Retired principal is straightening out Bartram

Ozzie Wright, a retired Army captain , was sent to Bartram High last week to help restore order. He has tackled such assignments in the past, including in West and South Philadelphia.
Ozzie Wright, a retired Army captain , was sent to Bartram High last week to help restore order. He has tackled such assignments in the past, including in West and South Philadelphia. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 11, 2014

Rules need to be enforced at Bartram High School, Ozzie Wright said: no hoodies, no cellphones, no showing up late, no lingering in the hallways.

Adults need to listen to students, but students need to listen to adults.

"We need to get this school under control," said Wright, a veteran troubleshooter, retired district principal, and retired Army captain.

Wright, 65, was dispatched last week to calm Bartram, the Southwest Philadelphia school where brawls and open drug use have been common all year, and where a "conflict resolution specialist" was recently knocked unconscious by a student.

First order of business? Getting students to class, and laying down the law on rules that were on the books but applied haphazardly - policies about electronics, lockers, and uniforms, for instance.

Hall sweeps on Monday and Tuesday began to let students know that getting to class on time was no longer a suggestion. Roundups continue, Wright said Wednesday, but the numbers of students snagged is getting much smaller.

"Yes, we do have some pockets of students, but we're just not cutting them any slack," Wright said. "I see a great deal of improvement in the hallways."

On any given day, student attendance averages about 83 percent, and the percentage of students who arrive late is "astronomical," Wright said. Some teachers routinely report 30 students on their attendance sheets when fewer than 10 show up. He wants to change that. "It's not acceptable for them to stroll in any time they get up," Wright said.

Many Bartram teachers have told The Inquirer that they feel unsafe in the school. They keep their doors locked during class and avoid hallways. Wright said that already he sees more teachers visible during class changes, encouraging students to hurry along. "We want to make sure that the staff gets a chance to teach," Wright said.

Bartram has been in turmoil all year. Its longtime principal left before the end of last school year, and a new principal brought in from out of state lasted less than two weeks. Wright is assisting principal Kimberly Collins, who started in September.

The spotlight on Bartram has brought outrage from the community, but it also has brought more resources key to a school that has added students but dropped dozens of staffers in the last few years because of budget cuts.

In addition to Wright, the school has four new city and school police officers. It also has had the benefit of outside experts coming in to assess and provide advice on how to quell trouble.

Wright, who has Southwest Philadelphia roots, comes across as calm and courtly, but he means business. A ninth-degree black belt in tae kwon do who operates his own martial arts school in West Philadelphia, Wright spent time as principal of a district military academy and the Youth Study Center, the school for adjudicated students.

He was also sent to improve several tough city schools in crisis, including West Philadelphia High after fires were set there nearly every day in 2007, and South Philadelphia High in 2009 after Asian students were beaten in a daylong series of attacks.

Being firm about rules is a must, Wright said, but so is being someone students can talk to. The administration must be visible in the school, not sitting in an office, he said.

Wright, a tall, lean man with graying hair and a craggy face, stands at the main entrance early in the day, is always in the hallways during class changes, and pops into classrooms often. Students who don't yet know who he is sometimes think he's an undercover cop in the room, he said.

"Most of the students are starting to know my face," he said. "I introduce myself to each student, and I say, 'When I see you in the hallway, I want to say hello to you, and I want you to say hello to me.' "

Students are beginning to respond, he said. When he recently told one to take off his headphones, for instance, the teen at first ignored Wright. Then a classmate nudged the nonresponsive student and said, "Did you hear the principal say, 'Take off your headphones?' " The boy finally complied.

That's progress.

Wright stressed that the school needs a proactive approach to discipline, not just detentions and suspensions. He wants to implement peer mediation and focus on restorative practices, a program that emphasizes building relationships to prevent conflict.

So he will also emphasize dialogue with students - asking them what they want to see improved at Bartram, what activities they would like to participate in, what kind of assemblies would be meaningful.

Some have worried that it was too late in the school year to turn the tide. But Wright is firm.

"It's not too late in the year," he said. "We have to adjust those issues now, and keep them going forward."

While out of control for a time, Bartram isn't a bad place, and most of its pupils welcome structure, even if they would never articulate that, he said.

"These students, they want to see change," Wright said. "They want to be safe. They come to learn."

215-854-5146 @newskag

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