By John Crowder
A presentation made by the principal, staff members, parents, volunteers, and students from Black Diamond Middle School (BDMS) at the September 10 meeting of the Antioch School Board, painted a picture of the school that was significantly different from what these same groups had been saying last year. Unlike prior meetings, when complaints of out-of-control violence dominated board sessions, the message this time was one of support for the new leadership on the campus and optimism for the future.
This year a new administrative team took over at BDMS. Phyllis James has come on board from Vallejo as the new principal. Vice principals are Ken Daniels and Denise Pesmark.
New Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO) Chairwoman Francis Spijker and Vice Chairman Frank DeLuna were among those who spoke about the positive changes seen on the campus. They said that the PTSO already had 150 members, and they invited the board members to join as well. They mentioned several programs being implemented by their group, including family movie nights, a science fair, and a uniform closet, where those parents who considered buying uniforms a financial burden, could stop by and pick up a starter set of uniforms at no cost.
At a two-hour visit to the school last week, many of the positive sentiments expressed by those attending the board meeting were borne out. Representing the Antioch Herald, I was given complete access to the school on Monday morning, September 15, from 8:30 a.m. until 10:30.
Accompanied by Leif Utler, a young, 8th grade English teacher with boundless enthusiasm for the work he is doing, I saw how the school handled the morning uniform inspection, was able to see office staff interacting with students and parents, observed class changes and security staff, and visited three classrooms, the cafeteria, the library, and the ‘opportunity school.’
One of the first things you notice is that most, but not all, of the students on the campus of over 600 were in school uniforms. To date, 84 students have had their parents submit requests to opt out of wearing the uniform. Of those, two were approved by James, and the rest forwarded to the district’s administration for appeal. Two of those appeals have so far been granted, and the other 80 are awaiting decision.
Another thing that stands out is the cleanliness of the campus. Last year, an independent consultant, Dr. John Bernard, had specifically cited the deteriorated condition of the physical site as a problem. This year, there is no trash to be seen. One of the reasons for this, according to James, is that students are no longer permitted to take food from the cafeteria.
The three classes visited were Algebra I, English, and physical science. In each of the classes, students were, for the most part, listening to the instructor and following directions. While in two of the classes, a few of the students were interacting with each other and otherwise distracted, overall, the classes were well-controlled, and the minor distractions were no more than one would anticipate, indeed probably less than one would anticipate, from a large group of middle school students.
Although some staff members that I talked with expressed nervousness about speaking their minds, all ultimately did so, at the encouragement of Utler. All of them were supportive of the new on-site administration, but some expressed worry that “downtown” would not support the efforts that were being made to improve the learning environment.
Of particular concern was whether or not AUSD officials would support the uniform policy and support efforts underway to ensure that disrespect toward teachers and staff was stopped. Specific problems cited included some students pushing past the lone cafeteria lady trying to prevent them from walking out with food after breakfast when, apparently, there is no security or other staff available to assist them.
That being said, the overall view of the school from staff and the PTSO leadership remains positive. In a subsequent interview, Spijker said, “I appreciate the school board for giving us this great new administration. I call them our ‘dream team.’ I’d like to see the board back the decisions, the changes that our administration is making, including the uniform policy. And, support disciplinary actions that the school administration should take with some troubled kids. Parents want to see more expulsions [for chronic bad behavior.] According to James, a half dozen fights have occurred on the campus this year so far, only two of which she characterized as “serious.”
The next meeting of the school board takes place on Wednesday, September 24, at the School Services Building, 510 G Street. Meetings begin at 7:00 p.m.