It takes a lot of people to turn a school, and, by all accounts, including our own reporting, the Forest Park Middle School needed a lot of turning a decade and more ago when its reputation in town was for contention among students, subpar academics and, as an even earlier reason than Proviso East for families to leave town.
Much has happened since then and when people are looking for individuals to credit, the focus often turns to Bob Liddell. Brought on 11 years ago as a behavioral interventionist, Liddell was a non-traditional hire. While he had taken some education courses in college, his work career was spent in corporate life where he wound up as “diversity officer” for a good-sized company.
It was his ability to work with disparate groups of people, to listen well, to communicate directly and honestly that has made him such a revered figure at the middle school, even as, this summer he heads to retirement.
Liddell looks back at the charge he was given by the superintendents and principals he has worked with. And it wasn’t to drop the hammer as a disciplinarian. He was told “not to be a disciplinarian but to get to know the kids and be someone they can turn to.”
And when our Tom Holmes talked to a good number of students that is exactly what he heard from them.
“He’s like a mentor to me because he got me through a lot of deep stuff a couple of months ago and he sort of made me into the person I am today, I’m going to be sad to see him leave,” said Oxavionne Bryant. Said Jalen Cruz, “He’s like a family member to me. He taught me the way I am right now.”
Liddell has boiled down the root causes of most bad middle school behavior to three issues: anger management, conflict management and emotional control. And he has led the school’s focus on reinforcing positive behavior (PBIS) as the primary tool to improve the school’s culture.
He goes with the 80/20 rule though he divided it 80/15/5. Eighty percent of students respond well to positive reinforcement. Fifteen percent need more direct connections and mentoring from teachers and staff with whom they talk each day. And then there is the five percent of students, the ones most commonly bounced out of most public schools through hard discipline. Those young people get what Liddell calls a “wrap-around” where all the resources – parents, ministers, probation officers and school staff – are brought out to envelop that student before the bottom falls out.
Joe Pisano, the middle school principal, gives Liddell much credit for transforming the school’s culture. Supt. Lou Cavallo agrees. “Mr. Liddell is one of a kind and we will greatly miss him.” That said, the position will continue with a new person come fall.
It is easy sometimes to be dismissive of the possibilities that a single person in the right place at just the moment can have such impact. Bob Liddell was that person and he has our respect and our thanks.