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Louisiana Turnaround: Year One

If you're a regular reader of Teacher in a Strange Land, you know I've been closely following a turnaround school in Louisiana this year. I had the rich experience of doing professional development work with the staff--at the very beginning, when a potent stew of wariness and possibility filled the room, and a midpoint workshop where trust had taken root and teachers were sharing their beliefs about good teaching, even if it wasn't the party line. I had dinner with some of them, heard some heartbreaking tales about their students--and even got a fuming e-mail from one, who thought I was dismissive of Teach for America corps members who leave "failing" schools in Louisiana to capitalize on their two years' of teaching expertise in ed- policy world.

I also got some irate e-mails from the other side--progressive educators who loathe all four highly prescriptive Race to the Top options for low-performing schools: turnaround, transformation, restart and closure. Writing about a turnaround school with hope and high expectations was akin to endorsing bad policy, in their view.

But I got messages from the turnaround teachers brimming with positive energy --and some killer gumbo mix. But mostly, I got schooled about the realities of making change in a culture of neglect, indignity and policy churn. In spite of all that happened in Louisiana this year, the teachers and principal persisted, with grit, dedication and a sense of humor.

So how did the first year go? Here's what the principal had to say:

Not Sure if Words Can Describe It, but...

Exhausted. Optimistic. Hopeful. Determined. Exasperated. Disgusted. Angry. Inspired. Delighted. Overwhelmed. Passionate. Loved. Appreciated. Loved...

Loved by children who live in abject poverty, who come to school for hugs and for safety. Those are the first issues we tackled as a turnaround school in the highest-crime district in the city--99% of our students live below the poverty line, but they are rich in imagination and determination. The genuine appreciation and love that they have for us stems in part from the fact that we have become a symbol of stability in their very hectic lives.

Much has been written and researched about children of poverty, but until you face it every day you don't realize its extreme effects on the place we call school. Teachers at our school had the desire, passion, and knowledge to teach these children, but sometimes even that wasn't enough. We encountered situations daily that none of us had ever dealt with before - from physical abnormalities to abuse to custody issues that were out of control. Children filled with anger, frustration, and serious learning disabilities often lashed out at each other and the adults around them. They didn't know how to communicate; they came from environments where having a family dinner is not the norm.

Even knowing your family was optional in some cases. Children stay with grandma, uncles, aunts, cousins or mothers who hold down two or three minimum wage jobs. The turning point for us (and for them) came right after Christmas break. When they returned to school and saw that all of their teachers and staff were still there, they were relieved. We could see it on their faces, hear it in their voices, and mark it in their academic performance. They had previously had such a high turnover of teachers that they really weren't expecting all of us to return after the long break.

So, how did we do? Most people that ask this want to know immediately about test scores. Ours were not stellar at the end of the year. We made great gains in reading as measured by DIBELS, and also in every subject area measured by district benchmark tests. But we didn't blow the top off of the state mandated tests. We improved, but not enough.

As a faculty, we were stunned when the results came in, because we had witnessed the incredible transformation of so many children. And then we remembered that at the beginning of the year, most of our second and third graders could not read at all. They didn't know their letters or sounds, much less how those could be put together to form words. So to ask them to pass a high-stakes test at their grade level was a huge challenge. Of course, before they begin testing, no one asks at what grade level they are currently functioning. They are all expected to function at grade level or above no matter how many different teachers they had the year before or what their own struggles were just to get to school each day.

How did we really do? Our enrollment went up, truancy rate went down, and involvement from parents, the community and volunteers increased dramatically. We honored students of the month, honor roll students, and straight "A" students who ate lunch with the principal.

We gathered in the gym every morning for our schoolwide "morning meeting" and we shared good news, announcements, and procedural details. We also stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance every day. Students learned to tuck their shirts in and wear a belt, to say yes ma'am and no ma'am (this is the deep south), and to walk in a straight and quiet line down the hallways. We also learned to talk to each other, work with each other, and not to always settle differences with violence. Most of all, we discovered that learning can be fun when everyone is trying and working together.

How did we do this? Perseverance and commitment. Everyone on the faculty chose to be at our school. Some left administrative and/or curricular positions which paid more to teach at our school. Others came from surrounding districts. Seven are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and 25 more completed Take One! this year. All agreed on our shared mission, which was to bring the highest quality education to every single child in our school.

We didn't teach to the test, but we did teach the children to communicate and to share. We worked as a team even when we didn't agree about solutions to problems. We learned every parent/guardian's name and various phone numbers, and worked with all available ancillary services (mental and physical health, police, social workers, etc) to tap into resources that we didn't have. We built and cultivated a vegetable garden, and kids tasted fresh cabbage, lettuce, and carrots. We rebuilt the garden and replanted when neighborhood vandals destroyed it. Our school is now a learning community serving children, parents, and teachers-in-training.

Where do we go from here? Because of the "reform" efforts in our state, our budgets have been slashed. Central office staff are doing their best to predict how vouchers, charters, and the new "Achievement Zone" will affect our enrollment and thus our dollars. In the meantime, we have lost 4 classroom teaching positions, one ancillary, and one aide. So we will do more with less. Because we have been told that we must raise our SPS (school performance score) by at least ten points. Or else...we will join the ranks of the displaced.

In spite of this, we are optimistic. We know that what we achieved last year laid the foundation for continued growth and learning. We know that parents and children love and respect us, and the feeling is mutual. We have been busy this summer teaching enrichment classes, attending seminars, and planning together. We are fine-tuning behavior plans, the writing program, and new schedules. Our school will move to extended day next year, which means we will teach an extra hour four days a week, and have half a day on Wednesdays for professional development and team planning. We are excited at the possibilities that this additional time will give us for interventions, project-based learning, and true vertical teaming.

We are a little nervous about the new teacher evaluation system, because we're not sure what "value" they will add. Or how to hit learning targets that haven't yet been specified. But we all have a shared vision and goals, and have truly built a collegial faculty whose students know that they are loved. We must go into this year with the same zeal and creativity that we did last year; we owe it to our students and our community of learners. Keeping that motivation going during the second year will be difficult, so we will call on the community and each other even more for support. And we will keep reminding ourselves why we chose to do this work.

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