Last year, there was a fight the first day of school. It was the first of many, remembers Dustin Linthicum.

So far this year there hasn’t been a single fight at Wurtland Middle School, said the 12-year-old seventh-grader.

“No one wants the strikes,” he said.

He’s talking about Wurtland’s new discipline program, a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy combined with a behavior code that details expectations in the classroom, hallways, restrooms, cafeteria, in fact, every nook and cranny of the school.

The program is slowly transforming Wurtland’s image from that of a rough-and-tumble warehouse of aimless adolescents to a district symbol of pride.

“Last year, people from Russell and McKell would say Wurtland was bad and we should move there. Now some of them want to come here,” Linthicum said. “Now I like saying I go to Wurtland.”

When principal Tracy Claxon came to Wurtland permanently two years ago, he knew he had to do something. The school had had a new principal about every two years for 16 years, which wreaked havoc on any attempts at a consistent policy.

The “merry-go-round of administrators” left staff and students alike guessing what was expected of them. Misbehavior was rampant and morale was low.

“It’s no secret. Wurtland Middle School had a reputation. We were losing kids to other districts because parents didn’t want to send them here,” Claxon said.

What he noticed was that middle school aged children were acting more like elementary school kids. By and large, they hadn’t learned the social skills typical for their age group. He realized he and his teachers had been seeing their classrooms full of Bart Simpsons through Ward and June Cleavers’ eyes.

“There were things we took for granted,” he said. Things like the assumption that all kids learned manners and respect at home, that every kid in school came from a background of old-fashioned values.

More than 70 percent of Wurtland’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, Claxon pointed out. Being from a disadvantaged background doesn’t necessarily mean a child was poorly raised or will behave badly, but it does separate them by outlook from predominantly middle-class, college-educated teachers.

When Claxon shopped around for a discipline program from the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline, representatives told him he’d need the support of at least 80 percent of his staff for it to work. When he polled faculty and support staff, the result was unanimous — go ahead.

The program is based on concrete expectations, specific consequences and rewards for proper behavior.

It starts the first day of school, when students make the rounds of the school and their teachers outline rules of behavior in each arena, from the classroom to the cafeteria to the ballfield. It’s not enough to tell the kids what’s acceptable and what’s not, teachers role-play proper deportment so there’s no doubt.

For instance, walking on the right is the standard traffic pattern in hallways. Just like on the highway, veering to the wrong side can bring a penalty, or strike.

Other misbehavior that can result in strikes include fighting, bad language, and so on. The more strikes, the stiffer the penalties.

Students who don’t have any strikes are eligible for rewards.

Faculty members like the program, said history teacher Dave Stuart, who has been at Wurtland for 17 years. Previously, teachers were almost as confused as students because there was no consistent policy for discipline. “Teachers all did their own thing. We weren’t all on the same page,” he said.

Students didn’t know what was expected of them and that made it harder to teach. “Now there’s more learning and less stress.”

He’s heard parents remark that Wurtland is more organized.

Kids won’t necessarily admit to being happy about it, but they do say they feel safe at school, Claxon said.

From what he has seen they feel proud of their school, too. Recently he watched a group of boys linger after a ball game to pick up trash, entirely of their own volition.

Another group of students broke up a fight on unassisted by staff.

But will a discipline program enhance learning? With a new atmosphere of safety and cooperation, “the test scores are going to take care of themselves,” Claxon said.

“But we’re also here to make good citizens.”

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or at (606) 326-2652.

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