Final grade

Steve
Steve Bartlett
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Keith Coombs sits behind the principal's desk at Macdonald Drive Junior High, sipping from a large brown mug that reads "You have one minute."

It was a gift from a teacher - an acknowledgement of the demands placed on the head of a school with more than 600 students.

Over Keith Coombs 32 years as an educator, hes gained a lot of insight into youth and the issues facing them. He retired as principal of Macdonald Drive Junior High Friday. Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

Keith Coombs sits behind the principal's desk at Macdonald Drive Junior High, sipping from a large brown mug that reads "You have one minute."

It was a gift from a teacher - an acknowledgement of the demands placed on the head of a school with more than 600 students.

But ask Coombs about today's youth and their schooling, and he gives an hour, not a minute. His frank report card draws attention to areas requiring serious improvement.

It also highlights significant advances he's seen since he first wrote "Mr. Coombs" on a blackboard at the old Mount Pearl Central High as a rookie teacher in '78.

He retired on Friday.

"In the last several years, I've seen more changes, more improvements, than I did in the first 25," he said.

Better class sizes, more money for repairing and revitalizing schools, investments in technology and teaching resources - all of those things get high marks from Coombs, who many will know as a former St. John's city councillor.

"It's probably a reflection of our economy. It's probably a reflection of the emphasis being put by government on education, and of parents basically demanding this type of thing," he says, noting that 2010 is a far cry from the lean years when the province was cash-strapped and oil was literally a pipe dream.

"There was a point in time, you could almost ask ... I suppose to exaggerate it ... you could ask, 'Could I get a new sharpener?' and the answer was 'No'."

One change for the worse

But there are issues that have arisen in recent times that trouble Coombs.

One in particular.

"The last five years, I believe there's been an increase, a significant increase - and this is not scientific, this is anecdotal - in the number of children who are experiencing mental health issues.

"It breaks my heart when I see a Grade 7 - a 12-year-old - who's suffering from major depression."

He's talking about depression so debilitating that the student can't go to school.

"As one student said to me, 'Sir, I go to bed in the nighttime saying I'm coming into school because I want to see my friends, my buddies. The next morning I put my feet on the floor and I can't.'

"I can remember this kid telling me how he used to hit himself against the wall because he used to get so frustrated with himself."

Coombs says other mental health issues include eating disorders, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Health specialists and other school administrators tell him they're seeing the same thing.

Coombs can't explain why. He says there are likely a myriad of causes, such as intense bullying, family turmoil or drugs.

He says children with mental health issues come from all socio-economic classes.

He predicts their number will increase and that they will need intervention, perhaps involving a variety of agencies - more than is available in schools now.

Coombs says there's a need to determine what's working and what's not.

"It's not a simple issue," he says.

Old-school model

And there are other difficult issues facing junior high students.

For one, Coombs thinks the intermediate curriculum hasn't kept pace with society and what's happened to teens.

"We're using a 1960s model in the year 2010," he says, adding that a trio of reviews conducted in the past three decades prompted little change.

Coombs says young people struggle under a heavy load - plenty of school work plus a plethora of extracurricular activities.

Kids are under a lot more pressure than they were 32 years ago, he says. He's had students crying in his office because they didn't have time to finish their homework.

Other provinces have realized the burden of expecting junior high kids to study 10 or more subjects for a full year, Coombs said, and they've opted for a semesterized system.

He thinks that pressure could be causing increased mental illness among youth and he figures a similar system could be implemented here.

Sometimes parents add to student stress, he said.

"I see, on any number of occasions, where the parent is trying to live their life through the kid, and that's a dangerous, dangerous thing, because we don't realize the pressure we're putting on that 12- or 13-year-old."

High-tech troubles

Advances in technology are also creating problems and pressures for kids and classrooms, Coombs says.

"(When I was in school), if there was going to be a racket, there was going to be a racket. Two or three guys went out in the field - or, whatever, girls - took a few smacks at each other and that was it.

"Nowadays, you could go on MSN or Facebook - and let me put it to you this way, I've had children here who won't come to school because of what was said about them on Facebook - and therefore spread (things) through school like wildfire."

Coombs says the popularity of cellphones is "the bain of teachers."

He figures 85 or 90 per cent of the kids at Macdonald Drive have a mobile, and trying to stop them from calling or texting during class - both of which are prohibited - is a constant battle.

He says teachers have confiscated phones for up to two weeks and it's interesting to see how students react to such discipline.

"Some of the nicest kids ever go ballistic," he said.

