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Month 9 As a Failing School

July 3, 2011

When it was announced in September that due to our low test scores, my public middle school was now considered a “failing “ school, I began blogging about the effects that our district’s reform process, modeled after popular federal educational practices, had on students, teachers, and the school community.  In a nutshell, the district assigns the label of “Focus School” to any school which does not meet certain test score cutoffs.  These schools are then up for bids by any group or organization who can write a plan, and if selected, can take over the management of the school.  Charters are popular bidders in this process called Public School Choice.

L.A. Academy, the "Failing School"

The district has assigned responsibility to me and my colleagues for the low performance of students in my school, in spite of the impact of dozens of layoffs, billions in budget cuts, and the soaring poverty, crime, and violence which surrounds the neighborhood.  Their belief is that the threat of an outside takeover of our school will improve our instruction and compel teachers to work harder than ever before.  Simply put, competition will fix our students’ lives.

Let’s see if this occurred.

This year, we began with missing personnel, due to layoffs.  Due to dysfunction in the district, we were unable to be staffed completely throughout the entire year, and we finished with many positions taught by substitutes.

In addition to the regular instruction we were to impart on our students, we were forced to do so with a skeletal staff of clerical support, custodians, counselors, and deans.

New staff who arrived was for the most part forced to take the positions available in our school; see, South Central is not the destination of choice for most teachers.  They like to not have to worry about the crime surrounding the neighborhood as they drive to and from work.  I can understand this, as just on Thursday my car was attacked by an intoxicated person walking on the street, who was angry that I was “in his way”.  This job ain’t for everybody.

The year was marked by meeting upon meeting to write the plan our school’s management bid.  This involved pulling teachers out of the classroom to refine the plan.  Disjointed instruction was the result.

Staff began to get sick.  One teacher did not return in May due to health reasons.  Another was taken off campus in an ambulance due to chest pains.  Another had a heart attack at home.  Yet another was diagnosed with a serious disease.

Coincidence?  Causation?  You decide.

While the realization was dawning on our staff that in less than one year we would be either planning a new start with our own staff, or looking for jobs elsewhere in the district, many began eying jobs at the new schools opening up in the neighborhood.  In these schools, at least, the flames of reform would not touch them for at least five more years.  No less than two dozen staff members then, chose not to return to my public middle school next year, and who can blame them?  They have families to support, and only fools like me are going down with the ship.

Our award-winning school librarian, which has touched more lives than any other individual on campus was put on trial by district lawyers, in an egregious display of humiliation and moral decay that was the subject of many articles and blog posts.  She too cannot bear to return to the job and district that broke her heart and spirit.

So what has reform done for the students at L.A. Academy?  Interrupted their instruction.  Stressed out their teachers.  Caused a mass exodus of faculty.  Placed fear in the hearts of the students who cannot bear to lose any more of their teachers.  Reform and budget cuts have taken a school that was on an upward trajectory and cold-clocked it with a force from which it may not recover.

For teachers, the threat of a charter takeover is one that starts with amusement but ends in concern.  We know of no charter that follows the same admission policy as public schools and is performing markedly better.  So if neighborhood schools become charterized, who will be left to teach the students typically left behind by these?  Our fear is for our students, not for ourselves, as we have already learned the skills necessary to survive in this society, employed or not.

A wise person once told me that any decision made from a place of fear was bound to fail.  Today’s reform policies attempt to motivate workers through threats and fear and in my opinion, are doomed.  I only hope to be around to pick up the pieces and continue serving students like millions of us do, every day, around the nation.

To read all “Month X  As a Failing School” posts, click here.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2011 11:00 pm

    I understand. The righteous reformers are in the process of “transforming” the school where I taught for the last 23 years, and reopening after a six week miracle cure. That school is Huntington Park High School. Most of my friends, comrades, and confidantes have been trekking through bleak job fairs searching for an alternative placement to an appointed “ghetto school”, which is going through the same disgraceful process. My motto..No Duncan. No Obama. No reform without teacher participation.

    We shouldn’t make it easy for the politicians who fed the missionaries to the lions.

