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Month 5 As a Failing School

February 5, 2011

When the state test scores were released in August of this year, our public urban middle school knew it was in trouble. We had lost over 20% of our staff through layoffs in the last 2 years and the impact on instruction was noticeable. So when we were placed on the “failing schools” list in September, we were not surprised.

And so began a school year where we faced the unique Los Angeles Unified School District sanction of being offered to other organizations for better governance and management in a process called Public School Choice (PSC). Graciously, we were also extended the opportunity to bid for ourselves, and thus we have been working on writing a plan that will show the district how we will improve in spite of being disproportionately hit by layoffs, $21 billion in state education cuts over 2 years, and non-stop negative attacks on teachers and our union in the last few years.

Additionally, our district has suddenly become NCLB reconstitution-happy. Three senior high schools, each with thousands of students and large faculties, have been declared abject failures, and have been put on the dread turnaround process where all staff, including custodial and clerical, is fired and forced to reapply for their positions to be considered for reinstatement. There is no evidence that the turnaround reform has been successful anywhere in the United States.

So two additional threats loom over our heads: NCLB reconstitution at any moment, should the district feel we are not moving with enough urgency (I can’t define exactly what they mean when they say that) and loss of our Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) grant funding, which has allowed us to maintain reduced class size levels if 25:1 in the last couple of years, if we do not meet our testing target this year.

Regardless of layoffs. Regardless of cuts. Regardless of our families being wiped out by the recession.

We take a deep breath.

A team has been assembled to write the plan for our own school.  Curiously, only five of 120 teachers in the entire school volunteered to be on the writing team.  The rest of the team is composed of the already established Leadership group of department chairs, coaches, coordinators, and administration.  Either the staff believes the whole PSC process is fait accompli, or they have an unwavering belief in the team’s ability to write a strong plan.

Writing a bid for our own school

Our school has hired Michael Butler of Public Works Inc. to guide us through the plan writing process.  His company has worked heavily with the school district in the implementation of its many reforms throughout the years.  He was a data expert before it became popular and is well versed in helping us understand what our particular data says about our school, as this is the primary focus for the first couple of meetings.

After the data meetings we will turn our attention to evaluating our instructional program and proposing alternatives to it.  In preparation for this, the 20+ members of the team have been assigned reading in the areas of Response to Intervention (RTI), Professional Learning Communities, and English Learners.  The books we are reading are:

Learning by Doing:  A Handbook by for Professional Learning Communities at Work by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Tomas Many

Pyramid Response to Intervention by Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos and Chris Weber

Results Now by Mike Schmoker

All readings are to be done on the teachers’ own time, and unpaid.  I had believed that funds would be allocated to compensate professionals for writing something as critically important as an instructional management plan for an entire school, but I was mistaken.  All of the work done outside of our regularly assigned duties is to be pro bono. We do not have billionaire-backed organizations guiding us through this process, and in the end, we hope that may actually be an advantage.

There is no time to discuss the issues of poverty, crime, and violence that may impact our students’ ability to absorb instruction.  Every single person on the team knows of the tremendous impact of these factors on our students’ academic performance, but mention of these in the PSC plan is a lost cause, and will be considered as “making excuses” for their under-performance.  Our hands are tied.

That said, a small group of teachers is hoping to embark on a unique study that may bring substantial awareness to how poverty affects teaching and learning in the classroom.  The research will result in actual classroom strategies and practices that may combat the challenges our students face. I would write about it to share with colleagues in other schools, but it is a strategy that shows a lot of promise, and it could be appropriated by the competition.  We have no incentive to share these practices with other schools.

As for the school climate, it is hard to describe. Because a lot of new schools are opening up in the neighborhood (due to a large school construction bond passed almost a decade ago), many teachers are considering jumping ship. And it is something to consider, when the future of our school is unknown. Realistically, there is a possibility that in 12 months, we will be on the countdown to convert into a charter school, should a Charter Management Organization (CMO) win the bid. Few experienced teachers that I know are willing to work under the conditions imposed by charter schools, especially if they have their own families to raise.