"It's like you took away their fix."

Of course, Coombs recognizes the benefits of technology and realizes it's a huge part of youth culture.

The challenge, he says, is for teachers to use phones, the web and other technology as learning tools.

"You can't put your head in the sand," he says.

Some Macdonald Drive teachers have used Facebook to try to improve students' writing and to get them working on composition.

"There are ways and means. It's just that you've got to be innovative and be prepared to bend," he said.

Sex and drugs

When it comes to sex and drugs, Coombs is concerned about young people's attitudes.

Major advancements in sex education haven't stopped children from becoming sexually active, he said.

"What frightens me is that even though we put all that knowledge out there, there's still a naivetÉ about the seriousness of it."

Coombs says a parent will tell him their child may have been involved in sexual activity at school, and when he speaks to the student, they can't see anything wrong in what they did.

"And then they look at you and say, 'Sir, have you watched such and such a show last night?'

"I suppose there's a permissiveness that has gone beyond what it was 32 years ago. That's, I suppose, evolutionary, whether we like it or not."

Permissiveness applies to drugs too, Coombs says.

"It's also become an acceptance amongst society that, 'he only had a few tokes or some weed or whatever.' I suppose (it's) because the other issues are so high on the priority list of being dealt with."

Coombs said he's noticed an increase in the number of otherwise well-adjusted kids getting sucked in by drugs.

And he says he's seen some kids become overwhelmed and lost with drugs because it's the only pleasure they have.

"It's disconcerting, and we're a reflection of society - school is -and we're impacted by society. When I began 32 years ago, there was a certain type of kid who was involved in drugs. Now, it's right across the board. Nowadays, it's 11-12 years of age, it's 15 years of age, and so on."

And today's drugs are different from the '70s, he says, pointing out that the marijuana being smoked now is "many times more potent."

"(Drugs is) a very complex issue which is not going to be solved easily."

Why he's speaking out

Coombs says his concerns are not meant as criticism of the Eastern School District or the province.

There have been many improvements to the school system, as he acknowledged earlier.

The problems apply to the minority, Coombs said, but he doesn't want teachers, parents and politicians to forget the troubling issues facing the few.

He says he's not worried about most teens today - he boasts that multiple students at Macdonald Drive earned a 99.4 average this year, and the failure rate was between one and two per cent.

Most 12- and 13-year-olds, he says, are more advanced intellectually than kids were when he began teaching 30 years ago.

"Listen, this generation is much better equipped to lead society than we were," he says.

"They are much more in tune with environmental issues. They are much more in tune with social issues, racial issues, with all these things, than we ever were."

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Geographic location: St. John's

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • S
    July 02, 2010 - 13:35

    We need a thorough review of our educational system: practices, principles, expenditures.

    Why do we still run the system around schedules determined by the labour requirements for farm harvests and fish salting? We need to look at a serious 12 month a year system.

    Why are the textbooks dumber using a smaller vocabulary and simpler concepts than 20 years ago? Why do text books have such little text at all? Why are so many students pushed through without actually being educated? Why are so many high school students graduating with useless general diplomas?

    The amount of money spent per student has close to doubled in 7 years. Are we receiving double the education? Guess again!

    And we need to curb the power of the NLTA. It's a hopeless conflict to place senior teachers (often former NLTA presidents) as Ministers, Deputy Ministers and ADMs. Where do the new ideas come from? How will reforms finally come to pass?

    We need to examine, debate and scrutinize the education system as much or more than we do the health care system.

  • John
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    Is it time to bring God and religion back into the classroom?

    'We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive' (C. S. Lewis).

  • Former Mt Pearl Student
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    In the first week of classes every year at Mt Pearl Jr/Sr High, Mr Coombs would call a welcome back assembly for the students. In the assembly, he would spend what seemed like an eternity talking about RESPECT. At the time, I would understand but, at the same time, try to figure out why he was going on for so long about the one subject. I have come to realize, (many years later) that RESPECT is the foundation of our world. Our world today is missing this important foundation.

    Mr Coombs, thank you for your important words that are engraved in my mind. I hope all of the other thousands of students that heard your same speeches, take your words to heart. I congratulate you on your retirement and wish you all the best.

  • Karen
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    LOL! Are there any boarding schools we can see our teens to - send them off from the age of 13 to 18 - and we'll have them back when they're all grown up! Hey Colonels - May be the army could look into your own private schools...HeHeHe

  • My3Cents
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    In a CBC radio interview this past week he praised the current government on investing a lot of money in education as opposed to previous governments. I wonder is a run for Team Danny too far off. Hmmm............