  2. Lynne Formigli permalink
    July 4, 2011 9:57 am

    Thank you for documenting the tragedy you, your colleagues and your students are enduring. Your story is echoed by many educators from throughout the country at the NEA RA currently taking place in Chicago. The good and bad news is you are not alone. Bad, because so many of our schools are facing this horrendous process. Good, because the voices of millions of educators are speaking with one voice through our union to work to change these policies which are clearly failing our schools and our students.

  3. July 4, 2011 10:52 am

    Every time I think about the challenges that you face as an educator I realize that this disparity is not accidental but rather imposed to create the wedge between the haves and the have nots. Your writing and work is not in vain.

  4. Kathie Marshall permalink
    July 6, 2011 1:36 pm

    Martha, once again your eloquence and pain touch me deeply. I found out rather late in the year that I was eligible to retire with benefits, so retire I did. The decision wasn’t even a hard one, despite the fact that for many years I couldn’t even conceive of life after the classroom. Please know that in my retirement, I will continue to work tirelessly for teachers like you and our kids, who deserve so much more than the rotten deals they’re being handed.

  5. July 6, 2011 6:33 pm

    “We know of no charter that follows the same admission policy as public schools and is performing markedly better. “

    I know of one: Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, which is a lottery-admission school. It is doing very well, and has about 8 times as many families applying to get in as there is room for.

    Disclaimer: my son has entered the lottery several times and never gotten closer than about 25th on the waiting list (for 0 slots in 9th grade—the waiting list was just in case someone had to move away over the summer).

    • July 6, 2011 7:07 pm

      Thanks for reading, and for commenting. Regarding Pacific Collegiate School, it is always a relief and a pleasure to know that the neighborhood school is successful and playing the role it was intended for: educating students and preparing them to be productive members of society.

      When I remark that there are no charter schools who follow the same public school admissions policies and are doing markedly better, it means no lotteries. It means the population at the charter reflects the same demographics as the neighborhood school. We take all comers. In Los Angeles, the only charter school (currently) that takes all comers is Locke High, and it is most certainly doing no better in terms of test scores than the public school surrounding it. The school you mention is selective in that it cannot acommodate all applicants, thus the need for a lottery.

      In Santa Cruz, Pacific Collegiate charter scores a 10 on the website, the highest possible ranking. It must be very sought after if families apply through a lottery year after year like you did. I noticed that the free and reduced lunch population was 0% and that the English Learner population was less than 1%. In my school, the free lunch population is 90% and English Learners are 41%.

      In another post, I mused about the role of socioeconomics in school performance. i looked for failing schools in affluent neighborhoods and couldn’t find one. So the issue is complicated and as far as my students are concerned, there is no Superman waiting to come rescue them. I wish that Arne Duncan and the federal government supported us with the tools we really need to improve education and have been proven to work: class size reduction, strong and quality early childhood education, new teacher support, and budget increases, not budget cuts.

      • July 6, 2011 8:46 pm

        Yes, PCS has a different demgraphic than most of the neighborhood schools, but calling it “selective” is misleading—they have no selection criteria. They let everyone in until they ran out of room (and the school district keeps trying to take their space away from them), then they had to resort to lottery to limit admission. A selective school would use test scores or admissions essays to choose their students, not a lottery.

        There is a big demand here for the rigorous education that PCS provides, and that the other public schools have been slow to offer (PCS offers more AP courses than any other high school in the county, despite being one of the smallest schools).

        I think that you are right about not finding failing schools in affluent neighborhoods—the parents help fill in the gaps left by inadequate funding or poor use of funds. In the poorer neighborhoods, that resource is not available. Things are not likely to get better until we have a legislature that is willing to collect taxes to cover expenses. (We may have to shrink the prison system by a factor of 5 to bring it into line with what saner states do.)

        Note that PCS is in a neighborhood with about 56% “socioeconomically disadvantaged” and “45% English learners” (based on the numbers for the nearest elementary school, which my son attended for several years). The different demographics of PCS is based on who wants to have the rigorous college prep curriculum, not on who is in the area served by the school.

