How a Virtual District Provides Real Help for Really Struggling Schools
At Miami Edison Senior High School, Judy Brown's 10th-grade reading class runs like a well-oiled machine. The comparison is a fitting one on this January afternoon. Two students sit near the back of the room listening to books on tape, as seven others quietly work on their reading skills at a bank of computers along the wall. Meanwhile, Brown reviews a poem with six students, grappling with similes and metaphors.
"I know what the caged bird feels," she reads aloud from "Sympathy," by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In the poem, a bird symbolizes the plight of African Americans in the late 19th century.
After the teacher's pushing and prodding, the students begin to understand the figurative language. "What would be the idea of the poem?" Brown asks. "What is going on in the bird's life?"
A teenaged girl makes the connection: "He's struggling," she says.
It's a theme that for these students hits close to home. Many come from low-income families. They are below grade level in reading—and Brown's class is designed to deliver the support they need to bring their reading skills and comprehension up to speed.
For years, test scores languished at the school, which also has seen high rates of absenteeism and little parental involvement. Like many urban, high-poverty schools, this one has suffered from neglect. Teachers had become frustrated with the lack of support and left, and district administrators seemed to have forgotten about the school. But starting in January 2005, Miami-Dade County Public Schools took a different approach. Schools like Miami Edison that face multiple challenges, both academic and socio-economic, have received increased attention and greater resources from the district's main office and the superintendent, himself.
Rudy Crew, Miami's charismatic district leader, took the 39 lowest-performing schools under his wing. He put them in the "School Improvement Zone," a virtual district whose boundaries are defined by student needs, not geography.
The Zone includes elementary, middle, and high schools and has an extended day and year. Teachers earn higher salaries to teach in these schools and must participate in intensive professional development.
A focus on student data is a cornerstone of the Zone, and the number-crunching has paid off. All 39 schools have seen tremendous gains on standardized tests.
To interrupt the pattern of failure that had become commonplace in Miami's schools, Crew mixed conventional wisdom with complete transformation. He also did not go it alone.
Crew enlisted the help of the local teachers union. The mutual agreement between the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) and the district about how to move forward with the plan is set forth in a memorandum of understanding.
He "realized how terribly important it was to collaborate with the local union so that the initiative could be successful," says Karen Aronowitz, UTD's president. "None of us is being imposed upon. We are full partners in this relationship."
At a time when the hot-button issue of improving student achievement has divided constituent groups such as politicians and parents, the partnership in Miami shows the importance of focusing like a laser on those schools that need help the most. "It's a lot like putting them in intensive care so that they can get well and move on with the rest of the district," says Geneva Woodard, the Zone's associate superintendent. "We've made tremendous progress in that area. So we know it's working."
Success in New York
To understand Miami-Dade's success, one must first look at Crew's track record in New York. Before coming to Miami, Crew served as the chancellor of the New York City public schools from 1995 to 1999. In 1996, he convinced the school board to let him establish the "Chancellor's District" for the city's lowest-performing schools.*
Like the School Improvement Zone, the Chancellor's District was a virtual district. Some 68 elementary, middle, and high schools were removed from their home districts and essentially rehabilitated.
That rehabilitation consisted of paying greater attention to low-performing schools than the district had done previously, especially in the 39 Chancellor's District schools dubbed "Extended Time Schools." These schools received a uniform literacy curriculum, intensive professional development, greater teacher salaries, and an extended day and year. It was a commonsense approach that didn't just require more money, but a realization that struggling schools need an extra boost.
As in Miami, Crew included New York City's local teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), in crafting this school improvement plan. District and union representatives held joint meetings to discuss changes in the affected schools.
The district and the union negotiated a uniform literacy curriculum, Success For All, in Chancellor's District elementary and middle schools. There was an SFA facilitator in each school and the UFT Teacher Center aligned its professional development and support with the program.
