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After ugly year, bullhorn-using principal aims to turn around Belmont

After a chaotic year marred by fights and leadership turnover, Dayton’s Belmont High School is trying multiple turnaround strategies this fall under new Principal Donetrus Hill and his staff.

Students wear color-coded shirts based on how many course credits they’ve earned toward graduation, regardless of how many years they’ve been in high school. Hill may not be Morgan Freeman’s character from the movie Lean on Me, but he is in the hallways at change-of-class time with a bullhorn, encouraging, cajoling and demanding that kids get to class on time, with help from other school staff.

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“Last year, these kids had a wasted year. There was nothing productive happening here,” said Hill, who was principal at Meadowdale High School the past year and a half. “Kids are starting to understand what it means to be at a real school.”

Last year, police were called to Belmont repeatedly because of fights, which district officials admitted were “occurring regularly” in March. In March, Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli reassigned Belmont Principal Melanie Walter to another school and installed an interim leadership team at Belmont for the rest of the year. Walter has since resigned from DPS.

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After being named principal this summer, Hill spelled out numerous changes at well-attended parent meetings. In addition to the new uniforms, headphones were banned, and there was a crackdown on students roaming the halls, which Hill said was an epidemic. He addressed that issue in a summer letter to parents, writing, “Belmont is not a mall. They need to be in their assigned location at all times.”

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Assistant Principal Karen Chicketti said the summer prep work was a key to Belmont’s good start, as high expectations were communicated clearly and repeatedly to families.

Last Thursday, Hill and a group of assistant principals and security guards had students moving briskly between classes as Hill counted down with his bullhorn: “2 minutes and 30 seconds left … now 2 minutes.” Hill addressed individuals and small groups of students: “You don’t have all day. … Come on, I’m counting on you. … Remember, to be early is to be on time.”

While a few students rolled their eyes, others were smiling as they jogged down the hall to make sure they weren’t late. Within a few seconds after the bell rang, the huge main hallway at Belmont was completely empty.

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Belmont student Drevon Philpot said he likes his art and English classes, and said the first two weeks were a positive experience.

“There’s a good structure and a good vibe here. Everybody is really cool, and kids are coming to school every day. Dr. Hill is making sure of it,” Philpot said. “The teachers seem like they want to be here and they enjoy their jobs.”

Hill is hoping to change the atmosphere in the halls and in the classroom. He said no students are allowed to leave a class for restroom or other reasons in the first 15 minutes or last 15 minutes of a period, calling that “the teacher’s time” for direct instruction. Getting students to pass classes and state tests so they can graduate is “mission-critical,” he said.

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“We’re trying to build a culture of excitement and enrichment all at the same time, where kids and adults are celebrated, but they’re also challenged,” Hill said. “We’re holding high expectations above our students and staff, and changing the mentality of this community. We’re even educating our parents — when you come to this school, there is a standard that you will not fall below.”

The color-coded shirts were used by Hill when he led a school in Texas: black for beginning high school students, white for those with enough credits to be sophomores, light blue for those with junior-level credits, and red for seniors. 

“We had about 800 people here for our parent meeting before the school year,” Hill said. “We expected push-back, and we got none. Parents understood, and they applauded when we said we’d have a ceremony at each semester break. They were excited and looked forward to seeing their student get the new shirt. It’s not about penalizing them, it’s about pushing them toward earning their credits.”

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Teachers union President David Romick said limited early feedback from teachers has been good, as last year’s chaos is gone.

“Teachers are appreciative of the increased sense of order in the building,” Romick said. “And they hope that together, the administration and the staff are able to move forward and continue that.”

Hill acknowledged there’s plenty of work to do, saying many students are “credit-deficient.” But he said teachers have bought into the new atmosphere, and students are working hard in the new system.

“Kids are resilient, and these kids have adjusted quickly,” Hill said. “We’re proud of them.”

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