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Failing Michigan School Hopes in Young Principal

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Failing Michigan School Hopes in Young Principal


Failing Michigan School Hopes in Young Principal

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The No-Child-Left-Behind law requires that schools improve their test scores, and each year that a school fails to meet its goal, it's subject to progressively tougher measures. But what about schools that still can't get kids to read and write four, five and six years into the process?

Sara Hulett of Michigan Radio visited one of those schools in Benton Harbor, Michigan where a new principal may be the school's last best hope.

SARA HULETT: Three hundred forty sixth, seventh and eight-graders are getting ready to start their day at Hull Middle School. Only one in five of these kids is proficient in math, only one in four in language arts.

Freddie McGee(ph) patrols the hallways with a red bullhorn.

Mr. FREDDIE McGEE (Principal, Hull Middle School): Hey, no, no, no. hey, you have less than 30 seconds to get to class or the men's room.

HULETT: McGee doesn't tolerate students loitering in the halls when they're supposed to be in class. And there's one other thing that drives him crazy.

Mr. McGEE: Sam, pull your pants up, man. Sam, that's the fifth time I've been saying that today with you.

Unidentified Man: Stop.

HULETT: Sagging pants is a violation of the dress code at Hull and requires constant vigilance by the principal.

Mr. McGEE: William Dupp(ph), you got a belt that helps?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McGEE: You need a belt - I want to see that belt on Monday.

HULETT: McGee is 34 years old, and he's only been on the job for a few months, but teachers say he's already made a huge difference compared with last year.

Ms. DUSIN FLAVENKY(ph) (Teacher, Hull Middle School): It was just survival work for all of us, teachers.

HULETT: Dusin Flavenky teaches the eighth grade. She says before McGee's arrival, substitute teachers wouldn't even show up if they were assigned to this school.

Ms. FLAVENKY: I mean, if I was a sub in another district, I wouldn't come here. One time when I was gone and then another teacher was gone in our eighth grade wing, we had another sub - a long-term sub on our social sciences class and they would pile desks up and run across them. They were throwing books up, tearing them up and throwing them out the window.

HULETT: Mark Ravelin(ph) is one of the host of consultants, coaches and experts who've been called in to pull this school out of failure.

Mr. MARK RAVELIN: Kids will say the building feels safer. Kids will say there's more fun here now. Kids are much more ready to tell you who their favorite teacher is. A year ago, it just - this was a different building.

HULETT: Still, Ravelin says, it's difficult to say how does changes will translate to the bottom line - higher test scores. The new principal knows that won't happen overnight. McGee is hoping to get the school to what's called Safe Harbor status; that's a provision in the law that protects school that make some progress but still fall below state targets.

But he believes there's a bigger issue at stake here. Beyond test scores, he's got to change these kids' attitudes about school.

Mr. McGEE: One young man told me I ain't about to be boy Dexter around here. I can't get As and Bs because I won't be accepted anymore.

HULETT: McGee says he wants to make it cool to be smart.

Mr. McGEE: With that…

HULETT: Today, he summoned a group of eighth graders to the cafeteria before they leave on a field trip to a nearby university.

Mr. McGEE: Everybody here is going to college. I do not believe in that cliché that college is not for everybody. Everybody in this gym right now is going to college.

HULETT: Before he sends them off, he's pulled out a pair students to lead the school's pledge.

Unidentified Woman: We give you our absolute…

Unidentified Group: We give you our absolute…

Unidentified Woman: …self determination…

Unidentified Group: …self determination…

Unidentified Woman: …self belief…

Unidentified Group: …self belief…

Unidentified Woman: …and powerful, non-stop confidence in myself.

Unidentified Group: …and powerful non-stop confidence in myself.

Mr. McGEE: All right, give J(ph) Hull clap

Unidentified Group: What, what(ph)?

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. McGEE: One more time.

Unidentified Group: What, what?

(Soundbite of clapping)

HULETT: These students will go on to high school next year, and Mcgee will be the cheerleader for a new crop of eighth graders. That's assuming the school makes enough progress to avoid getting shut down by the state. A stat Michigan superintendent says he is considering for schools like Hull that fail year after year. McGee says these kids are so far behind, his first priority has to be making the school a place where kids can learn without distractions, and he says he plans to stay for as long as it takes to do that.

Mr. McGEE: As long as the Lord's going to keep me here, this is my hometown so I don't have any plans of leaving.

HULETT: Or of giving up his bullhorn.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett.

Mr. McGEE: Hey, who is that? None of this now. (Unintelligible) you shirt out like that.

SEABROOK: Every weekend on this program we assign our own bit of homework to you, our listeners. Today, we're looking for your stories about school principals - ones you've loved or hated, ones who made you stand with a book on your head, or ones who inspired you to make something of yourself. Send them to homework at or leave a message - a voicemail message on the Homework hotline at 202-408-5183. We'll read from them next Saturday. Today, we read from last weekend's assignment. We ask you for your dinner time disaster stories and you served them up.

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