Month 3 As a Failing School: The Hatchet Drops
When the public middle school in which I work received news that we had not met our testing target, and in fact had dropped in our scores, we were not surprised. To the educators on campus, this outcome was a logical event based on the turmoil students and teachers had experienced with the laying off of 23 teachers in 2009, and another dozen in 2010. The social fabric of our school had frayed, there were lots of new faces on campus, and the economic lives of our students were not getting better in the midst of this recession.
But being labeled a “failing” school, or “focus school” as is used down here in Los Angeles, was a label many of us were not accustomed to wearing. Our staff is quite accomplished, with several Doctors of Education, NBC teachers, and over two dozen Gifted and Talented Education teachers with master certification in this area. Our students too, continued to try their hardest, but in today’s world of testing and sanctions, best efforts are irrelevant if scores do not increase at a fast enough rate.
It was precisely for this reason that on November 1, 2010, the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District announced the names of schools which were not improving rapidly enough, or “failing,” but now had to also face sanctions for their low performance. Our school, Los Angeles Academy, was on this list.
Being on the list of “failing” schools means we are forced to participate in a process euphemistically called “Public School Choice,” or PSC. In this process, any organized group of individuals or corporations can submit bids to take over failing schools, and if awarded the school, can completely dismantle any prior staff or governance system and replace it with their own. Charter schools are active participants in this process and submit bids for almost all campuses on the “failing schools” list.
The staff on our campus has been devastated by the news. Our job is hard enough with the layoffs we have experienced, the reductions in support staff, and the increased fragility facing our students and their families on a daily basis. Now, additional pressure will be placed to eliminate the trend of downward scores, as if we the teachers, had the magical abilities to erase all that ails our students and the community during these trying times.
Being a teacher at a “failing” school means attending more meetings, implementing more programs, strategies, and techniques in a year where furloughs have already reduced instruction by 7 days, and testing by even more. There are scant planning periods that can actually be used to create better lessons; most are spent feverishly catching up with the latest mandate sent down from the district or making sure that the district curriculum is followed to a T.
Our school has the option to submit a bid of its own, to pitch for retaining management of our own campus. The idea is that the additional pressure of competition will elicit better teaching skills from the folks in the classroom, better governance by administrators. I imagine that idea sounded excellent in some think tank when it was devised, but in practicality, no one feels inspired, motivated, or challenged by being forced to fight for a school that is supposed to belong to the public in the first place.
We are tired, and it is only November.
Leaving our school’s students and families in the lurch during this process, is not a choice. We cannot let our families down. The parents and community know us, trust us, and would prefer us to continue managing the school. This will mean that hundreds, if not thousands of hours lay ahead for the team of teacher leaders who will write a plan for PSC. The magical summer break to which we look forward for rest and rejuvenation is rapidly fading from reality, to be replaced with more meetings jam-packed with edu-speak, data, graphs, and proposals, and all the while, the root cause of our students’ under-performance continues to go neglected: poverty, crime, violence, and hunger.
I think of the millions of dollars the district is spending on consultants to examine how value-added measurement can be used to evaluate teachers. I think of the amount of money that will be spent to pay for teachers to meet and write plans. I think of all my students’ families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and I wish we could just give them the money.
So how to sum up month three of working at a “failing” school? Distressing.