This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.
"Mr. LeSane, Jason needs you!" the assistant principal called out across the cafeteria.
Hours after finishing his graveyard prison shift, Floyd LeSane was on the daytime schoolyard shift. He walked over to where a 3rd-grader was circling the tables, refusing to sit down.
LeSane, a correctional officer at Manson Youth Correctional Institution in Cheshire, was dispatched to Jason's side as he made his rounds during one of his regular visits to the Wexler/Grant School, which serves 378 kids in grades pre-K to 8 on Dixwell's Foote Street.
The Dixwell native, who attended the school in his youth, has returned as an adult volunteer. He is helping the crew at Wexler/Grant try to make the school safe and orderly in the first year of a turnaround effort, so it can move on to academic goals. The larger effort of which he is a part reflect a central challenge of low-performing schools seeking dramatic improvement: Keeping order.
Behavior was a key concern when Principal Sabrina Breland took over the school in 2010. On a survey that year, only 22 percent of teachers and 42 percent of students reported they felt safe at school. That red flag, in addition to years of poor performance on tests, prompted the district to launch a so-called "turnaround" effort, replacing half the staff and bringing in extra resources.
Safety in the school has improved; 69 of teachers and 58 percent of students reported feeling safe last year. But misbehavior remains a big challenge. Breland can use all the helpers she can find, including volunteers like LeSane.
As of mid-March, the school had 21 reported incidents of assault and battery, on track to outpace the 22 incidents for the entire previous school year. Other types of offenses were on pace to decline: The school had 13 incidents of "fighting/ physical aggression" by mid-March, compared to 44 the previous year; and one incident of "disruptive behavior" compared to over 50 the prior year. School officials released that data in a March 26 presentation to the school board; schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark said he has no more recent info available.
Principal Breland said the spike in some behavioral problems stems from a group of new students who've had trouble adjusting to the school.
"For the students who were here last year, it's going well," Breland reported. But "it has been rough with the new students."
In addition to the annual arrival of new kindergarteners, she said, the school had an influx of new students in older grades who "weren't used to doing things our way."
"We even got two new students on Monday," Breland said. Because Wexler/Grant is a community school, not a magnet, it accepts rolling admissions from anyone in the neighborhood. That can prove a challenge to a school trying to establish a new school culture.
Breland said she has started "principal's roundtable," where she gets input from parents on behavioral problems. The group looks at the data—which classrooms have the most infractions and what time of day they take place. The group is working on a more consistent set of consequences for misbehavior.
"We do have some discrepancies in how things are being handled," she said.
She said her goal is that "by September, every parent has in his hand the first, second and third consequence of every infraction they have in the building."
To give Wexler/Grant more support, the district this year tapped it as one of five so-called BOOST! schools, offering "wraparound" services for kids, including for those who are upset or cause trouble at school. At Wexler-Grant, that meant forming a new partnership with the Foundation for Arts and Trauma. Through that partnership, 24 at-risk students are meeting one-on-one with a drama therapist two times a week.
"Are we where we need to be? No way," Breland said. "I think we've got a ways to go." But BOOST! "has played a part to change the climate in the building."
The school also rolled out Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an initiative now taking root in many schools, which focuses on rewarding positive behavior. Some students also get one-one-one time with high school mentors like Shaylah McQueen.
And if they're out in the hallways, they bump into Mr. LeSane.
THE POST-OVERNIGHT SHIFT
Breland said LeSane is one of many people working to "keep the kids in a positive way."
"The kids like him. He's a friendly face that says ‘Good morning' and ‘Hi' and makes sure the day stays positive."
LeSane, who's 45, arrived at Wexler/Grant at 9:30 a.m. Thursday holding a Yankees mug filled with coffee. He had spent the night watching over inmates at Manson Youth as part of the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. He walked into the Wexler/Grant hallway wearing his prison-issued blue uniform pants and steel-toed boots.
At 275 pounds, he brings brings a serious presence to the corridor, where he walks three to four times every week.
"Arabic Temple!" called out one young boy, reading the writing on LeSane's black hoodie. The kid knew the name because Arabic Temple No. 40, LeSane's branch of the Shriners fraternity, sponsors a baseball team in the Walter Pop Smith Little League, which just opened for the season the past weekend.