Crew did not limit support in the Chancellor's District to just teachers. Joseph Colletti, UFT's special representative for educational programs, says Crew reviewed the record of "every single principal" and then removed those he believed were not working or encouraged them to retire. He moved some to other schools that might be a better fit and supported those in the Chancellor's District with professional development, much of it similar to what the teachers received.
Schedules in all schools included literacy blocks and a heavy focus on regularly assessing student progress. Kindergarten through grade three could have classes no larger than 20 students, while the maximum class size for grades four through eight could not exceed 25 students.
In the "Extended Time Schools," the school day was lengthened 40 minutes, and the school calendar was extended by one week. Generally, teachers in Extended Time Schools provided tutoring to their own students from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in small groups for students who needed help in reading or math. Teachers who chose to work in Extended Time Schools received a 15 percent pay increase for their heavier workload.
In addition, students participated in a range of afterschool programs and activities that ran, in some cases, until 6:00 p.m.
According to Colletti, before the virtual district was implemented, district and union officials went to individual schools and spoke to the teachers. Those who did not feel that staying in their schools was a good fit, "were able to get out with their rights and dignity intact," Colletti says, which was important since some teachers had family and other obligations that prevented them from working an extended day.
But in 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg terminated the initiative, despite significant gains in student achievement. He imposed a new structure on the city school system and transferred the remaining 32 schools in the Chancellor's District back to their home districts. Why? That's hard to say, but cost may have been a factor.
In June 2004, Norm Fruchter and three co-authors at New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy published a report, Virtual District, Real Improvement: A Retrospective Evaluation of the Chancellor's District, 1996–2003.† They found that Crew allocated additional funds, initially $20 million, to begin implementing the Chancellor's District.
They also note that according to New York City Board of Education School-Based Expenditure Reports for fiscal year 2001, Chancellor's District elementary and middle schools in 2000–2001 spent an average of $13,150 per student compared to an overall average New York City per student expenditure of $9,679 for elementary- and middle-school students.
With such innovations, there is always a high cost, says Fruchter, who is now the director of the community involvement program in the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. According to Fruchter's study, that cost was worth it. "By developing, mandating, and implementing a comprehensive set of organizational, curricular, instructional, and personnel changes, the Chancellor's District significantly improved the reading outcomes of the students in those schools in three years of focused effort," the report states.
Mary Atkinson, a social studies teacher at the High School for Health Careers and Sciences in Manhattan, was sorry to say goodbye to the virtual district reform. A teacher for 10 years, Atkinson was just starting her third year when her school was placed in the Chancellor's District. The smaller class size (25 students then, compared to the union's contractual limit of 34 now) allowed her to give a lot more individual attention to kids.
Atkinson also recalls that teachers in the Chancellor's District could request that the district provide extra money to sponsor afterschool programs, like a book club that Atkinson ran at her school. "It's not the kind of thing you would get funded now," she says.
She also misses the professional development in the Chancellor's District. Teachers had a say in making sure the courses related to their work in the classroom, she says. Professional development she had attended before the Chancellor's District focused on such basic topics as writing lesson plans, even if some of the teachers in the class had been teaching for 20 years and had written hundreds of them, Atkinson says. But the Chancellor's District's professional development centered on topics like research-based reading instruction, a really useful topic for high school teachers who often don't know how to provide literacy instruction.
Building the Capacity to Improve
This focus on professional development, curriculum, and materials is based on the argument, which several education experts have made, that if teachers and administrators in low-scoring schools had the capacity to fix their own problems, they would do so.
Richard F. Elmore, a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, explains it this way:‡
It is important to understand that teachers and students don't get better by applying knowledge and skill they already have—they are stuck because their existing knowledge isn't enough. They get better by having access to new knowledge and discovering that they can use it in ways they did not fully appreciate before.
That new knowledge comes from intensive professional development that helps teachers and principals understand what works. And this is exactly what these virtual districts, like the one in Miami, deliver.
