Longfellow School culture improves as visits to principal’s office decrease

Longfellow Middle School principal Paco Furlan greets parents and students with a thumbs up on the first day of school on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The number of students referred to the principal’s office has increased fivefold at Longfellow Middle School compared to fall 2019, the last time classes were held entirely in person. Students are usually returned to the office for moderately serious misconduct, such as stealing a backpack, that does not warrant suspension, but is serious enough to implicate the principal or vice-principal.

School leaders say the drop in office visits – there were less than 60 this fall – is the product of a greater effort by a new administration to promote a positive culture in a school that has sometimes struggled with student behavior. A May 2020 report described the behavior of some “chaotic” classrooms spilling into hallways.

Principal Paco Furlan, a longtime former principal of Rosa Parks Elementary, and Vice-Principal Salita Mitchell, a Longfellow graduate, took the helm in the fall of 2020 after former principal Stacey Wyatt resigned the previous spring.

Furlan said he and Mitchell have worked to scale up positive behavior interventions, reduce class sizes (to about 20 students per class), and increase student supervision, including volunteer dads over lunch, among other changes.

Now, some teachers and students say the effort is paying off.

“Our administration team set a tone that I really like. They’re loving seekers, and they love first,” said Mary Patterson, a sixth-grade teacher at Longfellow who has taught at Berkeley Unified since 1990. The result, she said, is that “the school works better”.

“I am proud to say that my team of advisors and security officers and directors and the PBIS team [which aims to incentivize positive student behavior] — we got together and we could see our [office referrals] decline,” Mitchell said at a Jan. 19 school board meeting.

At the same time, a significant number of students were suspended from Longfellow this fall.

Just over halfway through the year, there were 24 suspensions, significantly more than in the fall of 2019, but roughly on par with the school’s five-year average. Seventeen separate students were suspended as of January 24, some more than once.

Student discipline data points can be difficult to compare from year to year. There are many variable factors, from the school leadership to how well a particular combination of students in a year get along. Longfellow’s suspension rates have fluctuated significantly over the past five years. In 2017-18, Longfellow had 83 suspensions, 31 in 2018-19 and just three in 2019-20, which resulted in school closures as the pandemic took hold.

So far this year, Longfellow’s suspension rate is about equal to the state average in a typical year. Most of the students were suspended for drug addiction or fighting. Mitchell said the school has begun working with drug and alcohol counselors to help students.

By comparison, Willard and Martin Luther King Jr. colleges have suspension rates below the typical state average. Between the first day of school and Nov. 18, 2021, Longfellow had 18 suspensions, Willard had three, and King had nine, even though Willard and King are much taller.

This year, schools across the country are reporting more violence, fighting and suspensions than before the pandemic. Fighting outside King and Berkeley High caught the attention of Berkeley police, and several Instagram accounts sprung up documenting the fights and chaotic situations at the high school. Some Berkeley High staff said they felt unsafe.

Experts have linked the violence to a mental health crisis in adolescents, closely linked to the traumas associated with the pandemic, including instability, poverty and the loss of loved ones, as well as the isolation of learning to distance.

“A number of life situations for these students have become more precarious. So what I’ve noticed is that, young people, their mental health oscillates between rage and anger and depression and despair and anxiety,” said Dr. Derethia DuVal, a health counselor mental health worker who works with young people in the Bay Area. DuVal’s grandson also attends Berkeley High.

Change on campus

Despite the backdrop of a difficult year, the atmosphere wandering the halls of Longfellow did not resemble that of chaos when Berkeleyside visited the school several times over the past two weeks.

Teachers we spoke to say they feel supported, students have clear expectations, and the school atmosphere is positive. Music plays from the gym during lunch, and students get goofy incentives for good behavior, like the privilege of skateboarding on their principal.

On Jan. 24, Berkeleyside asked Furlan if the decline in office referrals was in fact evidence of real change on campus. In response, Furlan offered an impromptu tour of several classrooms, abuzz with silent Monday morning productivity. Berkeleyside spoke with several teachers and staff and returned after school on January 26 to observe a new group of students called Black Girls United in action.

All doesn’t always go well, but Furlan said there has been a concerted effort to improve the school’s climate.

In the past, Longfellow, which has a disproportionate number of students who receive free and reduced lunch, has experienced relatively high staff turnover rates and started the year with several vacancies. This year, all teachers were hired before school started, which teachers say has brought more stability.

Some teachers say the school’s new administrators, especially vice-principal Mitchell, have brought positive change to Longfellow.

A former student of Longfellow herself, Mitchell feels she can relate to the students. Both firm and understanding, Mitchell said she is constantly innovating new ways to help students succeed. A month, a behavioral contract will work for a student. Next month it will be time for Mitchell to invent something new.

This year, Black Girls United has been added to the school’s regular support systems. Led by Tanisha Wilson, who also serves as a pastor at The Way Church in Berkeley, and UC Berkeley student Skylynn Hayes, the group is all about empowerment and connection. Last semester, the girls achieved their goal of having zero black girl fights at school. “Wherever there are black girls,” Wilson wants to make sure “they have a space where they feel safe, where they feel seen, feel they belong.”

Schools like Longfellow that serve students with higher needs are often expected to address challenges that students face outside of the classroom, such as poverty and instability, issues that have far-reaching effects and are difficult to address in schools alone.

But Furlan remains unfazed. “What an incredible opportunity,” he said, to try to tackle these issues head-on. “We’re not going to be successful all the time. And it’s difficult. But that’s why I’m a manager at Berkeley. I believe in us.”

Martha K. Merrill