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John Swett superintendent shares his educational philosophy, which includes discipline and accountability

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, July 6th, 2012 at 1:57 pm in John Swett district, West Contra Costa County.

When I spoke to John Swett district Superintendent Mike McLaughlin earlier this week about the dramatic increase in his district’s graduation rate (from 75.3 percent in 2010 to 88.2 percent last year), he shared his educational philosophy with me. It is focused on putting policies in place that hold students accountable for their education, then implementing those policies consistently.

McLaughlin oversees a tiny West Contra Costa County district that includes one elementary, one middle, one high and one continuation high school. Yet, it is the fifth-most diverse unified district in the nation, he said.

In the four years since he came to the district, McLaughlin said he and the board have put stronger discipline and intervention policies into place to keep students focused on learning and give them the help they need. He has also stepped up anti-truancy efforts, giving students more incentive to go to school.

“Basically, we had kids that would just sit in a class and do nothing and there was no accountability,” he said. “Well, I’m not a day care.”

Freshmen who fail classes are pulled out for intervention so they won’t get to their junior year and realize there’s no way they’ll be able to graduate, which used to happen, McLaughlin said.

“We can’t let it get that far,” he said. “It’s difficult when you come into places and see these things happening. I think we can keep doing better.”

Eighth-graders who aren’t making the grade are required to attend mandatory summer school, according to a new board policy. The district is also not shy about suspending and expelling some students to ensure the safety of everyone on campus, McLaughlin said.

“We want the kids here, but safety has got to be number one,” he said. “We don’t expel people just for frivolous stuff. I think we’ve set a tone with our truancy policy by being consistent with our suspensions and expulsions. It’s very rare that we have to expel them twice. It gets parents involved. It’s to get this kid refocused. Our discipline issues have gone down because we’re following best practices and we’re a district on the move. I’m excited.”

Yet, similar to many districts throughout the state, John Swett’s budget is a bit precarious, with the scary outlook that it might not be able to pay its bills in three years.

“But that doesn’t change whether or not you follow best practices,” McLaughlin said. “The budget issues will always be there until society figures out whether they’re going to fund education. We’re going to keep adjusting. If things don’t go well in November (with the proposed tax increases), we’re going to be — like a lot of schools — trying to figure it out.”

In the past, he has started making cuts at the top, he said.

“I’m the superintendent and also the CBO (Chief Business Officer) halftime,” he said. “I’m also facilities director. When I got here, there were people in all those jobs. You try to stay as far away from the classroom as possible. All my administrators have two or three jobs. But that’s what you have to do. That’s what most small schools have done for years is maximize your administrators and make sure you get the people in the right positions that can do multiple things. You have to create a new culture where people can do more with less, by changing policy and being more consistent. We’re more effective with how we do things. We’re holding teachers more accountable. We’ve got a great support staff that makes it possible to do these things.”

However, the district is feeling the strain, he said, noting that the state has proposed up to 15 furlough days over the next two years if the November taxes fail. The district recently saw two parcel taxes fail, but will consider on July 25 floating a bond measure to rebuild its middle school, which is about a century old.

“I can tell you we’re bending,” McLaughlin said. “Throughout these times, we’ve tried to be as creative as possible to keep the doors open. We still want to do the best job for the kids. We can’t just give up. Our job is to smile and figure it out, because we can whine all we want, but no one’s listening. We have to be confident that we’re going to make it through the storm. I can’t sit here and have the doom and gloom everyday. I’ve got to keep people pumped up and we keep making progress.”

Do you agree with McLaughlin’s ideas?

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