During this Summer of 2013, 15 rising fourth grade students left St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School in Lilburn, Georgia. Only three new students entered the fourth grade in addition to the 15 who left. During the Summer of 2012, eight rising third grade students left the school. Only two students entered the school as new pupils in the third grade. Interestingly, both of those students also left the school this Summer, after only one year at the school. Additionally, the vast majority of students who have left are Caucasian; most others are of mixed race parentage. Each year for the past three years, the school has considerably down-sized in terms of student population as well as faculty. Currently, all grade levels have two classes; it used to be that most or all grade levels had three classes up until three years ago.
As a person who has been Roman Catholic all of my life, and who has provided a Catholic education to my child, the exodus of students and faculty from St. John Neumann School is concerning and disturbing. One must ask, then, why there are so many who are leaving the school. I have the answers to that, and it does not necessarily involve finances, budgets, or economics.
I suspect that I will come across as “the bad guy” to many by sharing this information regarding the school, however it is for my concern for students’ welfare, well-being, safety, and positive growth and development that I am doing so. Additionally, my son is aware that I have a blog, and he also asked me to include his perspectives; my son is 10-years-old.
First, let me state that St. John Neumann School provides an outstanding – outstanding – education to the students. Overall, my observations of what students learn through the challenging curriculum are well above my expectations. Each year that my son was a student at St. John Neumann School, however, was a roller coaster. There were wonderful and memorable experiences that he had with several outstanding teachers, however there were also many situations that he experienced by peers and adults at the school that were mentally and emotionally harmful and injurious to him.
I often communicated with both school administrators and school system administrators, encouraging that greater sensitivity, compassion, and understanding be provided to the students. Some of my suggestions were put into place, and some were not, and some were later removed after they were first implemented. As an involved parent at the school, as well as an active volunteer for five years there, there was much that I personally observed and/or was informed about by students. By far, the most serious issue facing students is the bullying, harshness, and often insensitive treatment they experience by administrators and certain teachers and staff. I often encouraged upper administrators in the past five years to hold sensitivity training for employees of the school, though that never occurred.
Another very serious issue at the school is bullying that students’ experience from their own peers. Some children repeatedly experienced bullying from teachers, adminstrators, and/or other staff, as well as certain peers. This has created an unnecessary and avoidable stressful and hostile environment for many students. One problem is because many of the school employees are so harsh and insensitive toward students, they are bullies themselves, and they therefore do not recognize, nor put a stop to student bullying. Last year, more than 25% of parents responding to a school survey stated that bullying is a problem at the school. I am one who has, again, encouraged school system administrators to hold anti-bullying and bullying prevention programs for faculty and staff at the school, however that has also never occurred. Such training may help reduce bullying and increase sensitivity and compassion of adults and students toward other students.
A further big concern is the overwhelming pressure that is placed on students to be perfect in every area and in every way – academics, behavior, sociality, religion, and extra-curriculars. Beginning with the youngest children, students who do not complete their homework are regularly disciplined. In the past, teachers required students to stand outside for 5-10 minutes “on the line” – as they would say, on the outdoor paved parking lot play area, typically in the excessive heat. This was an unspoken rule practiced by primary and early elementary school teachers and paraprofessionals. Older children who did not complete homework are required to write answers to particular questions on a “behavior reflection” that reduces or eliminates their 15-20 minutes of recess time.
For two of the past five years, another unspoken disciplinary rule practiced by at least three school faculty involved making students walk and/or run “laps” outside during recess on the parking lot, again, typically in the excessive heat. Sadly, this practice appears to be somewhat of a common, unwritten practice in this area – requiring students to run laps as punishment in excessively high temperatures – as I have discovered that it occurs at many schools. In regard to one second grade boy, I informed his father that he was required to run laps as punishment by a paraprofessional, outside in the searing heat, and the dad did not believe me. How sad that some parents are not more concerned about what their child is experiencing at school.
Other teachers at the school regularly separated certain students from their classmates by requiring them to keep their desks far-removed from those of other students, whether for certain assignments or even months at a time. I often observed where many teachers would use guilt, humiliation, and embarassment toward students to demoralize them into doing what they wanted them to, rather than speak to children with respect, compassion, and understanding.
Early elementary students are also required to miss 45 minutes of lunch and recess by serving detention in the main office, including for extremely minor offenses. Such harsh and unnecessary punishments are unethical, demoralizing, and depressing to many students, particulary those outstanding students who get caught in the crossfires of the political drama at the school. In consulting with employees of other area schools, lengthy detentions are required only in the most severe situations of high school – high school – students, not early elementary students! I personally requested of school administration to reduce or eliminate this practice, though there was no positive change, and in fact, only a worsening of it, amounting to nothing less than emotional sadism toward students. When those who are charged with caring for children see nothing wrong with such unnecessary, harsh disciplinary action toward children for the most minor of offenses, definite positive change is needed.
Also in practice at the school is suspending children as young as second grade – to my knowledge; one very sweet little girl was suspended last Spring for I cannot imagine what. In other area schools, such a practice of issuing out-of-school suspensions to the youngest students is unheard of and entirely taboo. Such a practice proves the lack of sensitivity, understanding, and compassion by school administration.
