In less than 16 months, Mont Pleasant Middle School students have seen five principals come and go.
On Friday, they got their sixth principal, former high school principal Peg Normandin.
They also have an entirely new staff of assistant principals. The longest-tenured assistant principal there now has been on the job for six weeks.
The rapid turnover has exacerbated the many problems facing the school, city schools Superintendent Laurence Spring said. He said losing the principal less than two months into the school year was particularly bad.
“Having that happen two years in a row is very unlucky,” he said. “The principal’s a key position.”
Last year, the district merged the Oneida and Mont Pleasant middle schools, creating one large middle school with about 750 students.
The plan ran into problems immediately. In the first year of the merger, the school went through three principals, with the first leaving after seven weeks. A record number of students failed classes. There were also several large fights.
Spring said strong, stable leadership would have made a difference, so he worked with Principal Karmen McEvoy over the summer to develop plans to keep the students focused and in control this year.
That summer, he said lightheartedly that his first goal for stabilizing the school was to keep his principal all year. Six weeks later, McEvoy left, asking for medical leave.
At the same time, things got much worse at the school. Several students confronted teachers aggressively, cursing at them in response to orders as simple as “take out your notebook.” Some roamed the halls, refusing to go to class.
Then fights broke out, with 100 or more students gathering after school to watch two students duke it out.
In school, some students reported being punched by people they hardly knew. One mother said her daughter was dragged into a bathroom and beaten. A girl said she was sexually grabbed by three different boys.
By October, students were throwing rocks at cars and houses after school. Police mobilized at Mont Pleasant every afternoon for weeks to try to stop the fights and near-riotous behavior.
Spring suspended 18 students and banned them from the building permanently to try to regain control. He also added staff to supervise students, and teachers worked with police to identify students who misbehaved on their walk home.
All of those efforts brought results: Police and school officials have reported more orderly behavior after school in recent weeks. But in school, problems persist, Spring said.
While he said he didn’t think turnover in administration caused students to misbehave, he said two years of ever-changing leadership has made it difficult to consistently enforce the same rules with the same consequences.
Enforcing some of the new consequences for breaking rules was onerous. McEvoy wanted every teacher to respond to tardy students in the same way — let them enter class quietly and punish them later, when the teacher had a free moment. Some teachers preferred to turn a blind eye to tardy students, not punishing them at all, while others told them they could not come into the classroom, leaving them to wander the halls.
Spring said consistent discipline was “one of the things we’ve really struggled with this year.” And that made things worse, he added, because “one of the things we find to be most effective with kids and staff is a universally applied set of expectations and consequences.”
The turnover at Mont Pleasant is unprecedented in Schenectady and atypical of urban school districts.
In Albany, the new Myers Middle School has had the same principal since it opened in 2005. The district’s other middle school, Hackett, has had the same principal for five years. Before that, the previous principal stayed for three years, according to spokesman Ron Lesko.
“We have actually had very stable leadership in our middle school buildings,” he said.
Schenectady used to be able to say the same. McEvoy ran Oneida Middle School for six years, until it was closed in 2012. At Mont Pleasant Middle School, succession used to be years in the making.
Former Mont Pleasant principal Gary Comley, who led the school a decade ago, was an assistant principal for 41⁄2 years before he was promoted to principal. When he ran the school, enrollment hit 900 students — far higher than the 750 students there today. But they didn’t behave the way students are behaving now.
“They had consistency. It’s definitely an easier transition,” he said. “I did a lot of the same things. We just kept improving on things as we went along.”
He added that he would have been taken aback if he’d walked into the situation that has faced Mont Pleasant’s recent principals.
“I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “I had 33 years in the school district. I’ve taught tough kids, really smart kids; I’ve taught the whole gamut. I’m shocked. I’m shocked that the kids are so mean and so defiant, because I never saw that. A few kids, yeah, but not lots and lots.”
He did have one problem when he took over: Students were getting beaten up on their way home from school. So he and others walked the streets to stop that.
“We were out there to make sure that didn’t happen,” he said.
