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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005 06:35 am

Tardy control

Springfield High’s Tod Davis keeps careful watch on latecomers in a new effort to keep students on time and in school

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Just before the first-period warning bell rings, the main-floor hallway of Springfield High churns like a salmon-filled stream as students make their way past soda machines and red lockers with combination-lock bellybuttons. Tod Davis watches closely, high-fiving young passersby, a few of whom greet him with “Good morning, Coach.”
Davis turns in the direction of a tall kid pressed against the wall and taps the face of his watch, to which the kid responds with a shrug and an excuse for his meandering: “I got in-house today.”
The hallway empties when the final bell rings, except for the stragglers who get stacked up at a checkpoint, where they brandish identification badges for inspection. Per school rules, each will be marked tardy and will therefore have to serve detention. A Springfield High graduate who’s worked in the building for seven years, first as a teacher and now a guidance-and-discipline intern, Davis admits that it’s funny to watch the kids scatter at the sound of the bell. But it’s also a good sign: At least they realize that lateness is a bad thing.
Students who come to class late tend to make noise and distract other students. Teachers say they often must repeat the part of a lesson the latecomer missed. Sometimes there’s a confrontation. The kid cops an attitude, gives the teacher some lip, gets kicked out of class, and winds up in an assistant principal’s office or in the hallway, which may lead to trouble. “When students are in the halls unsupervised, problems seem to occur,” says Charles Hoots, Springfield High’s principal. Hoots reports that his staff noticed an increase in tardies a few years ago. At that time, students served detention for each tardy, up to a point at which subsequent offenses were punished with suspension. However, the number of tardies never decreased. Then, halfway through last year, the school rethought its approach and instituted Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a program to help school administrators understand why bad behavior occurs and develop ways to fix problems. The first step was to overhaul the disciplinary progression for tardies; now, incentives are offered for attendance and staffers intervene sooner to keep a relatively minor infraction such as a tardy from snowballing into multiple out-of-school suspensions, which, some theorize, may cause a student to lose interest in school and drop out. Through “Be a Senator” — Springfield High has adopted the name of its mascot for the PBIS program — students with exemplary attendance are rewarded with DJ’ed pizza parties and entered in drawings for such prizes as iPods and McDonald’s gift certificates. Those from the old school might call this bribery. Hoots disagrees. “Quite frankly, our punitive responses by themselves were not working,” he says. “I would say to folks who say we coddle kids that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We needed to prevent the disease, not just treat the symptoms.”
PBIS, he notes, cut tardies by more than 50 percent between the first and fourth quarters of the last school year. “That should be considered a success by anyone’s standard of measurement,” Hoots says. To help ensure that success, Tod Davis, whose mantra is “let’s keep small problems small,” is in charge of tracking tardies of the new-to-high-schoolers. Some colleagues say that Davis, also the freshman football coach, has taken on the role of mother hen to the school’s freshmen, who simply need a little help figuring out how high school works.
Today at Springfield High is known as “Tardy Tuesday,” the day when Davis receives tardy data from the previous week and rounds up students to find out what the problem is and what he can do to help. At 8:40 a.m., Davis finds T.J. having a hard time getting his locker open again. T.J., whose long baseball shirt and baggy blue-jean shorts make his lanky body look like a rectangle, has what is arguably the worst locker in the whole school. The door of this last locker at the end of the hallway in a hidden corner of the third floor tends to get stuck. Usually T.J. manages to wriggle the locker open himself. When he can’t, a janitor must pry it open with a flathead screwdriver. He’s been in detention at least four times for being late to class, courtesy of the defective locker and teachers who were unaware of the problem. He has since been reassigned a new locker a few feet away. Davis notes that T.J. is a perfect example of a student with an easy-to-fix issue who might have been branded a problem child because of tardiness resulting from something beyond his control. Many lateness issues at Springfield High, such as T.J.’s, are purely logistical. Making one’s way from the first-floor cafeteria to the fourth floor in five minutes, all while squeezing in side trips to the bathroom, lockers (the school has banned bookbags from classrooms), and the chatting with friends that’s absolutely essential to teenage life can be tough even for seasoned pro. But straight out of middle school, freshmen have difficulty adjusting to being littler fish in a bigger, more crowded aquarium. Most tardies occur during first hour (these are sometimes called “late-to-schools”) and fifth hour, which comes after lunch. In addition to freshman confusion, primping after gym class by girls of all ages accounts for a substantial number of tardies. Most of the time, though, Davis says, it’s just kids “jackin’ around” in the hallway. Around 9 a.m., Davis sends for four students on his list who have reached the four-tardy threshold. Under the new tardy policy, students must attend “First Steps,” an hour-long after-school class, when they collect four tardies. Fifteen minutes after being called to Davis’ office, the first student, a junior, comes in crying. She says that her grandmother is in the hospital, and Davis asks whether this is the reason she’s been late so many times. Nah. She wakes up at 6 a.m. and drives herself to school. Problem is, she leaves home 10 minutes before she should be in her first-hour class and must park far from the building. Davis signs her up to attend First Steps, and she resolves to try getting up earlier. Next, a tiny sophomore wearing too much eye makeup, even though she barely looks tall enough to reach the Clinique counter, too, has just registered her fourth tardy. Davis has spent the better part of a week trying to track her down. In choppy sentences she tells her story, occasionally stretching her short blue-jeaned legs and avoiding eye contact by keeping her gaze on the floor and the wall: “We have this girl living with us. “And she has a 6-month-old. “And I have to watch [the baby] until she comes home. “And sometimes she gets there late.”