Our students are blissfully unaware that the era of education reform is upon us. They just know that the bathrooms in the main school building are closed (budget cuts) and that they have to cross the entire campus when need calls. They know there are less deans, less counselors, and lots of new faces. They know that they have never taken so many tests before and that the district assessments are a big deal. The parents know about the budget cuts and are adjusting to reduced services in the offices, and the elimination of intersession (the year-round version of summer school) for the majority of students. Concerned, they are trying to keep up with the rapid developments facing our school: going from a year-round calendar to traditional next year, studying new bell schedule options, seeing if their children will be attending a different school next year due to boundary changes, and trying to stay abreast of this while holding on to their meager jobs and apartments.

So how to sum up month 5 of working at a failing school:  proceeding with caution.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2011 2:09 pm

    Thanks for an important post, Martha: a realistic look at what a “failing” school feels like, from the perspective of an exemplary teacher (rather than a reporter or policy-maker). Found this quote in one of your links (about conditions in charter schools):

    “…they write all of their lesson plans from scratch, tailoring them to the students’ specific needs; they stay after school with students who need tutoring; they attend frequent staff meetings to discuss subjects ranging from Akili’s approach to discipline or double-digit addition; and they relentlessly measure and analyze student performance on such metrics as “counting backwards from 10” and “using critical thinking skills to solve more complex problems.”

    Scratching my head, trying to figure out why that is considered unusual–don’t all teachers do those things? And then—yes, they mention the extra days and hours. Often, however, practices that are routine in schools (like helping kids after school) are positioned as some kind of amazing super-teacher practice one would find only in a charter school.

    Your post is evidence that there are outstanding teachers in schools that have been labeled as failing. Thank you.

    • February 5, 2011 2:36 pm

      I’ve noticed more and more educators calling out those who perpetuate these misconceptions about charter schools being bastions of innovation. It is necessary to correct the misinformation being circulated out there, and it seems we educators must be the ones to do it.

      The main reason for writing about my school’s experience is because I don’t want someone else to hijack it for their own purposes, romanticize it, or sanitize it. Turnaround is foolhardy. Threatening schools, teachers, and students with sanctions brings about results that are not conducive to innovation, creativity, and long term success. Short term gains on tests? Maybe. The next Steve Jobs, no.

      Thanks for reading, I value your comments!

    • February 6, 2011 11:26 am

      What strikes me, Nancy, about the quote you offer is that it is exactly opposite of the current trend I see in our region: rather than discerning student needs and tailoring instruction, we’re being shifted toward the “it’s Tuesday, so you’re all on lesson #7” kind of groupthink, where there is no room for adjustment based on student needs. To me, this is a track toward failure. I’d be curious how many teachers in these “failing” schools are forced to shift toward a pre-scripted curriculum rather than a responsive one.

      • David B. Cohen permalink*
        February 7, 2011 12:20 pm

        Unfortunately, Mark, it seems like what you describe is increasingly the norm in the places where it’s most damaging. Students can tell the difference between what’s done to them and what’s done for them and with them. Those who struggle most with skills or engagement are those who most need a responsive and flexible curriculum (something for them, with them) – and I fear they’re the most likely to have a scripted curriculum imposed on and delivered to them.

  2. February 7, 2011 5:26 pm

    Your point is well-taken, Mark. The very people who may have the experience and expertise to reach the most difficult learners have their hands increasingly tied. The teachers I know in urban schools speak of “sneaking around” the prescriptive lessons.

    Still–when you look at what alternative schooling models claim to be offering, it’s never anything like “Come to Heritage Charter! We have a totally scripted curriculum!” Parents want very much for their children to get individualized attention, and lots of it. I was struck by the bragging about the charter where teachers write their own lesson plans–as if that were something teachers in traditional schools didn’t do.

    Good discussion.

  3. Steve permalink
    May 26, 2011 2:25 pm

    Mentioning violence and poverty in the PSC plan is a lost cause , but for some inane reason you are “proceeding with caution.”

    Where is your outrage Martha?

    • May 28, 2011 11:59 am

      Hi Steve, thanks for reading our blog. Trust me that I have many outrageous thoughts of radical action but I strongly believe that astute and judicious actions will bring some sanity back into the education reform debate. We are teachers; we operate in the realm of reason and intellect. It is what separates us from the birthers and the rapturists. Blog writers nationwide have brought attention to this debate in ways that were not expected by those in favor of punitive measures for schools. So writing is one way to send the outrage back to the decision-makers. Working closely with our school community is another, and that is the hardest work of all.

      What are your thoughts on some actions school teachers involved int he PSC process might take?


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