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When Melissa Glee-Woodard became principal of Maryland’s Lewisdale Elementary School four years ago, it was struggling. The school was in the dreaded “school improvement” process because of the performance of multiple subgroups of students, and it needed change.

Change is what it got. But not the dramatic “fire-all-teachers” change that has been making the papers. Rather, Glee-Woodard inspired teachers, parents and students with a new vision. The staff began focusing on student data in a meaningful way. Targeted professional development addressed areas of weakness in the instructional program. And new summer programs ensured that students kept their academic success going even when school was not technically in session.

As a result, Lewisdale has made AYP every year Glee-Woodard has been principal. The National Association of Elementary School Principals recently honored her for her transformational leadership.

She joined us for a conversation about the school and its journey.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Lewisdale?

Glee-Woodard: Lewisdale Elementary School is located in an urban setting in Prince George's County, Maryland. We are in the backyard of the University of Maryland, College Park. It is a working-class neighborhood. 80% of our students are Hispanic. 17% are African-American.

All of our students walk to school each and every day, and we are a neighborhood school. Our parents are very actively involved. Anytime that you are outside in the morning, you will see a lot of parents either walking their children to school or dropping their children off in cars.

Lewisdale is also a Title I school. 84% of our students qualify for free or reduced meals. And 54% of our students speak English as their second language. So that gives you a general idea of ...

When Principal Theresa Mattison came to Carstens Elementary in 1997 “achievement was zero.” Student behavior was a problem. Some staff seemed uncommitted. As parent liaison Abby Phelps puts it, “This school was in the middle of chaos.”

Today Carstens is a beacon of light for the surrounding community. It is one of the top-performing schools in Detroit. In 2009 third graders at this school—where 98% of students are from high poverty homes—outscored the state as a whole on all tested subjects.

How did the school turn itself around? School staff points to the leadership of Dr. Mattison. Dr. Mattison points back to her incredible staff. And everyone recognizes the importance of meeting more than just the academic needs of students.

Members of the Carstens community recently told us the school’s story. In on the conversation were Principal Theresa Mattison, parent liaison Abby Phelps, school social worker Gail Nawrock, and teachers Barbara Haug, Vannessa Jones, Rebecca Kelly and Violet Kiricovski.

Public School Insights: How would you describe Carstens Elementary?

Violet Kiricovski: Carstens shares the Comer philosophy. And we all work together. Teamwork really is our strong point.

Rebecca Kelly: The way I would describe Carstens is that it is actually more than a school. I just saw a presentation in which they described it as a “beacon of light.” And the parents, the families, the students and the businesses are all working together.

Abby Phelps: Carstens incorporates a city philosophy. We offer all services. We have it all.

Public School Insights: What kind of a population does the school serve?

Barbara Haug: We serve a deserving population. Statistically, they are considered high poverty—98% of them come from high poverty homes. And our population is about 98% African-American. But we do not think that statistics are something that describes somebody’s potential. It just describes the situation that needs to be considered when you look at the needs of the individual child or the children. What it boils down to is that they are children who deserve a good education.

Public School Insights: What was student achievement like back in the 1990s?

Theresa Mattison: Achievement was zero…We had people who did not care and it was very, very, very hard. But it is not hard anymore, because everyone cares and everyone shares leadership and responsibility.

Abby Phelps: Having been affiliated with Carstens before Dr. Mattison got here, I can tell you that this school was in the middle of chaos. And I am not exaggerating. I have been here since 1989. The capacity of the teachers and their concern ...

People in our business commonly talk about the challenges of teaching students who are still learning English. Not so Ted Appel of Luther Burbank High School in California. He sees these students as an asset.

More than half of his school's students are English language learners. About nine in ten come from low-income families. Though some schools might see such students as a drag on their test scores, Luther Burbank High welcomes them from neighborhoods far from its own. For Appel, such students enrich the school in ways standard school rating systems cannot begin to capture.

Appel recently told us about his school--and about the state and federal  policies that can at times impede its vital work.

Public School Insights: Tell me a little bit about Luther Burbank High School.

Appel: It is a comprehensive high school with about 2100 students. About 90% are on free or reduced lunch. About 35% are Southeast Asian, mostly Hmong. We are about 25% Latino, about 20% African-American, and whatever percentage is left is from everywhere else in the world.

Public School Insights: So you must have a lot of different languages spoken in the school.

