The new Knox Middle: Leaders talk about what it has become, what it could be

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 7, 2016

Knox Middle School has changed a lot in the year and a half Dr. Latoya Dixon and Dr. Mark Waiksnis have been its co-principals. At a community visit to the school Wednesday, the two talked about how far the school has come, and how far they hope to take it.

“We came in kind of like a wrecking ball in a china shop,” Dixon said.

They switched Knox over to a college focus, requiring every student in the school to visit a college campus and start thinking about life after high school.

“That’s the one thing we did last year that we’re really proud of,” she said.

Behavior problems were addressed by a program Dixon and Waiksnis call “the Knox Way,” which teaches students proper social and leadership skills. The Knox Way focuses on skills like handshakes, looking people in the eye, introducing yourself, holding the door open and tracking with a speaker. Posters and banners around the school advertise the Knox way, giving a motivational boost to all:
“You matter, you got this.”

“Little things like that change our culture and make them more comfortable,” said Suzanne Hein, literacy coach at Knox.

While Dixon and Waiksnis said they aren’t able to tell how the school has changed since their arrival, Hein says that the change is unmistakable.

“The Knox way was the best rollout we’ve ever had,” Hein said.

And it started with the teachers. Dixon says that she and Waiksnis began by holding teachers to a higher standard — they were expected to be on time, dress professionally and be respectful. The rest, the teachers themselves came up with.

“They’re the ones who make everything happen,” Waiksnis said.

The faculty got together and brainstormed, coming up with ideas to help bolster their students’ confidence — small things like calling their students “ma’am,” or “sir,” discussing proper listening techniques and learning postures. It’s easier for teachers, and kinder to students, to say “track the speaker,” than “be quiet and listen,” Dixon said.

“We feel like we’ve done a lot of solid work in that area and now its time to dig deeper,” Dixon said.

But the school isn’t perfect, Hein and Dixon said. There are still fights, but nowhere near as many. And Dixon says that she feels some behavior issues need a different solution.

“We feel that when we change the academic experience our students are having, the behavior will change,” she said.

That’s one reason why Dixon and Waiksnis drew up a proposal to turn Knox into a year-round, E-STEAM magnet school. E-STEAM stands for environment, science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

Knox has large numbers of students who perform below and above grade level, Dixon told parents at the community visit, and a traditional school day is failing them.

“They’ve been attending school in its traditional form for years,” Dixon said, “They need something new and something different.”

The “new Knox” would zero in on environmental issues and arts education in addition to regular STEM courses. It would also feature integrated learning — combining subjects to connect classroom lessons with real world experience.

“When we can get students to stop thinking about academic subjects in isolation and start thinking about them in integration, they learn more,” Dixon said.

Dixon and Waiksnis dream of a school where a student would learn scientific and mathematical principals by measuring runoff or contaminate levels in a stream or pond behind their house, where they would be able to take classes for high school credit or to intern and work with community partners like Horizons Unlimited, the Center for the Environment at Catawba or Integro.

To address students below grade level, the new Knox would add an hour to its school day and two weeks to its school year. And really, time is the best thing to give struggling students, Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said.

“If you look at the research, you’ll see that all they need is more time, more help,” she said.

Claire Morgan, an eighth-grader at Knox, led a tour group around the school. She likes the changes at Knox, and is excited about the direction the school is going — even if it means an extra hour of class.

“I think it’s a really good idea,” she said. “… I think a lot of people here, they need extra time. I do.”

Crystal Brown, an eighth-grade math teacher, says that she thinks the plan will definitely make a difference.

“I would love to see something year round,” she said, “I think it provides more options for the teachers.”

Moody says that transforming Knox into an E-STEAM school is, at this point, just a matter of finding the funds. Dixon and Waiksnis will be applying for a School Improvement Grant later this month and Moody thinks that the school is “primed” to be awarded the grant. And then, leaders hope, the plan to reinvent Knox and education for its students will begin to roll forward.

“I think it’s the answer,” Moody said.