Fruchter believes that urban school districts must provide access to this new knowledge. This means that district officials must build low-performing schools' capacity to help themselves. "Capacity-building interventions are imperative in urban systems, which contain the great majority of the nation's poorly performing schools," he writes in Urban Schools, Public Will: Making Education Work For All Our Children.§ "Yet the history of state and district improvement efforts suggests too few attempts to provide such … interventions to schools."
An experience that Fruchter had some years ago when he served on a New York State Education Department panel brought this lesson home to him. He writes that the panel had been convened to review the plans of New York City schools identified as in need of significant improvement. One school's improvement planning had been rejected by two former panels, and the plan that Fruchter's panel was reviewing was the school's last chance to avoid closure and reconstitution. But his panel unanimously concluded that the school's plan was inadequate.
When the school's team was ushered in for the formal review, our frustration was evident in the tone with which we began our questioning. The chair of the team, a young math teacher, angrily interrupted us. "I'm the most senior teacher in the whole school," she snapped. "And I've been here only 4 years! How the hell do you imagine we can write a decent plan in these conditions? We can't even figure out how to keep our kids from sneaking out of the building, or stop them from turning the lunchroom into a daily food fight. What do you expect from us?"
What Fruchter's panel expected was a comprehensive reform plan that the school did not have the capacity to develop or implement. While education reforms based on similar expectations have come and gone in urban districts in the last three decades, they have produced little improvement in low-performing schools, Fruchter writes, "because they have ignored the critical role of local school capacity."
A Growing Trend
Miami and New York are not the only cities that have paid attention to the critical role that the district plays in school improvement. Nor have they been the only places that saw an increase in student test scores after implementing a district intervention. In 2001, Carmen Russo, then superintendent of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS), placed the lowest-performing schools in a virtual district of her own.
Schools in Russo's CEO District had an extended day and year, and featured intensive professional development. Teachers received an 11 percent salary increase to compensate them for the added work.
The Baltimore Teacher's Union (BTU) negotiated the contract for the CEO's District with the school system. And the initiative significantly improved students' results: The CEO District schools increased their median percentile rankings on the TerraNova between 2000–2001 and 2002–2003; they moved from the 28th percentile to the 36th percentile in reading and from the 23rd percentile to the 38th percentile in math. The CEO District's gains outpaced those of other reconstituted schools in the school system, which dropped from the 39th percentile to the 37th percentile in reading and moved from the 31st percentile to the 36 percentile in math.
Unfortunately, when the district experienced a budget deficit of $54 million in 2003, the CEO District was one of the first things to go, according to Marietta English, president of BTU. "It was expensive. But it worked."
A virtual district also worked in Philadelphia. In 2002, in response to years of low student achievement and budget deficits in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), the state of Pennsylvania took control of the school system. The state ousted the local school board and replaced it with an appointed School Reform Commission (SRC), which hired a new CEO, Paul Vallas.
The SRC selected seven external providers (e.g., Edison Schools, Inc., Victory Schools, Inc., and Foundations, Inc.) to manage 45 low-achieving schools. The commission also created a virtual district when it restructured 21 schools that were not as low-performing, but still faced numerous challenges. A spokeswoman for SDP says those 21 schools benefited from a standardized curriculum, new textbooks and instructional materials, and benchmark assessments every six weeks to measure student progress. And according to a recent study, "State Takeover, School Restructuring, Private Management, and Student Achievement in Philadelphia," published by the RAND Corporation,** that supplemental support paid off. The 21 schools that the district restructured outpaced the rest of the district in math in all three years of the program's implementation and in reading in the first year. It further concluded that "despite additional per-pupil resources, privately operated schools did not produce average increases in student achievement that were any larger than those seen in the rest of the district."
Focus in Miami
Soon after Crew arrived in Miami, he knew he wanted to implement something similar to the Chancellor's District. These "schools are in need of focus and the institution, generally speaking, pays less and less attention to schools that are more and more in conflict," he says, seated in a district office conference room. "If I have to go to another school district, I'd do this all over again. I do think this is a requirement of urban schools."