Understanding yet suspicious of the tale’s validity, Davis replies: “First of all, I would commend you on doing the right thing by not leaving a 6-month-old home alone. “I think everyone would agree that you did the right thing, but, you realize, it’s making you miss school,” Davis says. “She’s moving out now,” the girl says, an indirect promise that she’ll be on time from now on. Still not sold, Davis gives her the benefit of the doubt. After all, it’s not all that unusual for a teenager these days to be responsible for small children not related to him or her. He writes her a pass to get her back to class. As soon as she leaves, he leaves a voice mail for her mother to see whether the story checks out. Her mother doesn’t call back.
At 10 a.m., Davis meets with discipline dean Mike Taylor and students who have reneged on their promise to attend First Steps, an offense punishable by a day of in-school suspension. Taylor, the school’s immense, goateed athletics director, says that he spends most of the day dealing with violators of the dress code and the prohibition against cell phones. From time to time, a security guard marches a kid into Taylor’s office for a ruling on a too-short skirt or suggestive slogan emblazoned on a shirt. It’s thumbs down to “PIMPINVILLE,” etched in red Old English type across the back of a boy’s oversized white T-shirt; a girl’s wife-beater is also deemed a no-no.  One by one, Taylor and Davis call students into the office, which is overflowing with sports paraphernalia, trophies, and team photos. First come the easy ones: kids with valid reasons for missing, such as illness or a school golf match, and the ones who just blew the class off and are willing to accept the verdict without a whole lot of fuss. More creative tricksters try to confuse their way to exoneration. Here’s how one girl’s convoluted-by-design tale begins: “I was suspended that day, and I was supposed to go the next day, but I didn’t come to school, and I told her that I would go today. . . .” It doesn’t work, and Davis and Taylor give the girl an in-house suspension. Frustrated, she jumps up, trying to knock over the chair. Still other kids are just plain combative. Both men, neither lacking in physical presence, take deep, nervous breaths to prepare for themselves for a slight freshman girl with a reputation as the hell-raiser around these parts. She falls into the chair next to Davis. “It’s your fault in the first place,” she tells him.
A week earlier, Davis says, he overheard the girl unload a string of profanities on an assistant principal, for which she served a three-day suspension. “I don’t even curse like that!” she says in her defense. Nonetheless, she will get no sympathy from these two, having been kicked out of school more times than anybody can count. The end of the meeting means that Davis is caught up from the previous week. After lunch, he’ll receive the newest tardy list, and the process will start all over again.
After school, everyone in the First Steps class laughs when language-arts teacher Theresa Greco asks the members of the group to each look at a feelings chart and tell the rest how they feel. Matt, who stayed up late last night, picks “sleepy.”
Logan chooses “tired” and “pained”; his arm is throbbing after an allergic reaction to a bee sting the day before. Allegra, drawing on her left forearm with a blue Sharpie, says that she’s “indifferent,” “annoyed,” and “curious,” plus “interested” in what she will learn from Greco, who teaches the class three times a week, that every other adult at Springfield High hasn’t already told her. Of the nine students who promised to attend, only these three have shown up. A fourth — prissy, ponytailed freshman transfer Taylor — arrives late. First Steps aims to address challenges students may be facing, which, in many instances, are easily fixed, and have students develop goals to help them get to school and class on time. Normally several factors are involved. For example, it took Matt weeks to figure out that he was using the wrong staircase. Plus, he says, he’s bored; his teachers aren’t challenging him enough. As is the case with many high school students, Taylor and Allegra aren’t in full control of their ability to get to school on time. When the person driving each girl to school is running late, she’s late. However, Allegra also acknowledges that volunteering, violin, and piano on top of homework may be affecting not only her sleep schedule but her grades as well. “Up until high school, I was doing the whole straight-A, perfect-child thing,” she says, scowling and adding to the cyan masterpiece on her skin. The way she sees it, she must choose between getting less sleep and giving up an extracurricular activity. Or, as Greco suggests, she could shower at night instead of before school to save time. She could, Allegra says flippantly, but then her hair “would look . . . less good.”
The students here are good kids. The hellions don’t even bother coming. That these four made an appearance shows that they care, Greco says. During one First Steps session, Greco discovered that a chronically late student simply did not own an alarm clock. The school bought him one, and every morning since he has trekked up to Greco’s fourth-floor classroom to let her know that he’s at school and on time. That, she says, proves that the program is working. More proof: Two years ago, 16,000 tardies were registered at Springfield High. After the tardy policy was reformulated and put in place midway through the 2004-2005 school year, that number dropped to 12,000. After almost a full quarter, the school is on pace to do even better this year. Davis says that parental involvement has been especially helpful. As part of the new tardy program, parents and child must meet for two-and-a-half hours at night with school administrators when the student amasses 10 tardies. Once Mom and Dad get involved, the kid’s behavior generally changes instantly. According to Davis, who has a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Springfield, the Be a Senator program represents a paradigm shift from the days when the mentality of education officials was “late is late” to “OK, you’re late — but why?”
More often than not, he and the student come up with a solution that the kid has never thought of, such as using a day planner or putting the alarm clock on the other side of the room to force the kid out of bed. It’s preventive maintenance, he says, to understand the reasons for tardiness, “not just hammering a kid to
hammer the kid. Now, there’s a forum for
discussion.”
Another goal of Be a Senator is to instill the value of being on time because, frankly, kids are often not getting that lesson at home. And if they still don’t get it? Relating the concept to the workplace is almost foolproof, Davis says. Most kids either want or must get a part-time job at some point in their high-school careers to buy the new Nike Air Force Ones or rent a tuxedo for prom. That really works, Davis says, because “once you start messing with their coin, it really hits home.”
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