Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Rocket Launches and a Middle School that is Beating the Odds

Adam Tanney, on behalf of Clark School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology, Alabama

Story posted July 16, 2009. Results updated January 27, 2015.

This school is now named Clark-Shaw Magnet School.


  • In 2014, Clark-Shaw students outperformed their peers across the state in all subjects across all grades tested

With a stutter, then a whoosh, a pink glittered model rocket accelerates to the sky. It disappears into the sun, then wafts earthward under a plastic parachute. Two fifth-grade girls traipse after. A dozen other fifth-graders sit in a row ten feet behind the launching pad, each awaiting the call to launch his or her personally accented missile.

The rocket launch is great fun. Visitors chat with the assembled students, pausing to applaud each successful launch. Teacher Glen Mutchnick (a licensed professional engineer, former university instructor and Alabama Teacher of the Year) explains that the rocket launch accompanies a study of astronomy. For several lessons prior to the launch students learned about the physics of propulsion and tested hypotheses in the laboratory.

Such hands-on learning tasks and fifth grade curricula tackling nebulae and lunar phases may be common at magnet schools across the country, but the Clark School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology is not your typical magnet school.

Chief among the differences is the school’s admission policy: Students are randomly selected through an open lottery, and all third-graders in the county are eligible to apply. Sixty-one percent of students receive a free or reduced-price lunch; fifty-five percent are African American. Clark sits in Chickasaw, Alabama, a 7,000-person sliver of Mobile County. Though incomes in Chickasaw rise nearly 50% above the Mobile County average, the school’s immediate neighborhood is gripped by poverty. Yet each morning middle-class parents drive not out to the suburbs but into this poor neighborhood —from up to 25 miles each way—to escort their students to Clark, where they attend classes with children from the neighborhood as well as those bused from bordering towns.

Educators have long known, and research has confirmed, that leadership makes a difference in student learning. If Clark isn’t typical, neither is its principal. Standing five foot one, Diane McWain turns the image of the arms-crossed, ex-football coach principal on its head. Even in the hallways her voice seldom rises louder than the hum of the air conditioner in her office. Nor does she speak in charismatic cadenzas. What she does do is quietly nourish Clark with a vision, set clear, high expectations for teacher and student performance, put in motion the resources and support for people to achieve that performance, and monitor and reward progress.

McWain brings confidence and enthusiasm to her staff. She leads by enabling and empowering, not dictating. She creates conditions where teachers can apply their knowledge and skill to solve problems on their own. Put simply, faculty feel supported by the principal—and research shows such support is a leading factor in determining teacher retention. Perhaps that’s why there is almost no teacher turnover at Clark.

Clark’s teachers, parents, and district personnel report that McWain’s leadership is a chief determinant of the school’s success, and in 2000 she was named Alabama Middle School Principal of the Year. Yet many factors aside from her strong leadership contribute to Clark’s success, including: 1) challenging science and math curricula; 2) a safe and orderly school environment; 3) a whatever-it-takes approach to promoting each student’s success; and 4) strong school pride and sense of community.

In one Clark classroom, eighth graders peer into microscopes, hunting for evidence of life in droplets of water. The droplets are extracted from one of three micro environment tubes: one scooped from a pond and left uncapped, another uncapped sample of distilled water, and a third sample of sealed distilled water. Students identify, count, and categorize organisms in the tubes by behavior, appearance, and movement. All this eyeballing is part of a 30-day succession investigation in which students track changes to the ecology of three water samples. A student looks up to summarize the project for a visitor. “We’re learning about biotic and abiotic effects—autotrophs and heterotrophs,” he explains. Students ultimately transfer their data to spreadsheets, graph results, make comparisons, and formulate conclusions.

There’s a lot of rich content flowing in this laboratory, but the teacher believes the student learning extends beyond just science content knowledge. “Our students know the lab equipment, how to use it, how to behave in a lab, and [how to] work in cooperative groups. In labs students are responsible for figuring out steps [they’ll need to conduct an experiment].”

Opportunities like this, where students delve into rigorous content under the direction of a knowledgeable teacher who scaffolds learning through active tasks and peer-to-peer collaboration, exemplify Clark’s science program, which was developed by teachers and administrators at Clark. In doing so, they mapped a curriculum for each grade based on the Alabama state learning standards, aligning one grade level to the next and ensuring that lessons and assignments appropriately fit the learning objectives. They also met with high school faculty to ensure that Clark’s curriculum readied students for the demands of high school.

Today Clark is the only middle school in Mobile County offering honors Biology, normally a 9th grade course. Clark students score at the 95th percentile on that state test. Every 8th grade student takes algebra, and all students take math and science courses that are a year above the standard district course. But this rigor hasn’t put students on a conveyor belt. Students can select from a menu of electives, which includes a course in technology in which students design and build their own robot to be tested in statewide competitions. Clark also offers art, physical education, band and French to all students.

In addition, Clark douses its curriculum with writing. For example, like scientists, students write abstracts summarizing the methodology and results of their experiments as part of their lab reports. All students keep a science journal, which they update throughout the year. Journals become particularly vibrant in describing field trips, also called “informal science education,” during which students use wireless writers – simplified word processors -- to capture their observations.

