BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Students and faculty joined together last Fri., Nov. 6 at Gibbs High School in order to discuss morale, referrals and safety on campus.
Gibbs High School Principal Reuben Hepburn held a roundtable discussion to show what the school is doing to turn around discipline problems among black students and bring down their rate of referrals. With a majority of students, roughly 68 percent, African American it seems only fitting to some that they would have more referrals.
However according to Tampa Bay Times reporter Lisa Gardner, who was in attendance at the meeting and has reviewed data concerning disciple issues in the county, suspension rates among black students are disproportionately high when compared to their white counterparts.
Hepburn listed data from the 2013 and 2014 school years, comparing them to this year’s results.
“This data is very important,” said Hepburn who is diligently working to bring a sense of school spirit back to Gibbs and highlight the positive programs the school has to offer. Although this year’s enrollment of African Americans has declined by only one percent, out-of-school suspensions have declined significantly by about 10 percent.
With some 1,419 students, that’s huge and Hepburn hopes their efforts to change Gibbs’ reputation through respect, excellence and pride will pay off for a brighter future for all its students.
But the real test is how the students and teachers feel on campus. “Are we getting better or worse,” asked Hepburn who prompted students to talk about their experiences day in and day out. Although a few were weary when they signed up as freshmen, not one student on the panel would trade their experience and all now consider Gibbs High School a home away from home.
“The change has been incredible. I’m comfortable here,” said Rachel a graduating senior who remembers her feelings as a freshman as she walked the long corridors to class each day. “I kept saying what am I getting myself into?”
But now after years of changes to combat the discipline issue at Gibbs, she feels safe. “I’ll graduate a proud Gladiator,” she said.
Hepburn has been the principal at Gibbs High since January. He began implementing policies to turnaround the stigma associated with south county schools, especially those which are predominately African American.
With roughly 2,800 referrals written just at Gibbs in 2013, there was room for improvement. Each year has seen positive results with approximately 100 less referrals written in 2014 and 200 less referrals in 2015. With 627 referrals thus far this year, Gibbs is still on track to see numbers decrease significantly by the end of the year.
“We have to be hard on the front end,” said Hepburn who believes addressing the disturbance appropriately is key to providing fair and consistent expectations for every student. “If you are soft on a kid, or give them a slap on the wrist when they actually need a much harder punishment, the behavior is not going to change.”
So what is the plan?
Gibbs now uses the alternate bell schedule (ABS) to help curb some of the referrals. Students who would normally get out-of-school suspension now have the option of ABS. They arrive at school at 2:30 p.m. after the normal school day is completed and stay until 7:30 p.m. They work on missed schoolwork for the day and don’t rack up unexcused absences, thus allowing students to atone for their lack of judgment and inappropriate behavior, but still get an education.
Students are unable to participate in any extracurricular activities until they complete their ABS assignment. No cell phones are allowed. Students must be on time and alert or else they start the process all over.
“You can imagine they are crying, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” said Hepburn who is seeing some success with ABS correcting the behavior. “They don’t want to do it again.”
Most referrals are written for campus/class disruption, defiance, skipping class and the use of electronic devices and profanity.
But students say the changes being made recently to boost school spirit and to recognize student accomplishments are making a world of difference not just with improved academics, but discipline issues.
Take Zantrell for instance. He and Hepburn had a rough start. At a school assembly he was called out by the no nonsense principal for showing disrespect. After being put on the spot in front of the whole auditorium about his grades, he left the assembly and went to the guidance counselor. He’s now on track to graduate on time.
“His proudest moment is when he became academically eligible to be on the football team,” said Hepburn.
“I believe we’re getting better because of you,” Zantrell said to Hepburn. “Since you came here I see a big change in how you show authority, so students like me are starting to make up their mind and doing better.”
The administrative team at Gibbs believes in a hands-on approach; a firm hand when the student is doing something wrong, but the first to shake their hand or give a high five when they’re doing something right.
Erica sees the challenges faced by students at Gibbs faces are the same as at any other school. She’s never been in a situation where she’s felt threatened.
“I think we’ve come far and we’ve overcome a lot of the obstacles that we had to face in the community,” she said. “I think we’re doing better as a whole, this is the best I’ve seen Gibbs.”
Gibbs will continue to implement academic success plans and guidance referrals to students struggling with attendance, academics or with social issues. They will continue to have motivational speakers come in to encourage students and Gibbs’ child study team will look for those at-risk.
Teachers are receiving classroom management training to help defuse minor incidents before they erupt into greater disturbances, but Hepburn won’t waver on his approach.
“We have some really great students at our school,” he said.