  • dee gee
    July 02, 2010 - 13:24

    The problems stem alot from the parents. Today it's all about the money and the toys for the grown ups. The father is away working and the mother is also working, when the kids come home there isn't a soul at home,only the kid's xbox or some other form of entertainment. It's time to change and concentrate on our most valuable, our kids. I did , I got less money but I've alot more time with my children the way my parents had time for me.

  • Karen
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Yes, I agree Dee Gee. We, the parents, created our own demise with our kids - buying them $500 ipods - paying out contracts on cellphones and handing it over to our teens. Mr. Coombs pointed out the even the nicest kids go BALLISTIC when cellphones are taken away...shocking.

  • Bea
    July 02, 2010 - 13:19

    I applaud Mr. Coombs on a classy interview that identified many of the problems facing youth today without rashly pointing fingers or making outlandish statements.

    I was at Macdonald Drive for Mr Coombs' first year as principal and I can say for sure that he has done a lot to help the school and its students in his time there. He has realized that the traditional approach to education is not adequate, and that as society evolves, educators must evolve as well. Congratulations on a successful career.

    the vice-principal, Mr. Clift on the other hand...

  • Nope
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    He says there are likely a myriad of causes, such as intense bullying, family turmoil or drugs.

    All of those things were around 25 years ago. Try again.

  • J
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    Excellent article. I truly believe too much is expected of today's youth academically and not enough control is given to the teachers. We need to stop supplying students with the cell phones at school before they lose their social skills. At first they would call each other from down the corridor and talk but now they don't even do that...talking is becoming a thing of the past and texting has replaced it. If a student needs to call someone,go to the office or use the pay phone and talk...really... we as parents are creating these problems, As for the mental issues...pressure to get work completed, pressure to have the latest equipment, pressure in dressing right, pressure to fit in...its all pressure for that age group. The school needs to lessen the workload and make extra curricular compulsary...help these kids belong. I thick cell phones should be ban from the school.

  • frank
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    Gee, think he's going to run again in whatever election happens to come up next? I'm sure there are plenty of teachers and principals who retired this week, yet its this guy who has his face splashed all over the paper and TV. Its far too obvious what he's trying to do...won't have my vote.

  • Karen
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    Mr. Coombs commented that texting is a constant battle in school - why isn't it a rule (like no smoking) that they're not allowed in school? I don't understand -the office have phones if they wish to call home. Other workplaces don't allow them. If it's not complied with, have them taken away and call the parents. There's so much cyper-bullying going on and these devices only contribute to it. As he says, they don't have the maturity to deal with such things as technology advances (and other things) - it's way beyond their years. It's consuming their whole well-being and causing such issues as major depression. Oh my god! Eastern School District needs to look at this issue.

  • Maxine
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    Mr. Coombs was my teacher at Mount Pearl Central High back when he was a rookie teacher. He was always one of the best, easy to talk to, and had great printing, always the best notes in Coombs class, no problem to read what was on the board! :)

    He was involved with EVERYTHING and was always around for a student that needed extra help or just had a question in the hall.

    Congrats on making it and happy retirement.

    Maxine Elliott
    Mount Pearl Central High Class of 82

  • Political Watcher
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    I am sure that there are many retiring from the education system this year so why single out Coombs. It seems that since he lost his seat on Council, the local media or Coombs himself, always frin some trivial reason to cover him.
    Too bad the coverage wasn't as indepth when he was on Council, maybe Mile One would have made a buck and we would still have hockey.

  • S
    July 01, 2010 - 20:25

    We need a thorough review of our educational system: practices, principles, expenditures.

    Why do we still run the system around schedules determined by the labour requirements for farm harvests and fish salting? We need to look at a serious 12 month a year system.

    Why are the textbooks dumber using a smaller vocabulary and simpler concepts than 20 years ago? Why do text books have such little text at all? Why are so many students pushed through without actually being educated? Why are so many high school students graduating with useless general diplomas?

    The amount of money spent per student has close to doubled in 7 years. Are we receiving double the education? Guess again!

    And we need to curb the power of the NLTA. It's a hopeless conflict to place senior teachers (often former NLTA presidents) as Ministers, Deputy Ministers and ADMs. Where do the new ideas come from? How will reforms finally come to pass?

    We need to examine, debate and scrutinize the education system as much or more than we do the health care system.

  • John
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    Is it time to bring God and religion back into the classroom?

