OAKVILLE - Jeff Hunt spends very little time in his office.
The all-in-one principal of the elementary, middle and high school in Oakville admits he can ill afford to. After all, Oakville is one of the area’s smallest districts – and the only local district on which the federal government has slapped the “failing” label.
Hunt came aboard in Oakville, a town of nearly 700 residents about 30 miles southwest of Olympia, in December as part of a sweeping change instituted by the district to comply with requirements set forth by the government. Oakville is competing with districts state- and nationwide to receive extra funding for its school programs to the tune of $400,000 a year for five years – and to be eligible, the district had to dramatically overhaul its educational process.
Hunt walks the halls, greets each student by name when he sees them, and offers encouragement at every turn. During his first pass through the school, he explains that education hasn’t been Oakville’s primary problem in the recent past. In fact, it was far from the worst problem.
“The first thing that was apparent to me when I first started here was that we’ve had a behavioral problem, especially in the middle school,” he said. “I had to take a step back and figure out how we were going to tackle this issue.”
A PERSISTENT PROBLEM
Forget the federal grant application, and forget the fact that Washington Assessment of Student Learning scores districtwide were abysmal over the past five years – for example, Oakville did not register a single sixth-grade student who met the math standard in 2007-08. More glaring was a laundry list of behavioral problems among the students, in particular those at the middle school.
Students talking over teachers. Sitting in the halls during class time. Refusing to take tests. Fights breaking out on a regular basis.
Hunt rounds the corner from the high school wing toward the middle school hall, where he catches a couple of students standing by their lockers five minutes after the bell rings. He gently admonishes the kids to go back to class and waits until the door shuts.
“The district is so small that so many of these kids have known each other for years,” Hunt said. “You see a lot of the same arguments you see among siblings, but just in a school setting instead.”
Upon entering the middle school commons, he admits he knew there was a discipline problem when he was hired, but he had underestimated its severity.
“To say there was a problem here is like saying the sky is blue,” Hunt said with a chuckle. “It dawned on me that these problems weren’t going to be cured by normal discipline, though.”
THE DISCIPLINE PROCESS
Just as he finishes his sentence, a couple of eighth-graders peek from around the corner toward Hunt. Upon spotting him, they run back down the hall toward the library.
“They’re on timeout,” Hunt explains. “They’re supposed to be sitting in the library for a bit.”
Hunt then walks to the two students and holds an impromptu interrogation session.
“Why are you guys running away?” he asks. “You guys are acting like you just robbed a 7-Eleven store or something.”
The two students laugh and shrug as Hunt explains the consequences of their behavior.
Timeouts are part of a five-step disciplinary process Hunt has enacted that serves as a change from the prior policy, where simple detention and suspensions were handed out liberally. With the new program, students are given chances to correct their behavior on-site, and if the problem escalates, they are put on a timeout in another section of the school.
Parents agree that the new technique has worked just three months into its institution. Jennie Brown and Kayla Koopmans, both of whom have children in Oakville schools, are spending their Friday volunteering at the elementary school checking students’ heads for lice. Taking a short break in the middle school commons – where, by the way, it’s class time and the halls are clear of students – both parents say the behavioral environment has improved by leaps and bounds.
“Just in the past few months, you can sense a noticeable shift in the kids’ behavior,” Brown said.
“Kids want boundaries and a sense of security,” she said. “They want someone to show them they care, and the staff here has done a great job of that recently.”