In preparation for this year, Principal Bob Sinclair and school leadership have taken measures to address cell phone usage, warn students about a major change to the attendance policy, help failing students earn credit, accommodate larger class sizes, and promote pride and positivity.
As students enter their new classrooms, they will notice stoplight posters on the walls or windows. The colored circle that the accompanying arrow sticker is pointing to will tell students if and when they can use their phones. Members of the School Leadership Team felt that a standardized visual aid would help convey teachers’ cell phone policies in response to student feedback that suggested some teachers’ cell phone policies were unclear and inconsistent.
A new state policy regarding attendance will have a huge impact on some students. This year, MCPS will no longer distinguish between excused and unexcused absences when determining if a student is chronically absent. Students who miss 18 or more instructional days, no matter the reason, will be considered chronically absent. Last year, 25% of students fell into this category, many of those being economically disadvantaged or special education students. Mr. Sinclair acknowledges that there are often special circumstances regarding these individuals as well as student athletes and those struggling with physical and mental illnesses, and says he is working to see how those issues can be addressed.
For students who are failing classes as a result of an unsatisfactory attendance record or otherwise, new supports are being implemented to help students recover lost credit. For example, a new online program is being utilized that matches the Blake curriculum and creates an individualized plan for students based on a pre-assessment. Mr. Sinclair expresses his sympathy for students needing help. “I feel bad for students when I see they’ve been in a class two or three times and haven’t passed it,” he says. “Obviously, what we’re doing doesn’t work and [these are other options].”
Students won’t be the only newbies this year. More than 19 staff members have joined the Blake community to accommodate larger class sizes, including Blake alum Darius Oxley of the math department. “We really try to hire staff who are representative of and can connect with our students,” Mr. Sinclair assures.
Several initiatives are being enacted to promote a more positive, prideful Bengal community and forge connections between staff and students. One of these initiatives, Be Well 365, has been developed by MCPS to create harmony between the social, emotional, and academic aspects of students’ lives.
Another key initiative is the integration of restorative practices. Instead of relying on punishments alone, which Mr. Sinclair says are not always effective, teachers are encouraged to use tactics like community talking circles to address issues that have disrupted class, repair student and teacher relationships, check in with the class, etc.
More spirit weeks and more artwork decorating the school are on the horizon. Therapy dogs, a wellness center, and more spirit gear in community stores are potentialities. Mr. Sinclair expresses his hope for the success of these programs, and for the school year in general. “I really feel like I’ve got a grasp on where we are [as a school]” he says. “I’m really excited about the work we’re doing around relationships and some of the innovative things we’re building in.”
Mr. Sinclair advises students to enter this year with an open mind. He says, “For incoming ninth graders: we want you to know that you’re going to be challenged, but you’re being supported. Our returning students: you’ve got a chance to start anew. It is going to be a shift as we start focusing on increasing the level of achievement, but part of that, too, is students knowing that when you leave us, you have many more options.”