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District sees progress from changes at Swissvale school

| Monday, April 21, 2003

Efforts to improve the learning environment at Dickson Intermediate School in Swissvale are paying off big time, according to Woodland Hills School District data.

Figures for the first six months of the 2002-03 school year show that disciplinary incidents in the Swissvale school have been reduced by 72 percent when compared with the first six months of the 2001-02 school year.

Data obtained by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week indicate there were 710 disciplinary incidents in the intermediate school in 2001-02 from August through February, and 199 such incidents during the same period this school year.

Pat Dawson, a district spokeswoman, said a disciplinary incident can be defined as anything from insubordination, such as talking back to a teacher, to inappropriate use of the Internet or cell phones, all the way up to a physical altercation.

"It runs the whole gamut," Dawson said Friday.

The number of guidance referrals at the school for children in grades four to six is down by 61 percent -- from 792 in the first six months of 2001-02 to 306 this school year.

"If you look at the numbers and see the program that was put down by the teachers from what they did last summer, you know they are the ones that are making it work," school board member Marilyn Messina said.

Last summer, concerned parents, teachers, administrators and school board members held a series of meetings to address problems at the school in the face of incidents of violence against students and teachers and crowded classrooms. More than 150 parents attended an August session.

Figures on school violence from the state Department of Education indicate that Dickson had 20 violent incidents in 2001-02 compared with 18 for the district's Benjamin Fairless and Rankin Intermediate schools combined. There were four fights in the Swissvale school that year and none in the other two intermediate schools, according to state data.

In one case last spring, Swissvale police filed assault charges against a student who "slapped around" and kicked a teacher's aide. The aide did not require hospitalization.

Of the district's three intermediate schools, Dickson was the only one where problems had escalated to the point that parents demanded meetings.

Although the rate at which black students and white students are disciplined in the district has been a topic of federal court supervision in the past, such racial issues have not surfaced at Dickson, according to parents active in the school.

"If the shoe fits, wear it," Michelle Mazella, 42, of Swissvale, said. Mazella said the racial makeup of the school is pretty much "50-50."

Mazella, whose daughter, Maura, 12, is in her last year at Dickson, said the school is much quieter this year compared to the previous year.

She said her daughter dreaded going to school last year but is much happier this year.

"I think that the school is more under control, and the kids behave more," Maura Mazella said yesterday.

Mazella spends parts of up to two days per week helping to run a student store at Dickson that was implemented in October in an effort to help improve student morale.

The store was introduced after similar stores at Rankin Intermediate and Benjamin Fairless proved successful.

Another measure taken by principal Gary Thomas was to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 24 students. During the 2001-02 school year, class sizes at Dickson had ballooned to as many as 35 students.

Besides class size reductions, the district placed a full-time security guard at the intermediate school and placed phones in each teacher's room to enable teachers to communicate with security and the front office as needed.

Barbara Struth-Wieser, president of the Woodland Hills teachers union, said students now are aware of the consequences of their actions.

"They are trying to get a consistent message to the students that there are rules and there are limits, and they have to be followed," Struth-Wieser said.

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