Appel: Yes. The predominant languages are Hmong and Spanish. For about 55% of our student population, English is not the primary language spoken at home. They are English learners.

Public School Insights: I would assume this population has a pretty big impact on your school and the teaching strategies you to use. Is that true?

Appel: Absolutely. One of the advantages of having such a large number of English learners is that we in a way do not have an English learner program. We try to foster a sense that all teachers are likely to be teaching English learners, so there is not a sense that English learners are the kids that somebody else ...

Newsweek excels at self-parody. It has long produced lop-sided and simplistic reporting on school reform. But this week's lead story takes the cake: "The Problem with Education is Teachers."

I had a hissy fit when I first read that inflammatory and irresponsible headline. And the lede pushed me over the edge: "Getting rid of bad teachers is the solution to turning around failing urban schools." Any journalist who writes about "the solution" to anything should get a pay cut. Another subtitle for the article just added insult to injury: "In no other profession are workers so insulated from accountability." Well, what about journalism?

It's too bad Newsweek ran such a poor piece. They could have learned a thing or two about schools and journalism if they had read Elizabeth Green's wonderful piece in last weeks' New York Times Magazine. Newsweek's authors interviewed only the usual reform suspects, ignored viewpoints that clashed with their angle, ignored the role of factors like staff development and curriculum, and went for the sensational headline. Green's story is a world apart from all that.

For one, Green asks logical questions about what has become received wisdom in some school reform circles. Can TFA really supply the needs of all our troubled urban and rural schools? If we fired "bad teachers" at the bottom and hired "great" ones at the top, would we really solve our education problems? What about the ...

Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, NY has earned its reputation as a success story. A decade ago, only 19% of Edison’s fourth graders were proficient in English language arts. Last year 75% were. Proficiency rates in math and social studies are even higher. Not bad for a school where over 80% of students live in poverty.

If you ask the school’s principal, Dr. Eileen Santiago, the decision over ten years ago to turn Edison into a full-service community school has played a key role in its transformation. Working with strong community partners, the school offers on-site health care, education for parents, counseling for children and their families, and after-school enrichment. Add that community focus to a robust instructional program and close attention to data on how students are doing, and you get a stirring turnaround story.

Dr. Santiago recently told us more.

Public School Insights: Tell me about your school.

Santiago: I have served as principal of this school for 14 years. And I have always felt fortunate that I came into a school with many, many caring people. I did not walk into a school where the adults felt negatively about the children.

However, I was faced with other concerns. One of them was that the school had a pretty significant level of poverty. We were at over 80% free lunch. We continue to have that level of poverty today.

In addition, Edison has always served an immigrant population. The school was constructed in 1872, so you can imagine that the population has changed a lot over the years. Today the population is primarily multi-ethnic Hispanic, coming from different areas of the Hispanic world. And many of our children are undocumented immigrants. That in itself adds several levels of challenge: ...

We're hearing a lot about Chicago's efforts to turn around struggling schools. Read the papers, and you'll get the impression that a handful of charter schools are the only bright stars in a dark firmament. But that impression is wrong.

At least one other set of schools has been posting big gains. Eight schools working with a Chicago non-profit called Strategic Learning Initiatives (SLI) have made large strides in student performance in the past few years. And their model is quite different from the turnaround models that get the most press.

They do not fire teachers. Their principals don't get the axe. But they do use concrete strategies to change what happens in their classrooms. Researchers from AIR reviewed SLI's results and called on policy makers to take note:

Well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools under the mandates of NCLB, school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions such as [SLI's] Focused Instruction Process.

As school closings and charter takeovers capture the popular imagination, we are apt to ignore other options. SLI President John Simmons recently told us about the success of his approach in Chicago.

Public School Insights: There is a lot of talk right now about turning around struggling schools. The model that is most mentioned, and has been enshrined in federal policy, is reconstitution, which involves firing the principal and replacing at the least half the teachers at a school. The thinking is that this process is required to create the conditions needed for success. Does your experience bear that out?

Simmons: We think that there's a better way. Reconstitution can work. You can get results. But our experience, which includes not only the last almost four years with our most recent network of schools but also the last 15 years using a similar model in schools in the lowest income neighborhoods in Chicago, shows that our model is getting better results than the reconstitution model. And it is lower cost and faster.

Public School Insights: What kinds of results have you been getting?

Simmons: [Part of our process is weekly assessments of student achievement.] By the way, we call it a “process” and not a “program” because teachers and principals have an opportunity to modify and improve it on a regular basis.

