The ABCs Of Saving A Failing School

If a school is consistently failing and kids aren't learning, shut it down. Start over with new teachers and administrators willing to do something dramatically different. Closing failing schools and turning them around has been in vogue since No Child Left Behind, and now the Obama Administration is embracing the idea. It's even offering millions of dollars to school districts to help them do it.

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Shutting down a failing school may not sound difficult. If students aren't learning and teachers aren't teaching, why not just start over with better teachers and administrators who can get the job done? This is the essence of a $3.4 billion plan by the Obama administration to turn around failing schools. But the process is proving complicated.

In the first of two reports on school makeovers, NPR's Claudio Sanchez looks at the challenge of restructuring struggling schools.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Alfred Eli Beach High School in Savannah, Georgia has been on the state's list of failing schools for years - since 2003.

(Soundbite of children giggling)

SANCHEZ: The school sits in a poor neighborhood on the fringes of this picturesque historic city, housed in a rundown aging two-story building. The huge marquis above the entrance that students walk past every day reads: It's a Great Day to be a Bulldog. But kids are indifferent these days, says Betty Berksteiner(ph).

Ms. BETTY BERKSTEINER: There not the pride, school pride.

SANCHEZ: Berksteiner, a member of the school's parent council, graduated from Beach High in 1953. Her grandson is a 9th grader here.

For most of its 143 year history, through reconstruction, segregation and the most tumultuous days of the Civil Rights Movement, Berksteiner said Beach High was home to Savannah's black working class and well-to-do families.

Ms. BERKSTEINER: All black, full of pride. It was a wonderful school.

SANCHEZ: Through the 1970s and '80s, the academic program was demanding. Kids worked hard. They wanted to come to Beach High, says Dionne Hoskins, class of '88 and president of the school's alumni association.

Ms. DIONNE HOSKINS (President, Alumni Association, Alfred Eli Beach High School): You had the doctor's children, the lawyer's children, the teacher's children, the trolley driver's children - you had everyone going to that same school.

SANCHEZ: Today, the majority of students at Beach High live in poverty. Most arrive two, three, four years behind, performing well below the academic standards set by the state and federal government. Hoskins says there's a core of teachers at Beach High today, though, who believe students, no matter how poor, can achieve.

Ms. HOSKINS: But I think there's a group of teachers who are overwhelmed and unmotivated by the challenge of dealing with students who may not be prepared, and I think they just put out as many fires as they can and go home.

SANCHEZ: That's one big reason Beach High has struggled, says Dr. Deonn Bostic Stone, who took over as principal three and a half years ago. But since then, says Stone, much has improved.

Dr. DEONN BOSTIC STONE (Principal, Alfred Eli Beach High School): I'm extremely proud of the work that's been done at Beach High School, because the gains that have been made are tremendous.

SANCHEZ: In math, English, social studies, Stone and her faculty have pushed a majority of the students to meet or exceeds the state standards. Special education students have made the biggest gains. And the graduation rate - it's jumped from 49 percent to 66 percent.

Dr. BOSTIC STONE: The work that's been done here has proven that Beach is moving students to far greater levels above where they were.

SANCHEZ: Just not far enough, according to Georgia's Department of Education, which is why Dr. Stone and half her faculty won't be back next fall - they've been let go. This means Beach High School is now eligible for up to $2 million in federal school improvement grants, which the Obama administration created to help restructure failing schools, or what President Obama often calls dropout factories.

It's a label that students have heard for years but it's never stung more than it does now. The school's choir, after all, was invited to sing at President Obama's inauguration.

What's most unfair, students say, is that their principal and teachers have been singled out for blame. Ashley Jackson, a senior, says the new teachers are in for a rough ride.

Ms. ASHLEY JACKSON (Senior, Alfred Eli Beach High School): And when the students group up on the teachers, it's going to get worse.

SANCHEZ: It's going to get worse. How can it get worse?

