Thursday, September 2, 2010

Turned around.

Before I started this blog, I wrote a column for the EWA newsletter, one of which suggested that you have to visit elementary schools to see how high schools got so bad—but that in the earlier grades, the dysfunction is harder to discern. Here is how I described the high school:

It was 9:30 in the morning, yet of the school’s 900 students, we saw no more than 15 in class. For every student in a classroom, we saw 10 in the hallway (and it was not passing time). In three of the four rooms with students in them, the kids sat at their desks—filling in worksheets, doing art projects, texting on contraband cell phones—and the teachers sat at their. No interaction.

In the fourth room, though, a teacher taught!

“What are the people in the picture wearing?” “Why do you think they were wearing their dress clothes?” “Where are they going?”

Granted, the conversation was at about a third-grade level. But such is the state of the school that that bit of instruction, complete with students’ eyes in textbooks, seemed like a minor miracle to us. 

If that was a minor miracle, today I saw a major one. I toured Anacostia High School again, a year after the D.C. school system turned it over to outside management, which replaced most of the staff and has begun to build an entirely new culture (including a new name, Academies at Anacostia, if that matters). Yes, I saw two contraband cellphones. I saw two teachers clearly in over their heads, and some obnoxious sassing. But you know what else I saw? Hallways populated not by idle teenagers but by an awful lot of men in suits. Lots of teaching, and some of what looked to me like learning.

Students at desks! Teachers asking questions, and students answering them! You may criticize the methods, you may want to reserve judgment until you see data, and I understand that. But even the briefest of visits would show you that something important in that building has already been turned around. If you are a reporter in a district with schools on the block for turnaround, you’d better get in there fast before anything changes—so that you will be able to explain compellingly what happens when things do.


  1. Wow, positive change.
    Wow, you took the trouble to go there.

  2. Change the culture, raise the expectations, expect kids to engage and miracles happen...

  3. "miracles happen"

    Well, that's what Chancellor Rhee promised. Sadly though, test scores have declined in DCPS. Culture change and expectations are a start, but miracles simply don't happen.

    Dime to a dollar most of the instruction is still on a remedial level at Anacostia because the students are so far behind. It takes hard work, experienced educators and a whole lot of intensive services to make progress in DCPS's high schools.

    I'm happy they are making a start at Anacostia. The school has a long, long way to go before I would consider sending my child there.

    Miracles don't happen and anyone who says so has something to sell.

    DCPS parent

  4. Having watched classes and looked at student work—yes, the education is low-level. No, I am not sending my kid there. But if you saw what the place was, and wasn't, before ... the difference is extreme.

  5. The change in atmosphere at turnaround schools seems to be associated with either a significantly increased investment in security or a change in the student population (aka kicking out or not admitting the most disruptive students*). Locke HS in Los Angeles (where security sometimes tear-gasses students) is an example of the former. Once-hailed, now-fizzled Edison Schools is an example of the latter; that's something that many Edison client districts complained about. Is it apparent whether either is the case at Anacostia?

    The question is, of course, whether it's possible to motivate ALL the students to behave themselves and pay attention in class, without a whopping increase in security.

    *Just as a classroom volunteer I've seen how there's a percentage of students who will be lured into bad behavior by the really bad seeds and but who will comport themselves just fine when they're around well-behaved kids -- teachers could undoubtedly confirm this.

  6. I don't know what, if anything, has changed about the student population. The security company remains the same—they didn't have the liberty to change that. But whereas last time they said nothing when kids roamed the hallways, it seemed like this time they were a little less inert. The biggest chance seemed to come from the teachers, who had a schoolwide discipline structure to rely on and administrators to back them up. It doesn't take tear gas.

  7. It apparently does (take tear gas) at Locke! A few incidents have made the news, and of course Green Dot isn't exactly sending out press releases when it occurs, so that's quite likely not all the tear-gas incidents.

    But it is really essential to know if the truly troublesome kids are gone from the school. Of course it's true that support for consistent enforcement of the rules is essential and that some educators are far more effective in that area than others, but their job is made much easier if the most challenging kids are no longer there.

  8. In my experience, enforcing rules on cell phones is huge, if for nothing else than the symbolism early in the year. Its not true, but kids start to think their cell phone is the most important thing in life. When schools assert their authority over phones it sends a powerful message. I wish Anacostia luck. It doesn't matter whether its a charter or a success under Rhee. We should all celebrate successes. We still have plenty to disagree about. In fact, if we could speak graciously over successes and honestly over faillures then maybe we could disagree more agreeably.

  9. That's true, but again, if a school becomes a success by excluding the most troublesome kids -- as compared with its previous "failure" days when it attempted to cope with those same kids -- that puts the "success" story in a different light. It's essential to know that, in my opinion -- it's not a complete or clear picture without that information.

  10. Caroline,

    You are right.

    When I submitted the comment, the code word was "unifyin."

    So while I'm in a unifyin mood, there might be a silver lining. Now, many (most?) districts limit their alternative slots to 2% or so, and they do so for ideological reasons. If we had alternative slots for say 5% of students, then neighborhood schools could compete with charters that dump their most challenging 5%. We could afford to provide services to those kids, but we're deluding ourselves into believing that denying them services is good for them.

    Think of the Mother Jones article this week by the alternative school teacher in D.C. Students like his are dumped into neighborhood schools and teachers are told to do whatever it takes.