It is a wonderful school and a culturally rich neighborhood. In the first few years of the 15 I worked there the school was featured in National Geographic and other media outlets for its amazing diversity and positive atmosphere. During those years we won awards and often hosted visitors who wanted to know how we did what we did-- Take a school in a mixed ethnic neighborhood with low income levels and keep pace, even out-perform, schools with much more homogeneous and affluent community bases. The school was remarkable. Every day working there was deeply fulfilling. The word miracle was often used by others in reference to our work. The principal often said, "My job is to support your job and provide everything you need to be effective."
As the years went by the poverty levels of the neighborhood increased, moving the school from a 37% free and reduced lunch rate to an almost 65% rate. The number of second language learners continued to rise until the last year I was there; there were almost 500 second language progress tests given to students who were either in or recently exited ESOL classes in a school with a population of about 1800. It was growing ever harder to get top level SOL scores, but even with these numbers, we were still managing to get high performance scores in many areas, and maintain the benefits of an all-American high school, including a highly subscribed and successful IB Diploma program.
There are several things that a high school with both mixed cultures and high poverty faces:
- The lack of a common set of cultural references and a deficit of traditional background knowledge students traditionally came to school with. Because students come from a variety of backgrounds and are very often less schooled in their native language than those from middle American neighborhoods, the variations in knowledge and skills is huge. (I once had a gen-ed 10th grade English class in which about 1/2 the class read between a 3rd and 8th grade level and the other half read between an 11th and junior in college level. There was almost no middle where students were actually reading on grade level.) Which means the school has to create a common culture that binds the community together in their diversity, and teachers must be multiculturally competent and have a bottomless tool belt of differentiation methods.
- Students lack the basic resources to "do school." In poor neighborhoods there are thousands of ways that students are prevented from "accessing the curriculum"-- from not having access to adults to help them with their studies, to nowhere to sleep or study, to lack of the nutrients needed for their bodies and brains, to the hyper-vigilance of living in unsafe environments. (I have had students who only had a blind wheel chair bound grandfather to live with, who were gang members, who were afraid of gang members in their building, who lived in a one-bedroom with 15 people, who lived in drug houses, who worked 40 hours a week or more, who financially supported their families, who were homeless, and who could not get medical care for things like toothaches, rashes, or even serious chronic disorders.) Which means the school has to be very creative and inventive in the way it gathers community services and organizes its assignments for students.
- Most District and Administrative bureaucracies are not equipped to handle such schools. Administrative systems are by nature designed and acculturated for regimentation and common procedures. They are not ready or willing to accommodate variance and non-conformity. Outliers, good or bad, are a problem, and bureaucracies don't like problems. This last issue has been exacerbated by the last 20 years of the standardization movement and the pressure of the school reform movement. Which means the school needs administrators who are good communicators and advocates for the needs of their school, and that teachers too must be pro-active about sharing their experiences with the managers and the community.
The Math department chair was pushed out, and a novice was hired. About 1/2 the teachers in the department left. In one year the math program went from 4th of 25 high schools in the district to 25th of 25. The math department has never really been fully reconstructed, and today scores hover just below 50% on standardized tests that determine AYP. The net result has been that the school is now on conditional accreditation.
The story doesn't stop with the Math department though. In a school such as this, the English Department and ESOL (English as a second language) departments are critical to the success of other subject fields. One cannot understand physics or biology, or US History from an English textbook and English speaking teacher without being capable of reading and understanding spoken English. For the next 5 years the English and ESOL Departments worked extremely hard to avoid what had happened to the Math department.
Literacy programs, double-blocks for transitioning ESOL students, focused vocabulary programs, special remediation programs, and communication between the departments on behalf of students was the standard of the day. Teachers did summer work on the SOLs and curriculum development to make sure the resources were there for our students and that we knew exactly what was expected of them. For second language learners a barrier test English exam was the worst kind of nightmare. We worked to match vertical skills from grade level to grade level, and built multicultural summer reading programs, but eventually the local administration and the standardization emphasis coming from above turned toward us and our programs. The last year our teams were intact pass rates for the SOLs were 96.5%, keeping in mind that for many of our students their first year of mainstreamed English was 10th grade with the test being in May of 11th.
The ESOL departments and English Departments are now on their 3rd department chairs in 5 years, and the principal and APs who are over those departments are determined to dismantle them in the same way Math was. They have done away with the double blocks, given the teachers new and added preps that keep them from collaborating, assigned the hardest courses to the least experienced teachers, and driven away anyone who speaks out that those decisions might not be "best practice" in this school.
For those of us who love the school, and our students, it has been like watching a slow motion locomotive that could not be stopped. As the incoming administrators tried to hold more and more power to their offices while doing less and less to support the teachers they saw as recalcitrant line-workers, the school lost more and more ground, and morale dropped further and further.
We all anxiously wait the scores for this year. Appeals to a variety of officials for help have either fallen on deaf ears or brought more invasive management actions. We in the community are still hoping there will be a real change that will return power to those who work most closely with the students; change that will bind and heal this community.
All these destructive events can be seen as part of the overall school reform locomotive-- standardization of performance, teacher performance measured by standardized tests, rigid curriculum time-lines, rigor rather than joy of learning, best practices determined by faulty data studies, a deliberate erosion of teacher leader control in favor of centralized decisions making; And last but certainly not least, school management by teacher bullying and administrative decree (a nationwide trend in style and methodology promoted by such institutes as the Broad, USDOE, and other reform organizations).
The fate of our school can be viewed as an isolated situation. It is, after all, an unusual place where up until last year there was no ethnic majority. Or the fate of this one school can be seen as a symptom of a nationwide mindset among education managers that has become toxic to our best schools, our children's worlds, and our communities' values. Here was a school which was doing what the reformers claimed to want-- raising scores for poor students, offering high level courses and opportunities. Yet, the reforms they have brought are destroying the performance they claim to desire.
For those of us who worked so hard for so long to make miracles happen every day, it is like someone cut off our life-line to the source of miracles.
But if anyone still wants to know how to create great schools in spite of high risk factors, there are still quite a few teachers around who know how to do this. I'm pretty sure my old school is not the only place those kinds of teachers exist- able to open young people's lives to wider possibilities, to teach the skills that equip them to access all the might be's of their adult lives. All the administrators, politicians, and reformers have to do is ask again-- how do you do that? and give us a little support.