Longfellow Middle School Principal Paco Furlan greets parents and students with a fist bump on the first day of school on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The number of students referred to the principal’s office is down fivefold at Longfellow Middle School compared with fall 2019, the last time classes were held fully in person. Students are typically referred to the office for moderately serious misbehavior, such as hiding a backpack, that doesn’t warrant a suspension, but is serious enough to involve the principal or vice principal.

School leaders say the decline in office visits — there were fewer than 60 this fall — is the product of a larger effort by a new administration to promote a positive culture at a school that has at times struggled with student behavior. A May 2020 report described behavior from certain “chaotic” classrooms spilling out into the hallways.

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

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

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

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

“I’m proud to say that my team of counselors and safety officers and principals and PBIS team [which aims to incentivize positive student behavior] — we’ve come together and we’ve been able to see our [office referrals] decrease,” Mitchell said at a school board meeting Jan. 19.

At the same time, a substantial number of students were suspended at Longfellow this fall.

A little over halfway through the year, there have been 24 suspensions, many more than in fall 2019 but about on par with the school’s five-year average. Seventeen separate students have been suspended as of Jan. 24, some more than once.

Data points about student discipline can be difficult to compare from year to year. There are many varying factors, from school leadership to how a particular combination of students in one grade gets along. Longfellow’s suspension rates have fluctuated dramatically in the past five years. In 2017-18, Longfellow had 83 suspensions, 31 in 2018-19, and just three in 2019-20, which ended in schools shutting down as the pandemic took hold. 

So far this year, Longfellow’s suspension rate is approximately on par with the state average in a typical year. Most students were suspended for substance abuse or fighting. Mitchell said the school has started working with drug and alcohol abuse counselors to help students.

By comparison, Willard and Martin Luther King Jr. middle schools 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 larger. 

This year, schools across the country are reporting more violence, fighting, and suspensions than before the pandemic. Fights outside King and Berkeley High and have garnered the attention of Berkeley police, and multiple Instagram accounts have emerged to document the fights and chaotic situations at the high school. Some Berkeley High staff members have reported feeling unsafe. 

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

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

Change on campus

Despite the backdrop of a challenging year, the atmosphere walking down the halls at Longfellow didn’t feel like one of chaos when Berkeleyside visited the school multiple times over the last two weeks. 

The teachers we spoke with say that they feel supported, that students have clear expectations, and that the school’s mood is upbeat. Music plays from the gym during lunch and the students are given wacky incentives for good behavior, such as the privilege of skateboarding over their principal.

On Jan. 24, Berkeleyside asked Furlan whether the decreased office referrals were actually evidence of real change on campus. In response, Furlan offered an impromptu tour of several classrooms, abuzz with quiet, Monday-morning productivity. Berkeleyside talked with multiple teachers and staff and returned after school Jan. 26 to observe in action a new student group called Black Girls United.

Everything doesn’t always go smoothly, but Furlan said there’s 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 had relatively high staff turnover rates and has started the year with multiple vacant positions. This year, all teachers were hired prior to the start of school, which teachers said brought more stability.

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

A former Longfellow student herself, Mitchell feels like she can relate to the students. At once firm and understanding, Mitchell said she is constantly innovating new ways to help students be successful. One month, a behavioral contract will work for one student. Next month, it’s time for Mitchell to invent something new.  

This year, Black Girls United was added to the school’s usual systems of support. Led by Tanisha Walton, who is also 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 succeeded in their goal of having zero fights between Black girls at the school. “Wherever there’s Black girls,” Walton wants to make sure “they have a space where they feel safe, where they feel seen, feel that they belong.”

Schools like Longfellow that serve students with higher needs are often expected to rectify the challenges students face outside of the classroom, like poverty and instability, problems that have far-reaching effects and are challenging to resolve in the schools alone. 

But Furlan remains undeterred. “What an amazing opportunity,” he said, to try to tackle such issues head-on. “We’re not going to get it right all the time. And it’s challenging. But that’s why I’m a principal in Berkeley. I believe in us.”

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...