I feel sorry for the students who are at St. John Neumann School due to the harshness, coldness, and lack of sensitivity and compassion that so many experience from alot of adults as well as peers at the school. I have often encouraged those in charge who could make a positive difference to consider being more sensitive, understanding, kind, and compassionate toward students. Harsh, demoralizing, excessive, and/or inhumane punishments that are disguised as “disciplinary actions” – even for the most minor of wrongs – are well beyond what school employees should expect of children.
When students get seriously hurt or ill at the school, a parent is lucky to get a phone call or communication about the incident from anyone. A second-grade student got a serious blow to the head during outdoor play, but no ice was placed on the injury and no phone call was made to parents. Upon picking up the child from school, it was obvious to the parent that the injury was serious. When the child spoke of dizziness a number of hours after the injury, the parent took the child to their pediatrician.
A kindergarten student fell in the hallway and sustained a large gash near her chin. Parents received no communications from the school about the incident, and only a band-aid was placed on the wound. Upon removing the band-aid after the child got home, the parent observed the depth of the wound, taking her to the emergency medical clinic where she received four stitches. There have also been instances in which students were genuinely ill, but when they asked to go to the clinic, they were refused by certain teachers and paraprofessionals. Keep in mind that absolutely no communications to parents by anyone at the school was made in any of these situations.
Safety is also a concern at the school. There are no security cameras at the school, so there is no tangible record of situations that occur there – it is one person’s word against another’s. A parent can inform an administrator about a teacher who belittles, bullies, and yells at a student – such as, simply for asking to use the restroom – but without any recording of it, the administrator does not believe it, does not want to get involved, and further, had already behaved in a bullyish manner toward children, so it is a lost cause.
Additionally, even with improved security measures having been implemented at the school this past Spring, it has not actually gotten better. All visitors are to sign-in at the front office upon entering the building, however have been many occasion – including since the new policies were implemented – that I personally observed people enter and walk through the building without signing in at all, nor going to the main office. There are also repeated instances of no one being at the front desk at the main office when people enter the school.
Last Spring, there was an actual “intruder alert” that occurred at the school that was not a drill; I was at the school volunteering when it occurred. Parents were not informed by any school officials that the intruder alert occurred. While the Superintendent stated in an archdiocese newspaper article that such drills and procedures regularly occur at all schools, a teacher at the school shared that only one such alert – whether actual or drill – occurred there in the past seven years! If she means that such alerts and/or drills occur every seven years, she would be correct that they occur regularly, however it has been my experience that many public schools, for example, practice them between 2-4 times each year. Because these drills and alerts are not “regularly” practiced at the school, many teachers really do not know what to do. When fire and even tornado drills are practiced more than intruder drills, I for one, am concerned about the safety of my child at the school.
Teachers are also known to leave outside doors propped or even slightly ajar when they are supposed to be closed and locked. Unfortunately, this is also a practice at many schools, so that late colleagues can enter the school undetected by supervisors. However, that this is regularly being done on the hallway that houses the youngest children is a serious safety concern.
Again, I will likely be viewed as the bearer of bad news by sharing this information, however I believe that steps need to be taken to make improvements in order to progress rather than regress at St. John Neumann School. I know I won’t win any awards for my article. That my son – a 10-year-old – also wanted me to share his views about what he experienced at the school reflects the tone and atmosphere that is present at the school.
While we have had many wonderful and memorable experiences at the school, as well as having met, interacted with, and befriended many people – including some truly great teachers – it is a serious concern when a school does not live up to it’s mission and standards. When “teaching the Gospel values” of God and Jesus in the Catholic tradition is merely spoken but not actually practiced by many school representatives, there is definitely something that must change for the better.
So, at $7,000 per student in tuition only, St. John Neumann lost a total of 18 students from the second and third grades in the past two years. I think that’s a total of $126,000 if I did my math correctly, right? That’s alot of money to be losing. In business, it is always said that it is much easier to retain those people who are already part of an institution rather than recruit new ones. However, in sharing my perspectives about this to both school administrators and school system administrators, there has been an apathy and lack of concern about it. For me, personally, as a Catholic and having desired for my child to have a Catholic education, this is a serious concern.
Thus, the reasons that I have described herein, I believe, are those that have caused the increasing exodus from and diminished size of St. John Neumann School in Lilburn, Georgia. Isn’t it time for a positive change? My aim in sharing this information is not to be critical, however it is to be honest and urge for positive change and improvements to occur at the school. St. John Neumann is surely an excellent school at which students receive an outstanding education. And again, while we have had many wonderful, exciting, and happy memories at the school, there are also a number of issues that deserve both serious attention and improvement.
It is definitely disappointing when a school of one’s own faith does not meet minimal expectations regarding the value and treatment of children. Children should not be perceived, nor treated as bad what with issuing so many unnecessary and harsh punishments; it is the perspectives and training of the adults that need drastic improvement. Maybe if more people put their heads together, praying and working hard in doing what is in the best interests of children, that will occur.