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Priority Schools: Dayton

Team Effort

How a principal, a union leader, and educators are working together to save Dayton’s Belmont High.


By Amy Buffenbarger

Belmont High School in Dayton, Ohio, is in the midst of a renaissance. Teachers are teaching. Students are learning. It didn’t used to be like that.

Until two years ago, discipline problems were so rampant, students so out of control that no one at the school could truly focus on academics. “It was chaos and each year it got worse,” recalls media center specialist Linda Dovel. “Teachers were just trying to survive the day. They weren’t able to teach because there were too many disruptions.”

Back then, only 30 percent of freshmen completed their coursework to become sophomores.

This year, that number is 84 percent. And that’s just one sign of the success on display at the school.  Those who have seen this remarkable turnaround inevitably wonder: How did they do it?

When it comes to school transformation there’s no “paint by numbers,” but at Belmont, the necessary elements were a new and determined principal, a strong union, and dedication on both sides to the idea that open and honest collaboration was the only way to save the school once known as “Hellmont.”

Belmont High is one of the schools chosen by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign to demonstrate the power of union-management collaboration. The successes at Belmont were saluted from the stage of the NEA Representative Assembly in July (more coverage of the RA on page 69). Partnerships like this one, involving educators, unions, administrators, and community groups that serve young people, are transforming lower-performing schools in community after community across the country. NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign provides support and tells the stories of these efforts, both to the education community and beyond.

“As I have traveled across the country over the past three years, I have been inspired by the work local NEA affiliates are doing to transform schools that were once struggling,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Working in collaboration with public education allies, NEA members are improving student learning and making a difference in thousands of lives. Belmont High School in Dayton is a prime example.”

Though he’s often given credit as the visionary behind Belmont’s dramatic turnaround, Principal David White is quick to point out it was a group that “wanted change” when he arrived in July 2009. “They were tired of the violence. They were tired of the disrespect. They were tired of coming to work in fear. I was very fortunate to walk in to this group because they just said ‘what do we need to do?’”

“We’re all on the same page now with accountability, bell work, classwork, and homework,” says Alice Owen-Clough, a physical education teacher. The school not only compiles statistics on how many students arrive in class on time and complete all of their responsibilities, they also place results on graphs and distribute them so that staff can easily spot trends and take appropriate action. “Everyone meets twice a week,” continues Owen-Clough. “It’s just a good thing all around.”


Dayton Education Association
Pres. David Rock and Belmont
educator Marjorie Punter
Photo by John Johnston

The Dayton Education Association (DEA), which represents educators at Belmont, would say the same. Current DEA President David Romick was a teacher at the school when White came on board. The two developed a strong relationship, and White made a point of running ideas and changes by Romick first.

“I’ve encouraged principals to keep the communication lines open with the union,” says Romick. “It’s the way to prevent problems down the road. David White is one of the principals in Dayton who heeds that.”

NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign promotes collaboration, especially when it engages advocates outside of the school itself, as the key to true and sustainable reform that can achieve results like Belmont’s.


Just a few years ago, Belmont was a school run by the students. They skipped class and roamed the halls by the hundreds. Fights were a near daily occurrence; police cars regularly stood on call outside. An emergency alarm was located right next to the cafeteria cash registers, to sound when students tried to steal the lunch money. Teachers feared for their safety and stayed in classrooms behind locked doors, desperately trying to get students engaged in their lessons despite the distractions outside.

“It got to the point where I would get phone calls from friends saying my school was on the news again,” says Michael Slightam, a social studies teacher at Belmont. “It was an embarrassment for my personal life and my professionalism.”

In Dayton, parents have long been able to choose where to send their children, though that will change in the 2011-2012 school year as Dayton moves toward a neighborhood school attendance model. Belmont’s reputation meant that it wasn’t a school parents chose; it was where the lowest-performing and most troubled students in the district ended up. Not surprisingly, the school was also a revolving door for teachers.

That’s why Principal White and his leadership team first focused on restoring order.