Mr. TENOR HOLMES (Student, Alfred Eli Beach High School): Because, you know, new teachers are and then, you know...

SANCHEZ: Tenor Holmes, a tall gangly 18-year-old, can't finish his thought. Later, though, he tells me that what he wanted to say was that the trust students and teachers have built in recent years will be gone.

This is often one of the casualties when schools are forced to restructure. Tenor and Ashley say they're graduating and going to college thanks to teachers and counselors who believed in them but are now forced to reapply for their jobs.

Dr. KAREN BLAIR (College Career Coach, Alfred Eli Beach High School): It's devastating. It's just absolutely devastating.

SANCHEZ: Dr. Karen Blair is the college career coach at Beach High.

Dr. BLAIR: The school is moving forward, and it's certainly a slap in the face when teachers work as hard as the teachers work here and they are told that they have to reapply for their jobs. All of us here at this point are in limbo.

SANCHEZ: Blair, whose daughter attends Beach High School, says she'll reapply and is trying to look at the bright side.

Experts who've studied struggling schools across the country say most efforts to restructure them have not worked or they've been short-lived. So, if there's a bright side, Jack Jennings of the Center for Education Policy says it's hard to find one.

Mr. JACK JENNINGS (Center for Education Policy): And yet some people, including I think the Obama administration, have it in their head that eliminating schools and firing staff are the way you're going to bring about improvement. Well, the record doesn't show that.

SANCHEZ: The evidence is so skimpy, Jenkins(ph) says, school makeovers now appear to be less about sustainable improvements and more about the billions of dollars in federal aid the Obama administration is offering to fix failing schools.

Mr. JENNINGS: The states and school districts pretty much have to get in line now, because they're so desperate for the money. And in some states like California, there's been a doubling of the number of schools that have been put on the state watch list.

SANCHEZ: Although the U.S. Education Department is relying on states to identify failing schools, Secretary Arne Duncan says he wants to make sure only the worst schools get federal aid.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): And to be clear, where there's improvement, those schools shouldn't be on the list. What we're asking states to do is to focus on the bottom five percent, not the 95 percent.

SANCHEZ: The problem, says Duncan.

Sec. DUNCAN: States are having a hard time defining that bottom five percent.

SANCHEZ: Is Beach High School among Georgia's bottom five percent? Well, state officials say yes, based on their definition of what a failing school is. So, despite raising its test scores and graduation rate, the restructuring of Beach High will proceed as scheduled.

Ms. JACQUELINE CHAVIS (Chief Academic Officer): Starting from scratch.

SANCHEZ: Jacqueline Chavis, the district's chief academic officer, says when school opens in the fall, there will a new pay-for-performance plan and bonuses for teachers who raise students' test scores. The new principal will handpick new teachers. Seniority and tenure will be phased out, and Beach High School will be removed from the state's list of failing school.

SANCHEZ: Raj Jackson(ph), a 10th grader, says he just hopes something good comes out of all this.

Ms. RAJ JACKSON (Sophomore, Alfred Eli Beach High School): I know it's going to be sad because some of the teachers that we're losing, we're close to them. And, like, the teachers and students here bond a lot, but I know that the changes that Beach is going to go through is for the better. Maybe, I don't know, maybe they're looking for stricter teachers?

SANCHEZ: Proponents of this makeover are hoping that a new crop of teachers will overcome quite possibly the biggest challenge in all of public education -the impact that poverty can have on kids' ability and willingness to learn.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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KELLY: Tomorrow, we'll visit Annapolis, Maryland, where the city's worst high school is now in its fourth year of restructuring.

Unidentified Man: Kids will give a lot more and be a lot more successful if they know that their English teacher or their math teacher cares about them as a person. And if our kids believe that we care and that we're not going to let them down, they won't let us down.

KELLY: That's as our series School Makeovers continues.

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KELLY: This is NPR News.

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