How to Rescue Failing Schools
Lessons from Three Schools No Longer On the "In Need of Improvement" List
In the seven years no Child Left Behind has been in existence, there is one, and maybe just one, point critics and supporters alike agree on: The law is based heavily on data and interpreting that information.
Administrators and teachers now know the test scores of all their subgroups, and they can track students’ progress year after year, from subject to subject. Parents can use the test results to compare schools in their district, and in more and more cases, students themselves know what score is needed to “pass” their state test.
With all the reams of data being created, you can learn that in 2005–06, 26,146 schools didn’t make adequate yearly progress; that’s almost 29 percent of the country’s 91,700 public schools. However, the bit of information that is impossible to find is the number of schools that have improved enough to extricate themselves from NCLB's “In Need of Improvement” list. While states do compile this information, the federal government doesn’t, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman says.
“Schools just don’t do this,” says Wes Braddock, principal of Sweetwater High School in San Diego County’s National City, speaking of making the leap back from the so-called “failing” list. But, of course, some do, including Braddock’s school.
Under the theory that bad news travels fast, with schools that don’t make ayp having to inform parents and suffer the sting of critical headlines, Scholastic Administrator sought to tell the stories of three schools that have beaten the odds. As you might expect, once these schools were identified, the principals and superintendents responsible for the turnaround were more than willing to share their strategies. Here are the stories of how Braddock’s high school, an elementary school, and a middle school made their own little bit of history.
1. Sweetwater High School, National City, California
For Wes Braddock, the success of his school, or the lack thereof, was a personal challenge. And, in his style, he set out to make sure his staff and students felt the same way.
“In all education, there’s an intangible,” says the fifth-year principal. “How willing are your teachers to step out there? How willing is your community” to show students their individual success matters? The former sports coach says he approaches students as members of a team, and his goal is to get each of them to try their hardest, for themselves and for the school.
Pep talks can only go so far, however. Sweetwater is the only high school in National City, and the school deals with a deluge of problems, from 20 identified gangs in town, a 22 percent poverty level (and nearly three of four students in its free and reduced lunch program), and more than half of its 2,700 students identified as English language learners.
Sweetwater, located south of San Diego, has been on No Child’s “In Need of Improvement” list since the law started in 2002. Indeed, the California DOE labeled the school as underperforming back in 2000. Students need to score 800 to pass the state’s Academic Performance Index test; in 1999, Sweetwater’s students turned in one of the worst performances in the state by averaging 461.
When Braddock moved from one of the school’s classrooms to the office of the principal, he admits there was some confusion about nclb’s standards because the school was more focused on passing the state’s API (Academic Performance Index) tests.
The new principal had to act fast. He laid out a four-step program to focus the school’s teachers on what was needed to make academic progress. First, Braddock led the staff to embrace standards-based education, meaning, for instance, that the Vietnam veteran teacher wouldn’t get to spend two weeks teaching his students about the war he served in. Along with this change, teachers had to understand how much time to spend on each topic, putting aside their personal preferences to recognize that if cell regeneration was only worth one question on the state test, they needed to explain it and move on.
Sweetwater also invested in what Braddock calls the “art of teaching.” The school conducted professional development workshops to improve teaching methods and support its staff through the transition. The last goal was to prepare students for the tests they were about to take.
Braddock bristles at the notion the school teaches to the test, but he does admit Sweetwater teaches what will be tested. For inspiration, he thinks back to a meeting he had in his office with a Filipino student and her mother. Although the girl had a 3.5 grade point average, English wasn’t her first language. As a result, she failed the state’s graduation exam four times and was down to her last chance. She was crying, and Braddock said it had never been clearer to him that the school needed to help students like her find a path to success. (Not only did the student pass on her last try, but her handwritten note of thanks sits prominently framed in Braddock’s office.)
The school strategically identified students, creating three levels of learners in the tenth grade. At the top were those students expected to pass the exit exam. Of this group, 95 percent hit the baseline score of 380, Braddock says. The second group, approximately one third of the 600-student grade, were deemed “bubble” kids, who may have been able to hit the mark but needed extra help. These students were given double doses of English and math. The third group, those with the most severe problems, were given the most intensive help.
As these changes took hold, Sweetwater students saw their scores steadily rise on the state api test, growing to 581 by 2002. The same year, the school found itself on nclb’s list for the first time. While scores continued to rise to 691 in 2007, the school still hadn’t shaken nclb’s designation.
Heading into the test last spring, the stakes were high. If Sweetwater stayed on the list for a sixth year, the state could opt to take over the management of the school, turn it into a charter school or bring in private management to run the school. With a proud history dating back to 1882, Sweetwater faced its sternest survival test. The school’s biggest problem was getting its English language learner subgroup to score a 380 on its exit exam.
When Braddock was patrolling the hallways, one small snapshot told him the school might just make it. A student with the shaved head, baggy pants, and goatee that frequently signifies gang members, stopped him. “Hey Braddock, I think I got you your 380.”
Sure enough, when the results were released this fall, enough students got to 380 to make Sweetwater one of only two high schools in the state to get off the nclb list. api scores rose to 706, about 250 points from the school’s nadir. Sweetwater celebrated, but for Braddock the work isn’t complete. The state api goal of 800 is now in sight, and he’s ready for the challenge “I’m a competitor. I’m not ready to lose,” he says.
2. Kendall Elementary School, Norwalk, Connecticut
unlike sweetwater, this k–5 elementary school didn’t see its nclb designation coming. When Kendall ended up on the “In Need of Improvement” list, it was for one subgroup out of the 470-student school. “It was a shock to us,” says Tony Ditrio, Kendall’s principal.
