Trying to Cope

New principal Barry Smith learns the ropes and tries to cope with the challenges of leading New River Elementary School down a more successful path.

Fifth grade lead teacher Jennifer Holmburg speaks up about the changes new principal Barry Smith has implemented.

September 8

8:10 a.m.

Ms. Jennifer Holmburg

Jennifer is frustrated by changes in how students are grouped.

You know, I’ve been at this job a long time – 15 years, to be exact. A lot of things have changed in that time, let me tell you, and not all of them for the better, either. But, you know, I just keep my nose down and I don’t make waves. A lot of things will just resolve themselves if you’re willing to wait long enough.

But I guess I’m just going to have to speak up this time. I mean, it’s just not right what this new principal is doing.

I think we’re up to 20 percent of our students speaking Spanish. It makes sense to us teachers that these children could be grouped together in their own ESL class, where they could get the appropriate instruction to learn the language. But he came in over the summer and changed the class assignments so everybody’s all mixed up. We weren’t trained to be Spanish teachers. Why, I can’t even give a vocabulary assessment without a translator! How in the world does he expect us to teach students when we can’t even communicate with them?

See demographic information for New River Valley Elementary School below:

And another thing. I’ve been teaching fifth grade for so many years – the other teachers know that, and respect it. They look to me to mentor the new fifth grade teachers, and that’s been working quite well for years. Now he wants us to partner with teachers in other grades to share and plan – “vertical teaming,” he calls it. Well, how is that going to help the fifth grade team, or its students? I’ll tell you what, I’ve been around here a lot longer than he has. Maybe he should be asking my advice about all these changes he wants to make.”

Principal Barry Smith

Barry Smith hopes to energize the faculty and reform the school.

Why did I choose to become a school administrator? Well, I guess it’s because I believe in education, and I believe that children are our future. Isn’t there a song that begins something like that? In any case, it is what I believe.

Almost a month ago I became principal of New RiverElementary School. It’s my first assignment as principal, and I’m eager to bring change in with me. And a change is long overdue. The New River School District has a student population of 85,000, but I try not to let that big number distract me. I focus on the 850 or so K-5 students right here at myschool, the ones that are counting on me to lead them to success.

My teaching staff is sort of a mixed bag: of the newcomers, some are recent grads of teacher education programs and some are lateral entry, moving from some other profession into education. Then we have our fixtures, here since the first brick was placed in the building. I think those are going to be the toughest to win over.

See a profile of the faculty at New River Elementary School below:

He wasn’t quite sure what it was – maybe the way that her fingers were gripping her pencil so tightly that it looked like it was about to break, or maybe her ramrod straight posture – but something told Barry Smith that today’s meeting with Jennifer Holmburg was just the beginning of what was going to be a very long discussion regarding class grouping. As they faced each other across his desk, he reminded himself to be objective and unemotional.

“The ESL students really need to have their own classes,” Jennifer began. “All of us teachers think so. It is just too difficult to teach students who don’t even understand us.”

“I understand your point of view,” replied Barry, “and I empathize, really. I certainly want my teachers and students to be happy. My commitment, however, is to make those changes which I see as beneficial to the entire school, and these may not initially be easy or make people happy.” He leaned forward across the desk. “I believe in inclusion – the data supports its efficacy – and this is why I’ve arranged the class schedules to allow for native English speakers to be placed alongside LEP students in class. I really believe that they will both win with this scenario.”

“Well, it’s never been that way before,” Jennifer persisted, not quite meeting his eyes, but not backing down, either.

“True, it has not.” Despite his good intentions, Barry could feel his frustration building. Surely she’d seen the school’s test scores. “But that system has not been working. The school has not made AYP with classes being leveled. We have consistently missed the targets on state assessment tests in reading and mathematics. Something has to change.”

See New River Valley’s performance on End-of-Grade tests in reading and math, Grade 5 below:

Before Jennifer could respond, the door to Barry’s office burst open. He looked up in surprise as his secretary, Mavis Bloomburg, rushed through the door. “Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith – oh my God, you won’t believe it, there’s been a bomb threat!”

Instinctively Barry stood up, his mind racing. Well, he thought inconsequentially, I guess you’re not a real principal until you’ve had at least one bomb threat“I’m sorry, Jennifer, I’ve got to go,” he said as he headed for the door, his attention already focusing on the crisis at hand and the proper procedures for emergencies. “We’ll revisit this issue again, I promise.”

Barry Smith returns a telephone call to the leader of the Christian Service Society and wonders where the line is between community involvement and the separation of church and state.

11:15 a.m.

