Troubled School Comes Back with S.W.A.G.G.E.R.

Shawn Rux, Principal of M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo in Far Rockaway, has turned the school around. (Photos by Gwynne Hogan for Voices of NY)

Girls line up after a brief recess in the school’s inner courtyard, preparing to head back to class.

Rux spends much of the school day patrolling the corridors and observing classes.

Girls and boys are separated for lunch and recess, a division Rux says encourages better behavior.

For years, M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo in Far Rockaway was synonymous in the community with violence. It was the last school you wanted to send your kids. One teacher called it “a madhouse” and remembers bulletin boards being set on fire and having to barricade her classroom with desks in order to protect her students from other kids.

A discipline-driven principal began to reign in the chaos by decreasing the school’s size, which helped. But his method also involved a strict policy where teachers were encouraged to suspend kids. Some teachers remember a culture of fear that gripped the building. By 2010 M.S. 53 had a record of 280 suspensions at a school of just 500 students. Some students had multiple suspensions, and the average duration was six-and-a-half days.

But in 2011, a new principal arrived who has managed to turn the school around. Since Shawn Rux has been at M.S. 53, suspensions dropped to fewer than 40 last year. The school’s letter grade, assigned by the city’s Department of Education, climbed from an F to a B. Violent incidents plummeted from 188 the year before he got there, to 16 in the 2012-2013 school year.

There has been a sharp critique of school suspensions across the country in the past few years. Research has shown that students who are suspended are less likely to graduate, that black and Latino students are suspended at higher rates than white and Asian students and that in many cases suspensions aren’t actually very effective.

Gwynne Hogan gives us a glimpse inside the walls of M.S. 53 for a look at how Rux’s reinterpretation of the school discipline code led to a totally different way of dealing with and preventing behaviors that might have otherwise led to suspensions.

Gwynne Hogan is a multimedia reporter and graduate student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. This story originally aired on AudioFiles, an hour-long podcast produced by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Click here for the S.W.A.G.G.E.R. video.

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