Although Ditrio says the way the law is written any urban district should end up on the list, he had good reason to be surprised by Kendall’s inclusion. With 12 elementary schools in this city of 83,000, Kendall’s African-American students had the highest reading scores. But because Kendall was the only school to have the 40 students necessary to constitute a subgroup, it was the only elementary to fail this criteria in 2004.
Ditrio remembers struggling to explain the bad news to parents. “We showed them graphically that our reading scores were 20 percent higher” than the other elementaries.
Superintendent of Norwalk schools Salvatore Corda says NCLB’s “lack of thoughtfulness” leads most to assume schools not making AYP are failing.
While Corda criticizes parts of the law, he admits having schools and the entire district failing to make AYP “provides a bit of incentive. It does spark a good deal of internal soul searching of how practices can be improved.”
The next year, Kendall missed ayp in four areas. While this news was worse, the same year the school earned state awards for its high test scores. Ditrio says it was hard to convince the staff, which had suffered through personnel problems before he arrived, to not lose morale.
Ditrio’s story at Kendall is an unusual one. The former head of the district’s math department, he agreed to become Kendall’s principal for one year in 1998 to help stabilize the school. With the highest teacher absenteeism rate in the city and students running the school, Ditrio remembers his early days. “I didn’t want anyone to visit the school,” he says.
With his background, he figured the school’s low math scores would be the first area he would reverse. Despite his attention, scores stagnated and then declined when the district implemented a new, and in his estimation, less effective math program. His “one-year” experiment as principal has continued indefinitely. Finally, Ditrio found a standards-based math program on his own. Improved results followed.
And this lesson informed the rest of the school’s changes. “Key words we use are focus and data,” he says. “We do everything in steps. I have to stay patient.”
When Yale University needed to find a district to test out its teacher-training program in reading instruction, it selected Kendall. The three-year program empasized vocabulary and basic skills, while monitoring student progress. Morale improved, student scores followed suit, and Ditrio even began to feel comfortable welcoming visitors.
The district’s story doesn’t have a happy ending yet. Although Norwalk’s three middle schools have made “safe harbor” this year by posting gains in each subgroup, the district as a whole is still on the “In Need of Improvement” list.
“It’s frustrating,” Corda admits. “We’re seeing an upward curve. We haven’t accelerated at a fast enough pace with all the subgroups. We see a narrowing of the gaps, but there’s still work to be done.”
As state expectations rise in anticipation of reaching the 100 percent proficiency goal of 2014, Corda admits the new marks will be harder to hit. For instance, this year, 80.8 percent of students were deemed proficient in math. While that figure was good enough to hit the 2007 mark, the math requirement jumped to 82 percent for 2008, meaning the district still falls short.
When Kendall jumped off the “failing” list, Ditrio says the whole school got a boost. Students zoomed past proficient to meet state goals, and, according to Ditrio, teachers are finally proud of where they work. Still, as an education veteran, he hasn’t let the sudden success overwhelm him. “Teachers always work hard,” he says. “but it’s easier now that they are getting recognition.”
3. Tefft Middle School, Streamwood, Illinois
Lavonne Smiley may not always live up to the promise of her last name, but most of the time she’s pretty optimistic. From the first time Illinois schools were asked to make ayp, Smiley’s Tefft school didn’t. With 900 students in the grades 7–8 school, Tefft had all the subgroups, increasing its chance for failure.Despite the odds, Smiley knew success breeds success and ending up on the “failing” list would result in most people writing off her school’s positive gains. “When you have that label, it’s a little cloud over your head. It really clears the air to have it removed,” she says.And while Tefft, like every other school in the country, gets graded every year, the programs put in place took years to achieve a full payoff. Smiley says her school created learning targets for each student. Then they began a building-wide program that emphasized vocabulary in every subject, including physical education.
Smiley took pains to explain to parents what subgroups meant under the law, and made sure that each student understood what was at stake, personally and for the entire school. “We’ve taken the whole of school improvement down to each child,” she says.
Recognizing that students were only in Tefft for two years, but could enter seventh grade several years behind grade level, Smiley started an aggressive tracking program that identified students before entering. “We know exactly which kids may not make it,” she adds. “We put them in an intervention program the first day they are here and it’s been critical to our success.”
The school made steady progress, and the principal thought the school had scaled ayp in 2007. But when the test results were released, Smiley was disappointed to learn that the school fell short of getting off the “failing” list by one special education student. “I wanted to cry,” she says, but eventually she told her teachers, “In my mind, we made it. Let’s continue our work.”
When the 2008 results arrived right before a school assembly, Smiley grabbed a microphone and told the student body the test results were in. They groaned, expecting bad news again. But Smiley related that not only had Tefft finally made ayp, but the school was the only one in School District U-46 to post gains in math and reading. “You can imagine the pride these 900 kids felt. That’s powerful stuff,” she says.
Because of a change in how the state tests its English language learners, more schools than ever in U-46 missed AYP Superintendent Jose Torres, who came to the district earlier this year, is developing an accountability model separate from nclb that will help parents better understand the progress district schools are making. “We have to start changing the dialogue,” he says, adding that schools will report the number of eighth graders taking algebra and ap offerings, the percentage of teachers with National Board Certification, and other metrics.
“Schools that didn’t make AYP worked just as hard,” he says. “Obviously there’s a certain pride when a school finally achieves ayp. But one test score doesn’t make a great school, even when it does well.”