      • July 7, 2011 10:15 am

        As someone who keeps up with education blogs, the quality of education must be a concern for you too. The experience you will have with your child’s charter school will likely be satisfactory because the population it serves is affluent and and free of challenging students.

        Self-selection is a type of selectivity; if only those who are seeking a college prep curriculum apply to the school, then the higher (highest) test scores are not surprising. But what about parents who don’t select anything? Parents who are so consumed with the ills of poverty, crime, violence, and substance abuse that even being present in their child’s life is considered an accomplishment? These are some of the parents in my school community. They are not going to fill out an application, much less for consecutive years, to apply to any school, or fulfill the 40 hour parent service requirement that the local charters require of families.

        PCS sounds like a great option because you know what you are looking for in a school, and you value the like-mindedness of fellow families and the instructional focus of the school. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the EL and reduced lunch population. Is it possible that these students are not applying to PCS en masse? What about special needs students?

        Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. July 7, 2011 6:10 pm

    One correction—my son is at the neighborhood high school, not the charter school, because we never won the lottery to get in to the charter school. The school is not bad but it’s not great either (state rank 8, similar schools rank 1). The school focuses primarily on the bottom third of the students and on sports.

    The attitude of the administration about parental involvement in education couldn’t be more different from PCS. Like many high schools, they make it very difficult for parents to help out with anything other than fundraising. The school desperately needs someone competent to overhaul their web site, which is several years out of date, but turned down the PTA offer for parent volunteers to help. I volunteered to coach a robotics club, but was told that I couldn’t do it unless a teacher volunteered to serve (clubs can’t meet without a faculty adviser present at all times). It took me a couple of months to get a science teacher to agree to be the pro-forma adviser. (He doesn’t have to do anything except let us meet in his classroom once a week during lunch and come to one competition once a year.)

  7. Sarah K-G permalink
    July 9, 2011 1:09 pm

    Martha, this is gut-wrenching. My heart goes out to you and your staff. I decided myself to move to a new program, because I craved flexibility and support in my teaching – something I know teachers in our PI schools are too often not getting. The feelings this bring up are hard to put into words – anger, sadness…I don’t know. This job is just too damn hard without support…or, at the very least being left alone to do the work we know is good. Know that we are all supporting and advocating for you and others!

    Your response to the charter situation was well stated.

  8. July 15, 2011 11:02 am

    Dear Martha, I pointed to this post in my comment on a blog post in Valerie Strauss’ column (Washington Post). The teacher had written an open letter to Arne Duncan which was posted on Valerie’s blog, and Duncan called her and listened. I said I wished he’d call you and listen.

    • July 19, 2011 2:45 pm

      I appreciate that! It is crucial that Duncan speak to classroom teachers, and how sad that he has to be compelled to do so.

  9. RSA@PHS permalink
    July 28, 2011 10:48 am

    Great discussion! I so appreciate the work of charter schools. They are taking up the slack for parents and students who want something more than a district/state mandated curriculum whose main purpose is to ensure that the bottom 25% pass the test, rather than make sure everyone, including faster learners, are appropriately challenged. They may, in fact, be the only hope for continuing public education.

    However, as “gasstationwithoutpumps” points out, only parents who want that for their kids apply, and most of these schools have an enforcable contract with parents and students requiring parental support and student compliance with expectations – something we pay lip service to in public schools, but do not enforce. Thus, even those with open admission lottery policies are “selective.”

    Teachers are fighting to teach. I wish the superstructure of education was doing a better job of supporting us. Some of this support could be eased with different laws or enforcement of laws. For instance, there’s a law on the books that makes it an offense to continually interfere with others’ learning in the classroom. While some districts ticket truant students (ADA money!) I know of none that ticket disruptive students – but the law is on the books and can be enforced, if we took the rights of students to learn seriously, and as a higher priority than avoiding objections of parents who didn’t work to make sure their own kids complied with school expectations. We could rewrite state laws to enable parents to volunteer more easily: yes, I know that molestation, liability, and etc. are issues, but again, can we find a way to protect schools and use common sense, rather than pass draconian laws that inhibit parental involvement (see “gasstationwithoutpumps” post above)?


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