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Month One As A Failing School

September 25, 2010

On September 13, 2010, the California Department of Education released the Accountability Performance Index (API) of all schools in the state, the measure by which schools are judged as functional or failing, and my school unfortunately earned the latter title.  To say we were surprised would not be true, because the previous year involved body blows to our school’s curriculum, stability, and culture due to the loss of 23 esteemed and talented teachers who were laid-off in a Reduction in Force.  The tragedy of this loss has been chronicled in the Don’t Forget South Central blog.

Possible consequences are:

1.  Federal:  NCLB sanctions which include allowing students to enroll elsewhere, firing the Principal, reconstituting the school, or converting to a charter.

2.  Local:  The Los Angeles Unified District approved of a Public School Choice policy which allows the Superintendent to identify failing schools and offer them up for a change in management via charter school or teacher collaboratives.

Our work is cut out for us.  Our students arrive in 6th grade vastly below grade level, and our new staff members are overwhelmingly new to middle school teaching.  We have many kindergarten and first grade teachers now teaching adolescents in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.  Massive support is needed in terms of coaching and mentoring, positions also cut drastically due to the budget crisis.  So we are pairing these new staff members with veteran instructors that teach the same subject.  Fortunately for our school, grade levels have a common conference period that facilitates these types of meetings.

The New Teacher Roundtable has changed its focus from helping brand new teachers adjust to the profession to helping new staff members understand the culture of our school, and keep up with our challenging bell schedule and multiple meetings.  Many new staff members did not select our school as their first choice when reassigned from eliminated district positions; our job is to help them come to grips with the change and provide whatever support necessary to assist with their instruction.

Fortunately, we have been assigned a Title 3 coach, paid for by the District, to help improve the instruction of our English Learners.  This coach has also helped with data analysis, and English and Math teachers have met one by one with instructional coaches to examine the performance of their students in last year’s state exam.  They are asked to count how many students rose or fell a level (or two, or three) and measure the scaled score to see who rose or fell within a level.  For some teachers, the results have been eye-opening.

Teachers with the strongest performance have been assigned the lowest performing students during the intervention period we have built in to our schedule, called Flex.  This flex period allows additional help during the school day to help students such as these, but also provides enrichment classes to those who are performing at or above grade level.  This has cause some grumbling, as teachers have been accustomed to working with students similar to those they teach in their core classes.  For many, they will be teaching 20-25 students who they know nothing about.  I’m sure they will get to know them quite well during the year.

High scoring teachers have also been asked to take on leadership roles and work with their departments by sharing successful lessons.

Schoolwide, the Principal brought in a data specialist to explain the results of the state exam, department by department, longitudinally, and by sub-group.  All staff members have been charged with improving test scores, as we as group will experience the repercussion if we should fail in our mission.

Many of these strategies are nothing new and are quite common in schools nationwide.  The difference for us is the focus and urgency of the challenge at hand:  reversing the under achievement of our lowest-performing students while at the same time continuing to serve our Advanced Studies population, which comprises 30% of our school population.  Our principal is not willing to sacrifice any sub-group to the testing Gods, and has continued to support all programs on campus.

As for teacher morale, we understand the system in which we work.  We know that the future of our campus depends on the results of the work done today.  We feel it is pointless to complain about the additional challenges bestowed on our school (cuts, layoffs, forcing teachers to be assigned to our school) so we focus on staying positive and not allowing the stress of the new system to distract us.  Because unlike our lost colleagues, at least we still have our jobs, and the students, their teachers.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2010 10:13 am

    Hope some folks at South Central got to hear Diane Ravitch in L.A. last night.

    Your excellent, detailed, speaking-from-experience blog refutes the myth that mass firings are the way to “fix” schools with serious challenges. Ravitch did the same kind of refutation in her speech in Detroit, the previous night.

    Nice work, Martha. Keep preaching.

    • September 25, 2010 9:41 pm

      Sanctions, threats, and coercion have not resulted in increased test scores in 10 years of No Child Left Behind. Nor have they inspired the classroom teacher to be more innovative, creative, or daring. Prescribed curriculum has become the norm, and some new teachers have never learned how to create their own lessons. The irony (or lunacy?) in Los Angeles is that if your school gets put up on the chopping block, then, and only then, can teachers write a plan that allows them to be free of district prescribed curriculum. Truly, the cart is before the horse.

      That being said, I hope these blog posts and those at DFSC are a testament to what the average teacher and school is experiencing at ground zero, the classroom. Thanks for reading my post!!! I enjoyed yours today as well.

  2. September 25, 2010 8:25 pm

    I just don’t understand any of the logic behind the “fixes” now being held over your collective heads. I wonder why people think threatening you will inspire you to suddenly pull out some magic wand you’ve be hiding all this time? There is so little logic in saying “perform, or we’ll cut.” What about “hey, what do you need to perform?”

    Isn’t that basic classroom management? “Lead with a question?”

    Instead of threatening schools with sanctions, the feds/locals ought to dump time, money and effort into leading with a question… how else will they know The Answer?

    • September 25, 2010 9:46 pm

      I completely agree with your train of thought. I regularly ask myself those same questions. Sadly, few people realize how easy it is to produce high test scores, namely by eliminating all non-tested curriculum, such as Science, Social Studies, and the Arts in elementary school.

      In some schools, questions are out. There is just a military style drill and kill so that students memorize the necessary content for the test. But ask a student to explain why the causes for the fall of Rome, and which one they believe to be of greatest impact and you will get a blank stare. It’s a sad state of affairs today, but we persevere for the sake of our students. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Peter D. Ford III permalink
    September 26, 2010 8:04 pm

    What is your principal doing? Has your school leadership come to all teachers and asked them, “what do you need?” Have they articulated their vision for improving student learning? Have they sought your input to develop the school’s vision for student learning?

    You teachers know exactly what needs to be done; the school leadership must support those strategies as well as driving folks to implement those strategies.

    It concerns me that a principal cannot have ultimate control over hiring their staff; if it’s one primary advantage charter schools have over regular public schools it’s hiring authority. The intangible ‘X’ factor is the desire and commitment of the staff. How many will mentally ‘check out’ when times get tough, which of course the students will sense immediately and respond accordingly?

    Indeed your challenge is great, yet as you said attitude and enthusiasm are critical.


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