    'We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive' (C. S. Lewis).

  • Former Mt Pearl Student
    July 01, 2010 - 20:13

    In the first week of classes every year at Mt Pearl Jr/Sr High, Mr Coombs would call a welcome back assembly for the students. In the assembly, he would spend what seemed like an eternity talking about RESPECT. At the time, I would understand but, at the same time, try to figure out why he was going on for so long about the one subject. I have come to realize, (many years later) that RESPECT is the foundation of our world. Our world today is missing this important foundation.

    Mr Coombs, thank you for your important words that are engraved in my mind. I hope all of the other thousands of students that heard your same speeches, take your words to heart. I congratulate you on your retirement and wish you all the best.

  • Karen
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    LOL! Are there any boarding schools we can see our teens to - send them off from the age of 13 to 18 - and we'll have them back when they're all grown up! Hey Colonels - May be the army could look into your own private schools...HeHeHe

  • My3Cents
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    In a CBC radio interview this past week he praised the current government on investing a lot of money in education as opposed to previous governments. I wonder is a run for Team Danny too far off. Hmmm............

  • dee gee
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    The problems stem alot from the parents. Today it's all about the money and the toys for the grown ups. The father is away working and the mother is also working, when the kids come home there isn't a soul at home,only the kid's xbox or some other form of entertainment. It's time to change and concentrate on our most valuable, our kids. I did , I got less money but I've alot more time with my children the way my parents had time for me.

  • Karen
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Yes, I agree Dee Gee. We, the parents, created our own demise with our kids - buying them $500 ipods - paying out contracts on cellphones and handing it over to our teens. Mr. Coombs pointed out the even the nicest kids go BALLISTIC when cellphones are taken away...shocking.

  • Bea
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    I applaud Mr. Coombs on a classy interview that identified many of the problems facing youth today without rashly pointing fingers or making outlandish statements.

    I was at Macdonald Drive for Mr Coombs' first year as principal and I can say for sure that he has done a lot to help the school and its students in his time there. He has realized that the traditional approach to education is not adequate, and that as society evolves, educators must evolve as well. Congratulations on a successful career.

    the vice-principal, Mr. Clift on the other hand...

  • Nope
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    He says there are likely a myriad of causes, such as intense bullying, family turmoil or drugs.

    All of those things were around 25 years ago. Try again.

  • J
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    Excellent article. I truly believe too much is expected of today's youth academically and not enough control is given to the teachers. We need to stop supplying students with the cell phones at school before they lose their social skills. At first they would call each other from down the corridor and talk but now they don't even do that...talking is becoming a thing of the past and texting has replaced it. If a student needs to call someone,go to the office or use the pay phone and talk...really... we as parents are creating these problems, As for the mental issues...pressure to get work completed, pressure to have the latest equipment, pressure in dressing right, pressure to fit in...its all pressure for that age group. The school needs to lessen the workload and make extra curricular compulsary...help these kids belong. I thick cell phones should be ban from the school.

  • frank
    July 01, 2010 - 19:51

    Gee, think he's going to run again in whatever election happens to come up next? I'm sure there are plenty of teachers and principals who retired this week, yet its this guy who has his face splashed all over the paper and TV. Its far too obvious what he's trying to do...won't have my vote.

  • Karen
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    Mr. Coombs commented that texting is a constant battle in school - why isn't it a rule (like no smoking) that they're not allowed in school? I don't understand -the office have phones if they wish to call home. Other workplaces don't allow them. If it's not complied with, have them taken away and call the parents. There's so much cyper-bullying going on and these devices only contribute to it. As he says, they don't have the maturity to deal with such things as technology advances (and other things) - it's way beyond their years. It's consuming their whole well-being and causing such issues as major depression. Oh my god! Eastern School District needs to look at this issue.

  • Maxine
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    Mr. Coombs was my teacher at Mount Pearl Central High back when he was a rookie teacher. He was always one of the best, easy to talk to, and had great printing, always the best notes in Coombs class, no problem to read what was on the board! :)

    He was involved with EVERYTHING and was always around for a student that needed extra help or just had a question in the hall.

    Congrats on making it and happy retirement.

    Maxine Elliott
    Mount Pearl Central High Class of 82

  • Political Watcher
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    I am sure that there are many retiring from the education system this year so why single out Coombs. It seems that since he lost his seat on Council, the local media or Coombs himself, always frin some trivial reason to cover him.
    Too bad the coverage wasn't as indepth when he was on Council, maybe Mile One would have made a buck and we would still have hockey.