After the bomb threat – which was, thankfully, a hoax – Barry made his follow-up walk around the school, then returned to his office to find a thick stack of pink notes from Mavis, detailing all the phone calls he’d missed. Probably two or three hours’ worth, he realized with a sinking feeling. How was he supposed to get anything accomplished when his day was constantly interrupted? He decided to start with the first on the list: Reverend James Blackstone. What on earth could this be about?

Reverend James Blackstone

My family has been here in New River for four generations – we live in that big white house on the corner of First and Washington. You’ve seen it? One thing you should understand about me is that this is not just my town, this is my family. That influences who I am, the things that I do.

First Hope Church has a large and influential congregation.

I have been honored to serve as the minister of First Hope Church, the largest in the community – in fact, the Superintendent is one of my parishioners – for eighteen years now. I’ve also been President of the New River Christian Service Society Board for the past six – in fact, a member of the school board also sits on that panel. You see how we all work together in this community! The CSSB is an organization whose goal is to relieve pain and suffering within the community through visits, prayers, and, especially, donations to the needy. We run a food bank, a clothes closet, and an emergency fund which pays delinquent electric bills, among other things. We do a lot of good in this community – I’m proud of the things that we’ve accomplished.

“I’d like to welcome you to the community,” began Reverend Blackstone, his voice practically rattling the receiver in Barry’s hand.

“Thank you,” said Barry, imagining that voice rocking First Hope Church Sunday after Sunday. He was fairly certain the Reverend didn’t need a microphone to reach the ears of his faithful.

“I hope that you’re settling in all right,” the Reverend continued. “Despite the bomb threat.”

“You heard about that already?” Barry was surprised at how quickly the news had spread.

Reverend Blackstone wants students to perform at a church function.

“It’s a small world, Mr Smith,” the Reverend chuckled, “and more particularly, it’s a small town. But I hear you handled it just fine.” The Reverend’s reassurance was a bit patronizing, but Barry couldn’t help being a little envious of the authority that emanated from the phone. Maybe if I had some of that, he thought, I’d have more success with Jennifer Holmburg and her team.

The Reverend continued, “You know, I’ve been thinking that the sooner you and I can sit down and discuss our joint roles in working together for the good of the youth in this community, the better.”

“That seems like a good idea,” Barry agreed cautiously. While he too believed that the more the community was involved with the success of New River Elementary, the better, he thought it would be best to limit how much influence and access any one group had.

“I’m glad that you think so,” said Rev. Blackstone. “We’re all one family here, and the more cooperation we have between us, the more we all win.”

Barry made a noncommittal, “Uh-huh.” The longer this conversation lasted the more certain he was that there was more going on in this phone call than a simple welcome-to-the-community speech. He vaguely sensed the jaws of a trap getting ready to spring shut on him.

“By the way, I have a request.” Here it comes, thought Barry. “We have a Service Society meeting next Wednesday, at noon in the community center next to the library. I need a program for the meeting, and thought what better than to have some children from the school come to sing for the group? Nothing too fancy, just several selections.”

“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” Barry finally replied, his brain furiously working through the implications of sending a group of students to sing at a church function off-campus during school hours. On the other hand, he did want the involvement and cooperation of the community, and alienating Rev. Blackstone, clearly one of its pillars, would be impolitic, at best. “Perhaps tomorrow?”

“That’s fine. I’ll look forward to hearing from you, then,” said Rev. Blackstone.

After hanging up the phone, Barry swiveled in his chair and rolled over to his packed bookcase. Scanning the shelves, he finally found the one he was looking for. Great bedtime reading, he thought, and slipped the book into his briefcase.

Click here to read Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools.

Barry Smith drops in on new fifth grade teacher Debbie Gilliam.

1:15 p.m.

Mrs. Debbie Gilliam

Teaching school is so exciting. It’s better even than I thought it would be. So much better than writing technical manuals! That was a good job, sure, and it taught me a lot in the eight years I was there. But, somehow, it was just so – sterile. And really, sitting alone at that desk all day…again, this is so much better. I feel like I’m contributing to society in such a positive way – something I really didn’t get from the software company. Of course, it’s not easy – anything but.

Debbie’s alternative certification program did not prepare her to teach in a diverse environment.

All morning Barry had been mulling over his earlier conversation with Jennifer Holmburg. She’d claimed that “all the teachers” agreed with her about the inclusion of LEP students; if so, he needed some major PR work to get the faculty to buy into his ideas. Otherwise, he knew his plans for inclusion were bound to fail. He headed over to the fifth grade wing, stopping at the first empty classroom.

Peering through the door, he saw Debbie Gilliam rifling through a stack of papers on her desk. He rapped lightly on the door before entering. Debbie looked up from her desk, clearly surprised and flustered by his unexpected appearance.

“Everything all right after this morning’s scare?” he began.

“Oh, yes, thank you Mr. Smith,” Debbie replied.