Beyond serving as incentives for good behavior, promoting out-of-school relationship-building between students and staff, and encouraging students to write about science, informal science experiences make science come to life. The sense that science is relevant to students’ lives is essential to Clark’s academic program, though the term “informal” belies the intentionality Clark teachers bring to these opportunities.

Clark students don’t just get to see that science is real; they get to do real science. Through the Jason Remote Sensing project, NASA selected Clark as one of ten schools to collect satellite imaging data on river delta salt marshes. Clark students study the marshes of Dauphin Island, which guards the western entry to Mobile Bay. Students deploy tools loaned from NASA, including a remote plane, to measure water quality, beach erosion and the amount of dissolved oxygen in different water types. Clark then conveys its data to NASA researchers for analysis. Throughout the process students interact with researchers around the world.

In addition, expeditions to the island at night give students the chance to see the strange and wonderful bioluminescence emitting from the plankton and dinoflagellates that make their home on the barrier island. In order for students to want to protect environment, “they have to fall in love with it first,” says Kathy Irby, the science teacher supervising the explorations.

A final factor drives Clark’s informal science program: raising the social capital in students’ bank accounts. Many students arrive at Clark without exposure to estuaries and planetariums and, consequently, without the background knowledge such experiences furnish. Clark ensures students get these experiences while under its care.

Walking out of the school building to view the rocket launch, McWain tells visitors that a drug store adjacent to the school was robbed just two weeks ago. Thirty years ago the community across the street from Clark attracted newlyweds aspiring to buy first homes. Hard times have now beset the cluster of residences. Yet Clark has responded differently than many U.S. schools in tough neighborhoods.

At Clark there are no security guards, no metal detectors. While the hallways at Clark vibrate with the voices and bodies of adolescents, no pushing or shoving or teasing is visible; no yelling adults vie for vocal ascendency. “Being proactive—not reactive—is my theory of discipline,” says McWain.

If Clark’s discipline policy doesn’t seem harsh, it’s not because it lacks definition. For minor misbehavior—for example, failing to follow classroom instructions— students receive three warnings, which parents must sign. Three warnings result in an afterschool detention; three more, an out-of-school detention. Three of those prompt a suspension. Stronger incidents find no such gradualism. “If you push or hit, you go home; disrespect a teacher, you go home. No child keeps another from learning and no child keeps a teacher from teaching,” says the principal, quietly enough to convince a visitor she’s made good on the promise before. Parents tout the clear structures for class transitions, accessing lockers, and gym class clothing changes. The safe and orderly environment lets Clark focus on the important business of ensuring the academic success of each student.

Turning the proclamation that “all children will learn” into reality requires diagnosing and resolving problems as they emerge. Clark embraces a whatever-it-takes, solve-one-problem-at-a-time approach. To hear teachers describe the lengths they go to is daunting. Teachers commonly tutor students after school, and the lunchroom finds teachers and students sitting shoulder to shoulder, giving and getting extra help.

Ken Megginson, President of the Mobile County Board of School Commissioners, describes the Clark approach: “It’s not just noticing, it’s taking time to respond, to be inconvenienced. These teachers love to be inconvenienced.” For example, a student with a single parent who goes to work at 4 a.m. fretted that he couldn’t bring his science project to school on the bus. McWain and the school custodian drove to the student’s house to transport the student and science project. And teachers and administrators aren’t the only ones doing whatever needs to be done. One Clark student gave up athletics to tutor a Spanish-speaking peer.

The high academic achievement and whatever-it-takes climate give Clark students and staff much to feel proud about. Their school pride further fuels the engagement and focus students and teachers bring to their work, giving the impression that success and pride are inextricable and mutually reinforcing. A visitor can’t escape hearing about pride when talking to people at Clark -- a pride that’s exclaimed in celebration, not in comparison. It’s a pride that fosters community, not self-involvement. When you combine the advanced science curriculum, the well-behaved students, and the sense of community and pride, it’s hard not to come to the same conclusion one teacher comes to: “This school has the feel of a small college prep school, but with a different demographic.”

“You know the children are more than numbers [at Clark]; [teachers] know all the students by name—the office workers too. They treat your kids like their [own],” says one parents. This ethos starts at the top. Before a visitor spends more than an hour chatting in Ms. McWain’s office, it’s likely she’s said, more than once, “They’re all our kids.”

In 2008, proficiency rates on state standardized tests at Clark were 95% or higher at every grade level and in every subject tested, well above state averages. The school received a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon Schools Award. In addition, Ann Crumpton, an intervention teacher and former guidance counselor at Clark, reported that close to 100% of Clark students eventually graduate high school and posited that their enrollment in post-secondary education is not far behind.

A rigorous science curriculum, orderly school environment, whatever-it-takes approach, and strong school community—not only do these things impress a visitor, they leave the impression that at Clark they’re inseparable—remove one and the others would unthread. The synergistic nature of successful schools is exactly what makes their success difficult to transfer. Still, the formula, if it can be called that, of a safe environment filled with highly trained, enthusiastic teachers who make learning come to life through lessons that demand active management of multiple skills and conceptual knowledge—all guided by a principal who sets the conditions for continuous improvement and models a whatever-it-takes-approach—has worked for Clark.

For additional information, please contact:
Joe Toomey
Principal, Clark-Shaw Magnet School

Story written by Adam Tanney, Research Associate with RMC Research Corporation, and adapted with permission.