During retirement a former East Texas superintendent spent a lot of time reflecting on what had and had not worked when building up young adults.
When Dr. Eddie Dunn moved back to the Tyler area, he felt a strong desire to try a different approach.
Dunn came out of retirement to become Hogg Middle School principal in 2014, and quickly began to restructure the way discipline was handled.
“When I joined the staff I had some deeply held beliefs about how awesome young people can be when they’re given what they need,” Dunn said. “That involves the right balance of support and accountability.”
Support and options were key to his plan to reshape the way students handle conflict.
“Given enough support and early enough in their lives, they have so much potential,” he said. “We know what doesn’t work, which is yelling at kids, being mean, unfair, and a lack of accountability and support.”
The approach starts with building a culture of support between staff and students, letting the students know they can rely on the staff to take their concerns seriously.
“It’s absolutely critical that students are comfortable and trust that they can go to an adult and they will take it seriously,” he said.
Eighth-grade student Dorismar Rosales said the climate on campus has helped her not only learn to problem solve, but also to build relationships.
“The climate and atmosphere has been very loving and everybody loves each other,” she said. “It’s not like every day we have drama, we’ve grown friendships and know that no matter what happens we can talk to the teacher or each other.”
The staff also teaches students de-escalation tactics. If another student is trying to start a fight, they are told to take two steps back, put their hands up, say “I don’t want to fight” and repeat the process.
“If they do that and they’re assaulted by another student, they have a right to defend themselves if the other student closes that space,” Dunn said. “All we ask is they give peace a chance first.”
Dunn said that by embracing a philosophy of de-escalation and working with students having issues, fights at the school have dropped dramatically.
“Our aspiration is that every student feels safe and happy and excited about learning,” Dunn said. “You can’t have that in a climate of solving problems in hostility. We place a very heavy emphasis on counseling students who are having difficulties.”
By giving students the tools to solve problems in a deliberate manner, they also are seeing improvements in other areas. Students also are less likely to be removed from class for disruption.
Rosales said that the de-escalation tactics have made an impact on how students interact, such as learning to better communicate during group projects. Dunn agreed.
“We think there is a direct correlation between wise problem solving and academic success,” Dunn said. “They miss less class and those wise strategies tend to enhance their education.”
At the end of the day, Dunn hopes to create a safe and nurturing environment that allows students to grow into well-rounded adults.
“We have three years, and that’s it, to help a young teenager,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing when you see a young middle school student embrace positive conflict resolution. There’s now hope they’ll be successful in high school and beyond.”
Rosales said she has taken the communication techniques learned at Hogg and applied them at home as well. She said the leadership emphasis also has helped her see that it is important to be accountable.
“Dr. Dunn and all the other staff have really connected with us and communicate with us in the morning,” Rosales said. “They tell us if something is wrong and help us fix it or they tell us where we’re doing a good job.”
The success found at Hogg also is making an impact on Tyler ISD. With changes to middle school programs on the horizon, Hogg is being looked at as a model for a leadership school.
“We are very excited, we’re still evolving our approach to how we want to build that,” Dunn said. “It will involve a planned, purposeful, structured curriculum that is part of the everyday fabric of our school.”
The school already has integrated programs to help students take ownership of the campus. A Principal’s Advisory Council tasks students with getting feedback on what they love about Hogg and what they would like to see change.
“They say our teachers love them and that’s the background of our approach of mutual respect,” Dunn said. “All we’re trying to do is love kids. I think they pick up on that.”