“Please, call me Barry,” he said, settling into a chair. “I really just stopped by to see how everything’s going. I remember my first year of teaching, and I remember how hard it was.”

Debbie released a deep breath that stopped just short of a sigh. “There’s so much to do! Sometimes it seems like I’ll never be able to stay on top of it all.”

“Can I help with any particular concerns?” asked Barry, his expression sincere.

“Oh, gosh – thanks, I really appreciate that.” Debbie smiled briefly, then shrugged. “I just seem to be planning, planning, planning and still can’t seem to do enough to plan for all my classes, to tailor the lessons so that they fit such a range of abilities. I don’t know how the other teachers do it…”

As her voice faded, Debbie’s gaze dropped, and she gave a quick half-smile. Smooth move, Deb, she berated herself. Way to sound professional in front of the principal. She nervously started fiddling with her papers again.

Barry understood her agitation: he really did remember his first year teaching. It was tough to strike the proper balance of conveying professionalism while asking for needed support.

See New River Elementary School’s lateral entry regulations below:

“Have you asked your mentor for help?”

“Ummm . . .” she hesitated. “Well, I’m not really sure who that is . . .”

Barry’s eyebrows darted up, but he refrained from responding. One issue at a time, he told himself.

“There is one more thing I’d like to ask you about,” said Barry. “Regarding class groupings, the inclusion of LEP students. How is that going?”

Debbie shrugged, and this time she really did sigh. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s only been two weeks.” She looked up at him. “It’s just, well, we never really talked about how to teach LEP students in my certification program. Not specifically.” She shrugged again.

Barry’s heart sank. Did any of his teachers know how to teach both the Hispanic population and native English speakers?

Dr. Harold Lazer, District Mathematics Supervisor, pushes Barry to improve math test scores.

2:00 p.m.

Dr. Harold Lazer

I’ve been the math supervisor in the district for four years now. I started as a math teacher and then became an elementary principal. Now I’m at the district level, and have been quite happy here…except that I’ve gotten the feeling, lately, that things could be changing. At my last meeting with the Superintendent, she more or less came out and said that I’d be gone by June if the district’s math scores don’t rise significantly by the end of the year. And I thought she’d called me in to give me a raise!

Dr. Lazer promotes a scripted math curriculum.

I’ve spent the past month meeting with principals and math teachers throughout the district, doing anything I can to convey the urgency of the situation – anything to get them to understand that we MUST raise these math scores. It’s like being in a henhouse half the time, with all the squabbling and bickering that goes on. The high school blames the middle school for not preparing their students, the middle school blames the elementary school, the elementary school blames the parents…when is anybody going to actually take some responsibility for this? Ah well, I guess that would be ME.

Did I remember my blood pressure medication today?

Dr. Lazer was right on time for his meeting with Barry that afternoon. On the agenda: math scores, or, more specifically, lack thereof and plans to improve such. Barry knew that he was getting a sort of grace period, being a new principal, but still he got the distinct feeling that these math scores were a make-it-or-break-it issue.

“I agree, we do need to improve the results of our tests,” acknowledged Barry as he sat across from Dr. Lazer at the small conference table in his office. “We have implemented a plan and staff development to accomplish these goals. The teachers have really taken this issue to heart.” He glanced down at some testing data that he had brought with him to the meeting for reference, barely suppressing a sigh. He was quite aware, as was the supervisor, that they needed to reach subpopulations more effectively if they were going to meet expectations for AYP and EOG tests.

“We are engaged,” continued Barry, “the school is addressing this issue head on. But we need all the assistance we can get – we have so many different levels in class that it is almost impossible to keep up with the paper work. And as far as the curriculum that we’re required to follow…”

He fixed a direct gaze on Dr. Lazer as he made this comment. The district’s mandated scripted curriculum had been adopted under Dr. Lazer’s leadership when he first became math supervisor. The schools in the district had met with mixed success; clearly, it wasn’t working at New River.

Click here to read an article about scripted curriculum that influenced Barry’s thinking.

“I know that you may not agree with me about scripted math,” said Dr. Lazer defensively, “but I believe that this program can work. If you stick with it and if it is implemented properly.” To emphasize his point Dr. Lazer waved a stack of printouts which he held in his hand, trying to redirect Barry’s attention off of his program and onto those inadequate math scores. “Perhaps the program does need a slight readjustment,” he finally conceded.

Click here to read about the district’s scripted curriculum.

“Maybe readjustment,” said Barry slowly, “or maybe redesign.”

“The adopted program gives direction and guidelines for working with diverse students,” said Dr. Lazer, his voice becoming more strident. “It was designed to help teachers. We can do better than we’re doing now, we’ve got to do better.” He rose, indicating the meeting was over. “I will need you to send me quarterly reports on the program’s implementation.”

