Teachers at Troubled School Face Job Loss

Administrators have decided to transform struggling Northwestern High School in Baltimore into a technology center. Teachers recently learned they will have to reapply for their jobs. Many have devoted their lives to the school.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Teachers at Northwestern High School in Baltimore recently got the word that they may not be welcome at their school next year. Northwestern is one of nearly 10,000 U.S. schools that are classified as in need of improvement.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, that means that they have to take steps to improve student test scores. Many experts say rebuilding the staff may be painful, but it's often the only way to improve a failing school. NPR's Larry Abramson has been tracking events at Northwestern. Here's his report.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The word from on high is that Northwestern has to make sure every teacher is committed to the reform effort. Instructional dean Francine McCray(ph) says the school administration has already felt this pain and won't have to re-apply.

Ms. FRANCINE McCRAY (Instructional Dean, Northwestern High School): Well the administration, we're basically new administration. We came in three years ago, okay? And we have been working towards showing improvement, you know, in the scores.

ABRAMSON: Despite enormous pressure this past year, teachers have not been able to raise test scores enough to satisfy state and federal mandates, so maybe it makes sense to re-tool. First-year teacher Amy Hanson(ph) is heart-sick at the thought she'll be torn away from the students in the small public-relations academy she started. Hanson says the principal has tried not to blame the staff for what's happening.

Ms. AMY HANSON (Teacher, Northwestern High School): She's done a good job of trying to convey, like, we have all these changes because we're trying to be a better school, not because, you know, we're like trying to do this mean thing or like ruin your career.

ABRAMSON: Hanson knew when she came to Northwestern that the school faced change. She knew that might mean the school would not have a place for her next year, when Northwestern will become a smaller school, focused on technology. She understands the goal.

Ms. HANSON: Yeah, I mean - it's kind of - it's still scary, like.

ABRAMSON: The pressure on teachers may be trickling down. There have been a lot of fights in the hallways.

Ms. SANDRA HERRERA(ph) (Teacher, Northwestern High School): There are good things and bad things, but I think overall for me, the good things outweigh anything else.

ABRAMSON: Sandra Herrera stands outside the classroom where she teaches biology. Herrera is a veteran teacher, but she's new to this school. Even though she was just tapped to head the science department, she too will have to re-apply. Herrera says it's frustrating the way well-meaning administrators periodically come into schools and order a new direction.

Ms. HERRERA: And I don't mean to sound, you know, ornery or anything, but I dare you to come take my class for a week. I dare you to come spend the time and energy it takes to do this every day, and then you come back, and you tell me all these other wonderful things that you want us to do.

ABRAMSON: Some veteran teachers here wonder what good it will do to change the staff. Saul Cohen(ph) says his students will still face the same obstacle. His history students will still show up hungry and distracted by the problems they face at home.

Mr. SAUL COHEN (Teacher, Northwestern High School): I don't think that you can expect any staff to change what's been going on for 15 years in these kids' lives.

ABRAMSON: Cohen is one of the more-experienced teachers here. He comes to work every day dressed in a dark suit and a yarmulke. Cohen says after many years at this school, he likes the kids here, and he doesn't want to leave. But he's not exactly sure how to teach history while preparing those kids for the tests that determine whether the school is failing or not.

Kids tell him: Make history interesting for me; entertain me.

Mr. COHEN: Well okay. You know, maybe if you focus a little and learn, you'll see it's interesting. No, entertain me, entertain me. I mean, I guess it's an issue would be do you teach to a test, or do you teach? I guess most teachers would say you teach, and maybe administrators and other people would say well, the tests show if you've taught something. So I don't know really what the right answer is.

ABRAMSON: The answer for now may be a new staff. There's no guarantee this tactic will work. The only certainty about this process is that it's going to hurt. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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