Month One As A Failing School
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.