a closet, and another had her car stolen. Several other teachers and staff members – including the principal -- were assaulted. Nearby businesses were ransacked.

In October, the Jefferson County Teachers Association released a survey showing 86 percent of teachers at Minor Daniels felt unsafe at the school.

“Sometimes it was very wild, but when everyone got to sit down and focus, it was really good,” Shane recalled, admitting that he didn’t want to go there at first.

“But by the end of the year, I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “It was calmer and the teachers and counselors there really helped me, I felt like they really cared about me and I was able to focus on my work.”

Now officials are helping to monitor Shane’s transition back to Valley Prep .

“We have a number of strategies in place to help students who are returning from an alternative setting,” says Rob Stephenson, the principal of Valley Prep and Valley High School. “We have a transition teacher who has the option to release them maybe for the first two classes, maybe a month, see how that goes.”

“Eventually, we can get them to a full schedule if the student is ready at that time or we can pull back,” Stephenson said. “We have multiple options there to make sure the student is getting their needs met.”

Cornell said she is grateful for the second chance her son got at Minor Daniels.

“It was the staff,” she said. “Every person we encountered all reacted to him with love and compassion. They are all supportive and saw the good in him...not just that he was a ‘bad’ kid.”

As the new school year begins, it’s too soon to determine if the changes made at Minor Daniels will make a difference, and JCPS officials refused to allow WDRB into the school for this story.

But many are optimistic.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, was among those who criticized the district for not allowing the school enough time to plan and organize before it opened.

“They have come a long way,” McKim said recently. “Aside from the behavior, one of our biggest concerns is that it initially did not appear that anyone in the building deeply understood how to implement and support a true restorative practices program.”

A total of 11 Minor Daniels teachers transferred from the school at the end of the 2015-16 year – seven of whom did so voluntarily..

“If they didn’t want to be here, they were allowed to put their name in for a transfer and they were told they would not be stuck back here,” Ising said, adding that she feels “a lot better this year.”

“Our entire team of teachers was on board before school started, we really hit on the consistency and community building,” she said. “The people who are here now all want to be here. In our opening days, it felt like a family and that we were all on the same page.”

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