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EAST CHICAGO — Block Middle School Principal Dee Etta Wright said she is working to motivate students, teachers and staff to improve student behavior and academics.

Wright, in her second year as principal, said she intends to turn the building around and achieve a satisfactory, and higher, rating from the Indiana Department of Education.

For five consecutive years, Block had an F. Last year, that grade improved to a D. But Wright hopes when school grades are released for 2017, the school will achieve a satisfactory rating and from there, the sky is the limit, she said.

Wright, who taught science at Central High School in East Chicago for 25 years before moving to the middle school, said under her administration the number of suspensions is down significantly, and there have been no expulsions so far this school year.

The 2014-15 school year was difficult at Block with numerous fights throughout the school year, a student charged with drug possession and another teen charged with assault after he allegedly beat up his mother in the office.

Wright said she put in several interventions when she arrived. She said if there are minor infractions in a classroom, things like a student having to be told repeatedly to sit down or stop talking, teachers have the authority to give the student a lunchtime detention.

"Sometimes kids misbehave in minor ways and it's important to nip that in the bud, and you have to have a resource to get kids back in order for minor infractions," Wright said.

"It requires a reprimand but it's not serious enough to be sent to the office. To me, those are issues of classroom management."

To make sure students are in their classrooms and not dawdling in hallways, Wright instituted a random lockout.

"I might get on the intercom and tell teachers to lock their classrooms. No student is allowed in or out for a few minutes. The students who are in the hallways have to go to the cafeteria to get back in class. They are required to serve an hour in after-school detention the next day," Wright said.

New policies foster focus on learning

Now that students are aware of all policies, they are in the classroom, Wright said. She said English and math tutoring is available for that hour of detention, and a school bus is available to take students home.

The infractions that could cause a suspension or an expulsion are fighting, gross disrespect of a teacher, drugs, weapons and cellphone use. Referrals for those issues are sent to the office.

Wright said parents also have been made aware of all policies.

"This is a learning environment," she said.

"We have supports in place so teachers are able to go into the classroom and actually teach. Teachers don't have to spend 15 to 20 minutes to get students to behave. I can't expect teachers to raise academic achievement if they don't get the support they need."

To that end, the two most critical issues are English/language arts and math, she said. Wright has instituted a double-block class for students who need extra attention. Those students get 90 minutes, rather than the normal 45-minute class.

Cooperation is key

Wright said there is a focus on grade-level standards, and those students who are not at grade level get remediation. Parents are notified by the guidance counselor of any student receiving a grade of D or F in English/language arts and math, and there are mandatory homework assignments two to three times per week in those core subjects.

The state's mandated ISTEP-Plus exam is scheduled between Feb. 27 and March 10, and Wright already has made parents aware of that critical assessment.

There also is increased professional development for teachers.

The school has an enrollment of 586 seventh- and eighth-grade students. There are 75 staff members, including 39 teachers and 26 paraprofessionals.

Eighth-grader Jamarree Peters, 14, said when he was a sixth-grader there were fights "practically every day." Peters said he got into a few, but things are a lot calmer around the school these days.

"I was kinda being bullied. I reported it," he said. "I'm glad she's here. It's better now," he said of Wright as principal.

Peters said he's able to concentrate on his work in the classroom, and in science he's learning about cells.

Science teacher Darrell Scott, who has teaching experience but is in his first year at Block, said his students are learning about mitosis and how it relates to cancer.

Mitosis deals with cells being replicated. Cell division is a process that enables organisms to grow and reproduce.

Scott and art teacher Chantel Hunter are working with 15 seventh-graders who are participating in a NASA STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project with students from all over the country. The school has the support of the Communities in Schools organization in East Chicago, which is helping to fund some of the necessary items the teens will need.

The students' project is called "Parachuting Onto Mars EDC (Engineering Design Challenge)," which calls for them to work in teams to develop a model, document each step of their work and create a video.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.