Barry seethed inside. And so, he thought, not only are we stuck with a program that may not work, but now we have to waste our limited resources generating quarterly reports on its “progress.” He gritted his teeth as he closed the door on Dr. Lazer.

The leadership team tackles school discipline issues.

3:30 p.m.

Ms. Marilyn Jones

I’m an AP now, but last year I was an intern while I finished up my admin degree. The principal last year was…well, let’s just say I wasn’t a real big fan. I thought he was too easy going, and tried too hard to be popular. As far as Principal Smith is concerned, the jury’s still out.

My big concern from last year was students that sometimes get lost in the shuffle of discipline and attendance – some can even “drop out” for the year, while remaining on the register. Surprise, surprise – the problem didn’t magically go away over the summer.

Barry Smith, Marilyn Jones, Bob Hinton and Valerie Malone.

Barry glanced around the room. He was still figuring out the interpersonal dynamics of his leadership team – his fellow administrators had known each other for some time, and the three shared a history that he, a newcomer, was just beginning to understand. But they needed to be a strong team if they were going to get things turned around at New River, and these weekly meetings were as much about building that team as they were about updating him on student and school issues.

“Marilyn, you’ve got kids ‘A’ through ‘I.’ Why don’t you go first?”

“I’ve had a busy week,” Marilyn began, “but nothing unusual for the start of the year.” She waited a moment. “Carlos Alverez came by today. Remember him from last year?”

Barry raised his eyebrows, noting the nods from the other members of the team.

“Carlos’ case is pretty extreme, but I’m sure you all have kids like him on your roster.”

Again, the other team members nodded.

“Carlos’ usually shows up the first week, and then he starts missing the bus. Absences pile up. He’s already been held back once, so he’s way behind, skills-wise. He shouldn’t be missing class time, he just ends up more behind and starts acting out in class, so he gets sent out of the room some more and gets even further behind. I send home letters and meet with his parents, but they can’t do much. They leave for work at 6 AM and their English is pretty basic, so it’s hard for me to tell just what gets through. I feel like the system’s already written him off – and he’s just ten years old!”

See New River Elementary School’s retention policy below:

See New River Elementary School’s attendance policy below:

There was passion in her voice when she spoke of this student, and Barry was glad to hear it. He’d seen so many administrators who seemed to forget about the kids. He’d vowed he wouldn’t do that, but with all of the details and constant responsibilities he could see how it might seem like students were the problem, rather than the reason they all were here.

“You know, it kind of gripes me that we spend so much of our time on just a handful of troublemakers,” said Bob, shifting his weight in his chair. He’d been a football coach and PE teacher – he still volunteered at the Y as basketball coach for its youth league – before moving into administration. “I’ve been in education for twenty-six years, and there have always been kids like Carlos. Always will be. Some kids are slouches, and there’s just not much you can do with them. You follow procedure, get them through the system, and hope the next batch is better. Save your energy for the players, the kids who are going to give you 100%. There’s your real chance of winning.”

“Well, Bob, I’d have to disagree with you there,” said Valeri. Like Bob, she’d been at New River for years, and Barry sensed that this was an ongoing argument between them. I shouldn’t pick sides, he told himself, but Bob is wrong on this issue. “Sure we need to follow procedure, but we need to meet the students where they are. The problems with these students can be traced back to curriculum and instruction. Somebody needs to be a voice for the students.”

Marilyn interjected an appreciative, “That’s right.”

Bob’s face turned a bit red. “I’m not saying we’re not here for our students. I’m just saying that we can pour tons of resources into a Carlos and not get the return we would by dedicating those same resources to dozens of kids who’d be more receptive and actually benefit.”

Barry sensed it was time to intervene. “I’m glad to hear this dialog going on. You’ve raised some good points.” He was pretty sure he would have Valeri and Marilyn’s support on this issue, but he needed Bob on board, too. He looked around the room, making eye contact with each person. “That’s what will make us a strong team, listening to everyone’s opinion.” He spoke deliberately. “Each and every student is important. We can’t allow students like Carlos to slip through the cracks.”

He leaned forward in his chair, willing their support. “Right now, our students are organized alphabetically, right? Maybe we should rethink how we divvy up our kids. For starters, Valeri, you speak Spanish, don’t you?”

She nodded, and Barry relaxed. This wasn’t cutting-edge innovation he was proposing, not yet. But change is coming to New River Valley one way or another, Barry thought. Might as well be at the forefront.

Watch Dr. Pamela Tucker, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia, Curry School of Education, discuss the challenges Barry Smith faces as he implements school change. 

Watch Dr. Pamela Tucker, Assistant Professor, University of Virginia, Curry School of Education, review the entanglement issues presented in the case.