VHS faculty family’ unites to clean up campus

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 23, 2001

Vicksburg High School students mill around as they eat lunch Wednesday in one of the designated areas. (The Vicksburg Post/ MELANIE DUNCAN)

[8/23/01] Cindy McClung and her colleagues at Vicksburg High School knew they could do something, if just a little bit, to make their campus more orderly.

They had taken on bigger challenges before, after all. They were the teachers who helped rebuild the physical and emotional infrastructure of a school torched by arsonists in 1998. They’re not just co-workers, senior English teacher Ann Habeeb says, they’re family.

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And so, in the midst of a party at McClung’s house this summer, about five of the teachers started talking business. As always, they voiced complaints about how they needed more discipline at Vicksburg. For the first time, though, they came up with a list of what McClung calls “viable solutions” to their school’s security problems.

There should be a central dining place for students, they decided, not the outside picnic areas that breed litter and truancy. The school should come up with a better lunch schedule, with an equal number of students in each eating period. They should make hall passes color-coded by floor to alert hall monitors to wandering students. Students should have to wear ID badges.

As more and more teachers got word of the wish list, more climbed on board with McClung and the others. About 12 VHS instructors met at First Presbyterian Church in July to flesh out their informal petition and plan to present it to administrators.

Now, with the exception of the student IDs, all of the group’s proposals are in effect at VHS. Principal Don Taylor, to the teachers’ delight, had already been working on a new lunch schedule with his assistants, and he proved receptive to their other ideas.

Taylor went to a school board meeting with McClung and teachers Betsy Selby and Edward Wong this month to voice support for the student IDs, an idea he said helped him realize the value of keeping up with teachers’ concerns.

“A lot of times, principals only see the forest,” Taylor said Wednesday while watching students in the new lunch area, which is confined to the school’s cafeteria and the enclosed courtyard that abuts it. “These teachers helped me see the trees.”

McClung said the adoption of her group’s proposals is an example of the Vicksburg Warren School District’s strategic plan at its best. The blueprint, passed by the school board in 1999, aims to boost the 9,300-student district’s accreditation rating by, among other goals, improving communication between school personnel.

The system never worked better, McClung said, than when she and Linda Flaggs, Habeeb, Beth Hall, Selby and Stan Whitaker, all teachers, worked with administrators from the school and district office to expand the courtyard last month. Under a hot sun, they cut weeds and laid concrete to make the space more accessible to VHS’s 1,800 students.

Now, McClung says, the school is free of the paper bags and food wrappers that once blew around its campus in the days of more unorganized lunches.

Students don’t unanimously approve of the new eating arrangements.

“It seems kind of cramped,” said Jesse Crouse, a 17-year-old senior.

“To tell you the truth, I’d rather be out there again,” said junior Jared Williams, 16, pointing to the unenclosed outdoor areas where students once ate.

But a little dissent is an acceptable price to pay for a cleaner school, McClung says.

“And I don’t think many of them really mind it that much,” she added. “They still look like they enjoy lunch.”

They also come to the cafeteria in more even installments. Before this year, VHS’ first lunch period had a disproportionately large number of students, leaving slim pickings in the food line for children in the other two groups. Now the distribution has been cut almost exactly into thirds.

And none of the changes came at any cost to the school district, save for a few cans of paint used to color-code the new hall passes.

Habeeb, the senior English teacher, said the near-painless changes are due to the reluctant leadership of McClung.

“Whether she wants to admit it or not, she’s someone that we want to follow,” Habeeb said. “She is a natural leader.”

Besides good leadership, the teachers have also been unified by a school spirit that has characterized VHS since it had to rebuild from the fire of August 1998, Habeeb said. The blaze shut down the school for a week, and a subsequent police investigation has yielded no arrests.

“We were here sifting through the ashes to rebuild our school,” Habeeb said. “That brought everyone together like nothing before.”

And McClung says the teachers aren’t finished pushing for changes. Besides the ID proposal, which district trustees are currently studying, the group also wants to establish a security checkpoint at the school’s Drummond Street driveway.

Meanwhile, the coalition’s informal membership list has ballooned to about 25.

“We have people from every department, hundreds of years of combined experience,” McClung said.

Habeeb isn’t surprised.

“It’s easy to talk about being a family,” she said. “We really are a family at Vicksburg, though.”