We are seeing that schools are able to improve their weekly assessments pretty quickly after starting our process, typically after the first six weeks. Children ...

Long Beach Unified School District in California has long been recognized as a model urban school system. Winner of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2003, it has been a finalist for that award five times.

The district hasn’t achieved this success by flitting from reform to reform or looking for silver bullets. Rather, it has spent most of the past two decades building on the same educational strategies, focusing on data, community buy-in and staff development. We recently spoke to Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser (who has spent the past 28 years in the district as a teacher, principal, deputy superintendent and, since 2002, superintendent) about the “Long Beach way.”

Public School Insights: What prompted Long Beach to undertake big reforms for its kids in the first place?

Steinhauser: We've been on this long journey since about 1992. What really prompted it at that time was a massive economic meltdown. Our city was closing its naval base. And McDonnell Douglas [a major area employer] was going through a massive shutdown. They laid off 35,000 employees over a two year period. Also, if you remember, those were the days of major civil unrest in the LA area. We were having massive flight from our system, mainly of Caucasian students.

Basically what we did was say, “Okay. We have got to stop this.” So our board adopted several major initiatives. We implemented K-8 uniforms. We were the first district in California to end social promotion. We introduced a program called the 3rd Grade Reading Initiative to help with that goal, and we also developed a policy that eighth-graders who had two or more Fs could not go on to high school. And we launched a major partnership called Seamless Education with our local junior college and ...

Recent debates about charter schools are shedding more heat than light. There's enough evidence out there now to keep both the critics and the boosters busy. But as most people know by now, arguments over whether charters are "good" or "bad" are a waste of time. The real question is whether we can create enough of the good ones to make a real dent in student achievement. And that's not at all clear.

Charter boosters got some more wind in their sails after Stanford's CREDO released a study of New York City charters. Their findings: students at charter schools make more academic progress than students at traditional public schools do. This study echoed earlier findings by another Stanford researcher, Carolyn Hoxby. The United Federation of Teachers countered that charters enroll fewer special education students and English language learners. (The City Education Department's data seem to bear this out.) Charter supporters responded in ...

Yesterday, we shared our interview with David Cicarella, the union president who helped broker an historic agreement between teachers and the New Haven, Connecticut school distict.

Today, we'll hear from two district officials who were instrumental in the deal. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries and Chief Operating Officer William Clark describe the groundbreaking collaboration that made the agreement possible.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of attention given to the new contract in New Haven—a lot of it praise. What you think are some of the most groundbreaking provisions of that agreement?

Clark: I think the first big groundbreaking piece was how we approached it. Historically, due to Connecticut’s Teacher Negotiations Act, you are really forced into a very tight timeline of negotiations that is specifically identified by statute. Certain pieces have to be done by certain dates; otherwise you hurtle towards arbitration. So with the leadership of [Superintendent] Dr. Mayo, [New Haven] Mayor DeStefano and Dave Cicarella from the [New Haven] teachers union, what we really did was try to chart a different way and a different approach.

What we set up was essentially parallel tracks. On one track you had reform discussions and on the other track you had the classic negotiations. The reform discussions were specifically separate so as to not fall prey to the trappings of negotiations. We began by sitting around the table with the best intentions in mind: What could we do—what are the possibilities that could exist—if we look at this as a collaborative approach? That really opened a lot of doors.

We started, under Garth’s leadership within that committee, by coming up with a belief statement that both parties signed on to. So then even when we had some fits and starts and ...

Teachers in New Haven, Connecticut recently ratified a contract that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised as an “important progressive labor agreement” for its provisions on teacher evaluation and school reform. David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, recently told us about the agreement.

(Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with New Haven district officials Garth Harries and Will Clark.)

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of praise given to the new contract in New Haven. What do you think are the most groundbreaking provisions of this agreement?

Cicarella: There are three components that get the most attention. One, our willingness to discuss tenure. Two, our willingness to talk about including test scores as a part of teacher evaluation. And three, the contract’s provisions for the closing and chartering of schools.

Public School Insights: Let’s start with tenure. What do you think the big accomplishment has been on that part of the agreement?

Cicarella: Historically, unions have been completely unwilling to discuss tenure, because it’s the only protection that teachers have against unfair dismissal.

But we’ve got to tighten up the dismissal process. We can’t have folks—and this is a complaint that the public makes and is legitimate—going through two, three, four years of improvement plan after improvement plan, when everyone knows that ...

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