School 90's success built on teaching and discipline

(Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, Chalkbeat wrote about the departure from Indianapolis Public Schools of School 90 Principal Mark Pugh, who led the school during a five-year run of dramatically improved test scores. In 2012, I wrote about School 90 in a story for the Indianapolis Star that looked at five Indiana schools that were rated A despite high percentages of students with three big challenges — family poverty, a need for special education services and those who are still learning English as a second language.

The five schools also included IPS School 79, Warren Township’s Sunny Heights Elementary School, Clinton Young Elementary School in Perry Township and the Christel House Academy charter school. Each school shared five attributes: Careful hiring, a systematic approach to discipline, routine use of data to make decisions, good leadership and efforts to reduce wasted time in the school day. Below are some excerpts from that story about Pugh’s work at School 90.)

What most distinguished Pugh’s work at School 90 from that of the other challenged A schools was his aggressive recruiting of quality staff:

Mary Mayfield was pretty shocked when Mark Pugh — a principal at another school — showed up to observe her teaching the day after she put her name on the district’s list of teachers seeking transfers.

“I hadn’t even told my principal,” she said.

Pugh, the principal at School 90, doesn’t wait for good teachers to come to him. Watching the transfer list like a hawk is just one strategy he employs to build the best teaching staff he can.

“When I’m bringing somebody in, I want to find the right people for the job and allow them to do their job,” Pugh said. “I try my very best to hire quality teachers. Then I try to provide them with tools and the environment and support they need.”

Crafting an effective team, one that works well together and has good skills for the types of issues children bring to school, is a focus for all five principals.

Pugh worked with the staff at School 90 to build trust and collaboration:

Still, building an effective, cohesive team is not easy.

“It is a challenge to build camaraderie,” Pugh said. “Teachers by their nature are territorial. It is unique to have a group of teachers work as well as they are working here.”

At School 90, Pugh interviews a job candidate and then lets teachers interview the candidate as well. Afterward, they discuss the candidate’s individual strengths and how well the person might fit in.

“It isn’t magic,” School 90 social worker Lisa Spurrier said. “It’s something we’ve worked toward. When we get a new person in, it takes time.”

Why does it work so well at School 90 right now?

“We like each other,” Mayfield said with a smile, “and we’re all quirky.”

School 90 was very demanding when it came to discipline:

At School 90, Pugh is accustomed to explaining to parents why their kids face discipline even for small dress code violations, such as missing socks or lacking a belt. It doesn’t matter if it’s an A student.

Violators head to the “guided learning center,” a sort of penalty box classroom where students complete the day’s work without any contact with others.

“I had a conversation at recess one day with a girl who was new to our school,” said Mary Mayfield, the School 90 teacher. “She said, ‘You know how it’s really easy to get in trouble here? At my old school it was really hard to get in trouble.’ It’s because we care so much. We’re on them.”

But it’s not just about punishment.

Take School 90’s approach to attendance. Students with perfect attendance are announced daily. At the end of the week, they are entered in a drawing for a small prize.

When problems arose at School 90, the staff looked to data to try to solve them:

Three years ago, Pugh noticed teachers were reporting a large number of students who were disciplined for not finishing homework.

He went room to room, asking, “What’s going on?”

“You could see the patterns,” he said. “We talked as a staff about making sure homework assignments are relevant. The intent of homework is to review what you’ve done that day and prepare for the following day. You can’t just send home spelling words to be written five times.”

Better homework assignments — more interesting and intellectually challenging — worked. The frequency of students disciplined for failing to complete homework dropped.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”