But unlike this year, students behaved when they saw their principal.
“When I was out there, it wasn’t a problem,” he said. “And when the police came, kids left. They didn’t come back at us. We walked them away.”
Comley was well-regarded as a strong principal in the district, and parents have repeatedly said this year that they wished he was still running the school. Comley eventually became an associate superintendent and retired in 2010.
At the time, there didn’t seem to be a need for him at Mont Pleasant. Michael Bush had worked there as an assistant principal for three years before being promoted in 2010. By the time Oneida merged with Mont Pleasant, he had a total of six years of experience.
But he only made it seven weeks into the first school year with the merged student population. He left, claiming medical leave for the next six months. After him, the district sent in Patricia Paser, who was replaced by Chuck Abba.
This school year, the district started out with McEvoy, who left on the same type of claim Bush had made a year earlier. The assistant principal, Joanne Wolcott, took over, but last week, she, too, went out on medical leave. She was replaced by Normandin on Friday and is now working as a high school class principal.
Finding a good, long-term middle school principal can be difficult, said Capital Region BOCES Superintendent Charles Dedrick. But it’s not so hard that districts turn to BOCES to run statewide searches, as they do for superintendents, he said.
Still, Dedrick said rapid turnover could “easily” happen if the wrong people were promoted.
“You’re looking for people who really want to be with middle school kids. You’ve got to be on all the time,” he said. “It’s always one of the positions that is the hardest to fill. But the right people are just incredible at it.”
Spring is trying to find that person, but he’s no longer speaking lightheartedly about keeping a principal in the school all year. Now he’s deadly serious about finding ways to stop the turnover.
“What we’re going to strive for is to see if we can create stability at the principal level,” he said.
He also wants to change the school, saying Mont Pleasant is simply too big.
“I think an element of it is the shift from two middle schools to one large middle school,” he said. “Four hundred kids per grade level, that’s a lot.”
School board President Cathy Lewis said the district is now planning middle schools with no more than 250 students per grade level.
“The seventh- and eighth-grade classes [at Mont Pleasant] are individually too big,” she said.
Former school board member Gary Farkas disagrees. When Farkas was on the school board, he spoke strongly in favor of the Oneida-Mont Pleasant merger, defending it against parents who predicted disaster.
He noted that Comley successfully managed the school with 900 students.
“So the numbers didn’t scare me,” he said this week. “But we had a lot of [paraprofessionals] back then. Paras help control our buildings. When you have a lack of leadership at the top of the building and a lack of paras, that’s the root of the problem. It was all avoidable.”
Spring cut back this year on paraprofessionals, adults who help teachers in the classroom, trying to balance the budget and pay for much-needed counselors, reading specialists and psychologists. But Farkas said the high turnover in principals, combined with a loss of paraprofessionals in the hallways and classrooms, led to upheaval.
“It’s like cutting the janitorial staff and wondering why the schools get dirty,” he said.
Spring blamed the misbehavior on the confluence of high turnover, a spike in the poverty level over the past few years and a corresponding increase in mental health crises among students throughout the district.
He isn’t adding more paraprofessionals, but he is rethinking the number of administrators needed at Mont Pleasant. At the start of the school year, there was one principal and one assistant principal for 750 children.
Two years ago, when Mont Pleasant had only 550 students and had not yet merged with Oneida Middle School, the building had two assistant principals and one principal. Oneida also had a principal and an assistant principal. Between them, they had 11 other administrators, including counselors who work with troubled children.
Now, Spring has added a third assistant principal. He has also called in the district’s academic coordinators to provide hall and outdoor supervision at times.
But those staffers don’t know many of the students by name. And unlike assistant principals, they’re only there to provide supervision and discipline. They don’t have many opportunities to create a rapport with students, which would make the students more likely to behave around them, Spring said.
He hasn’t yet decided how many staffers will be permanently assigned to the school.
“There’s schools that responded effectively to these things through the addition of art teachers,” he said, adding that other schools added counselors and some added assistant principals. “We really have to think very carefully about the problem we have to solve and how to solve it.”