Kids there call him "coach," a title LeSane has held for 17 years. At school, they call him "Mr. L."
LeSane, who now lives in Hamden, first came to Wexler a few years ago as part of a team of mentors from his fraternity. He's the only one who remains. (The others work day shifts at their jobs.)
Coming to the school was like coming home, he said; he grew up in the Elm Haven projects across the street. He hung out at the nearby Q House. He attended the school back when it was called Winchester Community.
"This is where I was made," he said.
He recalled playing basketball in the school gym under the strict governance of Sylvia Hare, the phys ed teacher from 1959 to 1993, after whom the gym is now named. Hare made sure kids stayed in line and didn't forget their soap dishes for the shower. You didn't want to get on her bad side. She held kids to a high standard.
LeSane went on to graduate from Hillhouse High and to send two daughters to Wexler/Grant. He said Hare helped inspire him to return to the school and try to be a good influence on the kids.
"The problem is the male role model is missing," LeSane remarked as he headed on a loop through the hallways. "The youth today, they're lost."
TO THE 'CHOW HALL'
Mixing prison terminology with the school-speak, he headed to the "chow hall" to check up on the lunch shift. Second- and 3rd-graders were filing into the room.
First, LeSane took a seat and watched the room. Then he heard his name.
"Can you do me a favor?" asked Assistant Principal Nicole Sanders. "Jason needs you!"
Jason (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) was having a bad day. While most of the 3rd grade was on a field trip, he was stuck at school. He refused to sit down at a table, which kids have to do before getting their lunches. Instead, he circled a cafeteria table, kicking the little wheels under the chairs with Timberland boots.
"Jason," LeSane said calmly as he approached the boy. "Stop kicking the tables like that, brother."
He let Jason circle around a few more times.
"Sit down," he coaxed.
Then he hung back.
After a few more circles, the boy agreed to sit down.
"Why are you acting like that?" LeSane asked the boy. "You'll never get nothing done like that."
He told the boy to hit the bathroom, then come back.
"Get your food, man," he directed when the boy returned.
"It's no different from dealing with the young men locked up," LeSane reflected. When an inmate is feeling angry, you "give him space."
"Never talk to someone to keep them getting angry," he said.
LeSane proceeded to walk the halls. He encountered Jason again in the hall, this time wandering with a tray of chicken and rice.
"It's chow time," LeSane told him. "Go back to lunch. Eat that before it's cold."
"No!" replied Jason. He sat down in the hall and refused to go back to the cafeteria.
"You don't want your parents called, do you?" LeSane offered. The boy shrugged.
LeSane kept walking down the hall. He said it's better not to escalate the conflict. "Right now he's in show-off mode."
He said he likes to give kids a chance to meditate on what he tells them, then circle back and check in.
"You've gotta have patience with them," he said.
Down the hall, social worker Nancy Hill sent him on another mission: Track down a 6th-grader who "bolted" from class.
Hill said LeSane has proved very helpful to her at school. "He's quick to see if you're in a stressful situation" and help out. When kids go missing, LeSane can act as a "retriever," in the "lost and found" department.
"He walks the hallways, which is where most of the kids spend their time," she said.
"We need more men like him in the building," she added.
LeSane tracked down the kid who had "bolted" and walked alongside him. They came across Jason, who was still in the hallway eating his lunch.
"I don't want to stay in this school. This school is dumb," the 6th-grader protested.
LeSane counseled both boys to get moving. "No matter how much you hate it, there's rules and regulations," he said.
"There's a consequence in breakin' the laws."
The kids didn't move on. LeSane did. "I'm going to let them meditate," he said.
In his tours through the hallways, LeSane said he often tells kids "I'd rather deal with you here than in prison." So far, knock on wood, he's never seen any Wexler kids end up in his detention center, which serves young men ages 14 to 21. He said he feels he has to catch them now so they can learn from a strong male role model before they get off on the wrong path.
"These kids are going to be 17, 18, before they know it," he said.
After nearly 20 years as a corrections officer, LeSane said, "you seen the worst. You want to steer kids from getting involved in the worst."
"I want to give these kids something to dream about and hope about," he said.
"Even if someone's mad at me," he said, "Hey, we'll try again tomorrow."
Past Independent stories on Wexler/Grant: