Fighting Chance

Teachers working on a Title I Schoolwide Plan meet unexpected resistance when their school's data presents a bleak picture of student performance. Challenges surrounding public relations, consensus building, developing clear and measurable goals, and making meaningful use of test data all muddy the water on this journey toward school improvement.

Teachers in an urban school encounter resistance as they present information from their comprehensive needs assessment.

“You can’t use that information. It’ll get out to the wrong hands. No. Absolutely not. And Sundi, Elizabeth, I want you in my office as soon as this meeting adjourns.” With that, our principal turned on her heels and departed. I looked around at my colleagues in disbelief. Was all our hard work to be for nothing?

Sundi was the rock of the school, known for both her good humor and steady approach.

This was not the first time I’d butted heads with Dr. McDaniels. When she’d arrived at Beaumont Middle School two years ago, taking over for Allen Mehen, who transferred out of district to the suburbs after just six months, I’d been full of high hopes. This was our first female principal since I’d begun working there, and her resume was impressive. I felt sure she’d understand the special needs of our school and actually be able to effect some change.

However, whenever I went to her with what I saw as a compelling opportunity to improve how we did things, she made it clear that any suggestions that didn’t come from her were a threat to her authority. And she did have good ideas. Some. Already our class sizes had decreased and she’d gotten grant money to get more computers into the school. So it wasn’t surprising when she opened up the opportunity for us to move from a targeted assistance to a schoolwide plan under Title I, and I jumped at the chance to participate. The consensus building this required proved challenging both to me personally and to the committee as a whole.

I only got hired eleven years ago because it was late August and the school desperately needed a sixth grade teacher. I had no experience and only two education classes under my belt. It was a nightmare. Beaumont epitomizes “poor urban school.” Our brick and cinder-block campus is surrounded by double-barbed wire fencing and we were the first school in our large (and otherwise affluent) district to get metal detectors. The yearly percentage of students qualifying for free lunch ranges from the low 80s to the high 90s. African-Americans and immigrants from Cuba and Haiti are the majority here. Poverty affects everything in our school, from who goes here to who works here and why. It can be a scary place for an outsider. And it was for me.

That first year, I had forty-four kids in my class, almost all of whom had major hurdles to overcome, hurdles I’d never encountered in my sheltered, private-school upbringing. Chaos ensued. I think what saved me was my booming voice and Sundi Lefti, my colleague down the hall, who offered advice and sympathy. I’m not sure what made me come back, but come back I did. And I learned. From colleagues, from classes, and from my students. After eleven years, I was a good teacher and proud of the work I did with children the world seemed to forget about. Serving on this committee was a natural extension of my belief that these students need advocates willing to demand attention, services, and money to help them build better lives.

I truly believed that creating a schoolwide plan could help turn things around for Beaumont. Despite my reservations about Dr. McDaniels, I had to hand it to her for putting funds into such an important project. Our committee actually got time during school to meet, plan, and work, and she’d given us a great deal of latitude once the committee was formed. Of course, she had her pets on the committee, but overall it was a good group: Xavier Johnson, our guidance counselor and group facilitator; Sarah-Jean Wilson, technology guru; Myra Przyski from central office to monitor compliance with Title I requirements; and Raul Perez, the assistant principal whose inability to stand up in a conflict was notorious. He was to be our chair!

She’d also invited two parents to be a part of the planning process, Amelie Gustave, a recent immigrant from Haiti who seemed too shy to speak, and Elena Saville, who had a child in each grade (and several more we would be seeing in the coming years). Lucia Brown, a long-time community activist who was rather difficult to work with, had insisted on joining us as well. I’d taught her son, Angel Brown, and had had a few run-ins with her over how I handled discipline, but we’d ended the year on a positive note, with Lucia happy with her son’s progress and scores on year-end tests.

Sundi, a dynamo for details, Tito, an eighth grade English teacher, and I rounded out the team and provided the teacher perspective. We also ended up doing most of the work, since we were in school and had every Wednesday afternoon “free” to dedicate ourselves to the Plan.

Students that didn’t fit into her private-school mold posed challenges for Elizabeth during her first year teaching.

At first, a year had seemed like plenty of time to tackle what was needed to implement a plan and receive funds, but we soon realized that working just Wednesday afternoons we’d never accomplish everything. We ended up dedicating two after-school afternoons per week to the project and by mid-fall met our first goal, completion of the comprehensive needs assessment. We’d gathered data from downtown, the guidance office, and various surveys from the previous year, and Sarah-Jean had been terrific about compiling charts and creating graphs with a high visual impact to show our school’s profile. They highlighted our needs and showed real problems with faculty turn-over, student progress, discipline, and family-school partnership. It also showed what a good job the district did in terms of offering professional development (it’s how I earned my masters), but the overall portrait was bleak.

See Beaumont Middle School demographic statistics reviewed for the comprehensive needs assessment below:

And that’s what the problem was. Today, as we reported our findings it became clear that our needs stood out too starkly for Dr. McDaniels’ tastes. It couldn’t possibly be news to her that ours is a school in crisis, but she somehow seems to think that she can hide that from the public.

I was still replaying her response in my head when Sundi looked at me and grinned. “Looks like we’ve done it this time! Let’s just march down to the office and take our wrist-slapping.”

I laughed back, but I was nervous. “She can’t really make us take back our report, can she? I mean, the work is done, the needs assessment is written. She’s got to use it, right?”

The Beaumont Middle School Planning Committee struggles to write measurable goals for their schoolwide plan.

“So, how was everyone’s break?” Our committee was reconvening after a two week hiatus for winter vacation. I had spent the first week back at my parents’ house in New Hampshire, where winter meant snow measured in feet and subzero temperatures. Coming home to Florida felt like a tropical vacation with its daytime highs in the 70’s. The past week I’d walked the beach, read, went out—and even put in a few days researching for our schoolwide plan.

It felt good to be back at work, even if problems in our school were constantly surfacing. Right now, the room was abuzz with the news that Tito would not be returning, having been arrested for possession of cocaine on New Year’s Eve. The students already knew and had been joking all day about his habit. Since many of them were exposed regularly to drug use at home � or were users themselves � they expressed little shock and just seemed sad to lose their teacher midway through the year. Like them, I wasn’t surprised by the failures of our staff any more; we had all seen this type of thing before.

Xavier clapped his hands. “Let’s get started; I’ve got to be out of here by 4:30 and Dr. McDaniels says she wants a copy of our goals on her desk by the end of the day.”

My relationship with Dr. McDaniels remained rocky. Just recently I’d been called to her office to be chastised for “making” a girl wet her pants in my class. The school policy was that no student was allowed in the halls during the first and last ten minutes of our eighty minute blocks, barring an emergency. When Janine asked if she could use the restroom with five minutes remaining, I repeated the policy and said no. She didn’t ask again and never said she was about to burst, but suddenly Charmaine and Joelle were shrieking, “She peeing, she peeing!” Her mother was irate, bursting into my classroom the next morning and then heading to the principal’s. That’s when I got called in and reprimanded. So much for having a supportive administrator when I needed one.

Fortunately, our interpersonal problems had not carried over to the planning team as a whole. In fact, having cleared the first hurdle back in the fall, Dr. McDaniels had more or less gotten on board. I think she sensed the Superintendent’s interest, realized which way the wind was blowing, and decided to act as if the schoolwide plan were her work and blame all problems on her predecessors. Not a bad strategy and not wholly inaccurate. Sundi was more generous, “I really think she cares � and not just about her resume. She wants this school to be better.”

Raul cleared his throat. “Tito did email me what he’d gotten done for our goals and I typed them up.” He passed out a half-sheet of paper to everyone in the group.

Seethe Goals Tito developed below:

These are our goals?” I couldn’t quite keep the disbelief out of my voice. We’d decided to split the work up, and each of us had picked a task. I’d been researching various remedial reading programs and had spent hours familiarizing myself with the latest studies, exploring comprehensive programs, and creating comparative spreadsheets. This couldn’t have taken Tito more than five minutes!

“Well, they do summarize what we talked about back in December,” Raul replied. He and Tito were friends; I knew he’d covered for Tito in the past and was doing so now. I wondered if Tito even wrote these.

“It’s just that they’re so . . . basic.” Sundi was much better than I at framing things in a way that wouldn’t raise hackles. “I think we need to flesh them out. Don’t we need some sort of performance indicators? I mean, how are we going to measure whether we’ve �strengthened reading proficiency’?”

“Well that’s easy,” chimed in Xavier. “We already test reading each year. We can use that as our guide, right?”

Myra joined in, “I think that’ll work, but we also need to set up some kind of benchmarks � ways to chart our progress as we go along.”

“How do we do that?” I asked.

“I found a form we can use to create our goals in measurable terms,” she replied.

Seethe Schoolwide Reform Strategies and Goals form below:

“Does that mean more tests?” Lucia interjected. “These kids don’t need more of those. Angel takes tests all the time and they don’t tell anything he don’t already know. Just make him mad and he don’t want to come to school.”

See Beaumont’s sixth graders’ performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests below:

I agreed. I remembered my shock that first year when I’d reviewed my students’ standardized test scores. All clustered to the very left of the chart, the bottom of the barrel. I was thrilled when I had a student who scored in the 30th percentile and ecstatic when I had an “average” achiever. No wonder they despised any test: Who likes to be told they’re way behind? These kids needed help, some sort of overarching program to meet their needs, rather than the patchwork of ineffective services they received now. That’s why I was doing this. If we could make this work, it could give these kids, kids nobody expected much of or cared much about, a fighting chance.