As students milled outside on the first day of the 2009-2010 school year waiting for the doors to unlock, they got their first look at their new principal, who stormed out with his now-famous bullhorn in hand and demanded the students form two single-file lines. White knew Day One was crucial; he would either establish authority with the students from the very first moment, or the chaos would continue. Only when the lines were perfect did White march everyone into the auditorium to explain the new expectations for Belmont students, which revolved around the 5 B’s:

  1. Be prepared.
  2. Be on time.
  3. Be respectful.
  4. Be accountable.
  5. Be consistent.

Every staff member at Belmont strictly enforces the 5 B’s. “If you instill that in the kids, it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit, it becomes their character,” says Larry Carter, the ninth grade transition coordinator.

“Big expectations, that’s the key now,” says Ajilon Harmon, a paraprofessional who works with special education students. “The kids are starting to see that staff are really here for them and they can learn and progress.”

Of the 807 students at Belmont, 85 percent are economically disadvantaged, 20 percent have limited English proficiency, and 28 percent have disabilities. But the high poverty rates and large special needs population are challenges Principal White was used to. He has made a career of working with at-risk students in Dayton, a city in the midst of a very long economic downturn.

With experience as a teacher, assistant principal, program manager for an initiative targeting dropouts and truants, and assistant to the superintendent, White opened his own school in 2006. He served as the Chief Academic Officer of Dayton Technology Design High School, a conversion charter school sponsored by Dayton Public Schools that serves ninth through 12th graders, age 16 through 22, who have dropped out of high school or who are likely to do so. His successes with at-risk students drew attention, and White was recruited to Belmont.

“When I was a freshman and sophomore, there were fights all the time,” says Ben Cox, who graduated from Belmont on May 20. “Mr. White came in and now it’s a pretty good place. Some people don’t like Mr. White because he’s strict, but the people who want to learn like him a lot.”


Lt. Christopher Williams of the Dayton Police Department credits White and the staff at Belmont for devising a plan that includes support from the police as well as the Montgomery County Juvenile Court in Dayton.

The police department helped White and his staff identify root behavior problems, and then worked with the juvenile court on a special process for cases involving Belmont students. No matter where a Belmont student got in trouble, action was taken in accordance with the education plan.

 “When I take a look at the impact we’ve had with our piece of the puzzle at Belmont, there is no doubt in my mind we’ve made a difference in people’s lives,” says Williams. “We’ve all given some of these kids a future they never would have had.”

The school achieved dramatic results in reducing discipline problems in just a single year.

Compared to the previous school year, in 2009-2010:

Fights went from 143 down to 17, an 89 percent reduction.

Assaults went from 83 down to 10, an 88 percent reduction.

Arrests went from 58 down to 1, a 99 percent reduction.

Teachers who once left the school now want to come back. And those who never left, now wear their Belmont Bison t-shirts with pride.

“Belmont is totally different,” says Linda Dovel. “It’s a safe place now, it’s a place where students are being educated and that’s the most important thing.”


Principal White wasn’t the only newcomer to the staff two years ago. So was Marjorie Punter, a 42-year teaching veteran hired to teach 11th- and 12th-grade literature in Belmont’s special education program. On her very first day, she made a shocking discovery: There were no textbooks for her students. “It was devastating to find out how far behind we were,” says Punter.

She took the problem to White, who made phone call after phone call, each time being told Belmont wouldn’t get textbooks for the special education students. That’s when Punter approached the union. “I said, ‘Now what do I do?’” Punter recalls. “They said you’re going to file a grievance and we’re going to get those kids books.”

Dayton Education Association President David Romick, who at the time was DEA vice-president and a teacher at Belmont, explained to White that the union was going to file a grievance against him based on the clause in the union contract that requires the administration to “provide appropriate supplies and materials.”

White welcomed it.

“We took that grievance downtown and the whole district got special ed textbooks [for every subject in the curriculum] as a result,” says Romick. It’s just the kind of collaboration that NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign advocates to transform lower-performing schools, and a perfect example of how collective bargaining and union contracts can ultimately benefit students.


Belmont educators meet weekly.
Photo by: Amy Buffenbarger/NEA

“There’s a long-standing attitude that this needs to remain an ‘us-versus-them’ situation,” Romick says of the idea that unions and administrators are enemies. “We’re at a point now where things have to change, things have to move forward. We’re here to serve the students. That’s the bottom line and collaboration is the only way to get there.”

