Chief Joseph Middle School File

Snow falls on Chief Joseph Middle School on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019.

Chief Joseph Middle School leaders say efforts to make students feel welcome and respected are paying off, contributing to better student attendance and behavior.

Yet the 763-student school still faces challenges, especially in hiring enough noon aides and instructional aides in Bozeman’s hot job market.

Principal Brian Ayers gave an overview of the school’s progress Tuesday at the Bozeman School Board’s annual lunchtime visit.

“The big picture for us is we’re trying to meet the needs of all our kids — academic, behavioral, social and emotional,” Ayers said.

In academics, the school’s goal is to get 80% of students at grade level or higher in key skills like English and math.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. The latest state standardized tests showed that last year 68.1% of CJMS sixth- to eighth-graders were advanced or proficient in English and 53.3% in math. Both were several points higher than the previous year.

The school is working to strengthen its core instruction for all students, Ayers said. Next week it will have teachers spend time observing each other’s teaching and give each other feedback to help find ways to improve.

CJMS has seen dramatic improvements in student behavior. The number of students in trouble for willful disobedience and disrespect dropped from 540 incidents two years ago to just 120 last year, he said, “the lowest in 10 years — maybe longer.”

The school brought in Hawthorne Elementary Principal Casey Bertram to train the staff in August on strategies for coping with misbehavior, called trust-based relational intervention. That’s having significant benefits, Ayers said.

Attendance has also seen significant improvement, said Robin Arnold, assistant principal. In the first five weeks of school, attendance is averaging 95%.

“Despite our challenges, we have a lot more to celebrate,” Arnold said. “We attribute it to our staff really embracing trauma-informed practices.”

One of the most popular strategies that the staff is using now is the “do-over,” administrators said. Instead of sending a student to the principal’s office for breaking a rule like running in the hall, the student might be told, “That was not a good choice” and asked to go back and walk down the hall again. It means engaging in a conversation and making a connection with the student, Arnold said.

Another popular approach is using humor, one of the techniques for de-escalating behavior.

These changes are helping with things like attendance, Ayers said.

“If kids feel better about school, if classrooms are engaging and interactions with adults are more positive, it can improve attendance,” he said. “We’re seeing better relationships built, instead of being punitive.”

On Wednesday night, parents involved with Bozeman High School’s Project Connect program will visit with CJMS parents at 5 p.m., to see if there’s interest in starting a similar program at the middle school. Project Connect has parent volunteers who try to make students feel welcomed and seen, and seek to improve overall school safety by having another set of adult eyes on the school.

One problem for CJMS and other Bozeman schools right now is the difficulty in hiring people for aides’ jobs. CJMS needs two more classroom aides. And it has only one out of the five lunch aides Ayers normally likes to have to keep an eye on kids at lunch. Instead, the principal, teachers and school counselors have to take lunch duty.

“Teachers have given up their lunch periods to help,” Ayers said. “Honestly, we could not have done it this year without our teachers.”

The Bozeman School District has 40 support staff vacancies listed on its website.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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