Still, Belmont leaders are well aware that a new law in Ohio is threatening to limit successes like this one. Senate Bill 5 (S.B. 5), passed by the Ohio legislature in March and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich on April 1, targets workers, including educators, their unions, and collective bargaining rights. In this instance, S.B. 5 would have denied educators the right to grieve the lack of appropriate textbooks. The Ohio Education Association is one of the leaders of an effort to overturn the law through petition.

In the meantime, the Dayton Education Association and staff at Belmont High School will continue to build community relationships and enhance the learning environment they have worked together to create.

“This union wants this building to be the first in Dayton that reforms the public school district,” says Punter.


Last summer, Principal White’s sincere trust in Belmont’s educators was on display when he set out to create a whole new set of curriculum guides for the entire school.

He did it in two steps.

One: Hire teachers.

Two: Get out of their way.

It wasn’t quite that simple, but that was his basic approach.

With money from Belmont High’s School Improvement Grant, White hired teachers for one week in the summer. But he didn’t tell them how to do their work. “I said to my staff, ‘You know better than anybody what to do with these kids. Here are the state standards. Here’s the district calendar. Figure out what we need to do week by week.’”

The staff posted charts all up and down the hallways so everybody could see all the planning as it happened and coordinate across grades. Even the school’s curriculum coordinator, James Mencsik recalls feeling a bit superfluous as the faculty dived into the work. “I would walk into the math room sometimes and they were kind of irritated with me because I disturbed their train of thought. ‘Nice to see you—Would you just leave, please?’’’

After the regular education guide was written, special education teachers adapted it for students with disabilities.

“Ms. Barnes in the 11th grade chose The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which is a Vietnam War story. My class read that, too,” says special education teacher Punter. “The difference is, we read it out loud.”

The faculty used the new guides last school year, noting where things worked  and where they didn’t. This summer, they’re making the adjustments.

White also arranged schedules so teachers can collaborate during the school year. Every week, teachers in every grade meet twice, once to talk about discipline issues involving the students they share, and once on curriculum and instruction.

What’s really at the heart of the Belmont renaissance? “Faith in the staff,” says curriculum leader Mencsik. “They’re the closest to the students. They’re the closest to the problems. They know what students need to be successful.”


“I make it so the teacher can teach”

By Alain Jehlen


Ajilon Harmon (aka “Bobo”) didn’t set out to be the glue that holds Belmont High School together, the grease that keeps its law-and-order machinery from snagging, the safety valve on the Belmont pressure cooker, or any other metaphor for his vital role in Belmont’s transformation.

No, he was going to be a New York photographer.

Harmon grew up in Dayton, went to college and headed to New York to launch his career. But when his mother got sick, Harmon came home to take care of her and started subbing to pay the bills. He got hired as a paraprofessional and developed a talent for engaging emotionally disturbed teenagers nobody else could handle.

That’s why David White asked him to come to Belmont to help turn around the city’s toughest high school.

“I was not eager to go,” says Harmon. “I heard they averaged five fights a lunch period.” But he had worked with White before, and White said he needed him.

On a typical day in March, Harmon is on lunch duty, joking with students but also keeping them in check. Wearing jeans, sneakers, an Aeropostale T-shirt, and braids, Harmon looks 20 years younger than his 48 calendar years.

In the afternoon, heading to his next class, Harmon encounters one of his emotionally disturbed students clearly not going the same way.

Harmon jokes, directs, and cajoles. He is clear about the consequences of staying in the hallway: suspension. But he never raises his voice. Finally, student and para enter the classroom together.

Every few minutes, Harmon has to intervene again. He takes a cell phone from one student, gets another to sit down and do the work. “I make it so the teacher can teach,” he says.

Harmon still does photography on the side. It’s much more lucrative than being a paraeducator. But Harmon says there’s nothing like the personal satisfaction he feels at Belmont High.

What’s his secret to working with difficult students? “It’s hard to explain,” says Harmon. “They just take to me and I take to them.”

NEA's Priority Schools Campaign is a movement of educators across the country to help transform struggling schools by working with schools, families, communities and government to significantly raise student achievement. Dayton is just one example of the results achieved by collaborative activity that includes the active leadership of unions.

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