Crew speaks confidently on the subject of how to boost student achievement. On a balmy January morning in Florida, it seems odd to hear his New York accent come through. Even in this heat, he dresses well, too. He wears a crisp white shirt, with his initials, RJC, monogrammed on the left pocket. A yellow tie hangs around his neck and two silver bracelets adorn his right wrist. Nothing is out of place. In his wardrobe as in his work, he likes to make order out of chaos.
This is exactly what he aims to do in the School Improvement Zone. The district needs "to know every nuance of what is happening in these schools," Crew says. To that end, he appointed a single administrator to oversee the Zone. That person doesn't "have to pay attention to anything else," he says. She just needs "to know what is happening instructionally in the schools."
That has been Geneva Woodard's sole responsibility since July 2006. As associate superintendent of the Zone, she visits at least five schools every week and constantly reviews school data.
Of the 39 schools in the Zone, 20 are elementary, 11 are middle, and eight are high schools. Nearly 50,000 students attend Zone schools. And they include the city's most disadvantaged populations: 78 percent of the students receive free and reduced-price lunch, 17 percent are English language learners, 16 percent are in special education, 66 percent are African American, and 30 percent are Hispanic.
Every Friday, Woodard and her staff review a database they keep on Zone school visits. In it, they log their observations about various schools and classes. Woodard says they look for red flags. For example, if students seemed disengaged, Woodard would arrange for assistance, such as from a curriculum specialist.
The visits are not punitive. According to Randy Biro, director of educational policy for the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), "In the vast majority of cases, it's handled in a way that is truly supportive. But there are times when we've had to intervene." In one Zone elementary school, reading teachers adamantly refused to allow a particular support specialist back into the school because her attitude was demeaning; that support specialist has since been reassigned and her attitude has improved.
Denise Stewart, who teaches fifth-grade reading and language arts, has had only positive experiences. For six years, she has taught at Little River Elementary School. District administrators have sat in on her classes and have taken notes.
Because West Little River is a Zone school, Stewart gives students assessments every other week. That may sound like a lot, but she doesn't believe the Zone tests too much. "We're doing assessments … so that we can see where students are," she says. The data make it possible to quickly identify anyone who is behind and figure out what is necessary for the child to advance. "I've started telling my kids, ‘Don't look at it as a test. You're trying to see exactly what you know.'"
Woodard is also trying to find out what students know. That's why she periodically meets with principals to review student data, which she did three times in the first half of this school year. She and the principals review student assessment results by subject area, teacher, and student. If she notices that a student is continually achieving only 20 percent out of a possible 100 percent on an assessment of say, reading mastery, Woodard will ask the student's principal what is happening with this student. "That alerts them there's a problem," explains Woodard. The principal would then find out from the teacher what's holding the student back and what could help. Again, the goal is to make sure teachers get the support they need.
At individual Zone schools, principals should be doing ongoing data checks with their teachers, and teachers should be doing such checks with their students, "so that everything is connected to data in order to improve instruction and learning," Woodard says.
Added time for both student and teacher learning is another key feature of Zone schools. Zone schools start two weeks earlier than the district's other schools. They also have an extended day four days a week that is an hour longer. The extended day consists of an "Academic Improvement Period," which is typically held the eighth and last period of the day. In it, teachers tutor small groups of students who are below grade level and who need extra help in reading or math. Such tutoring lasts as long as it takes to get students up to grade level. Students who don't need this remediation can participate in enrichment activities like internships at the local hospital and doctors' offices or other extracurricular activities, such as chess clubs or tutoring other students.
The district provides Zone schools with a uniform curriculum in literacy, writing, mathematics, and science for below-grade level students. The reading curriculum, for example, consists of Early Success in elementary school, Voyager Passport in middle school, and Read 180 in high school. These programs are research-based and geared toward helping students become proficient, grade-level readers.
Teachers in the Zone are paid 20 percent more than other teachers and participate in a minimum of 56 hours of professional development annually. To ensure that students receive consistent instruction, teachers in Zone schools must work in their school for a year before requesting a transfer.
Every Wednesday, students in Zone schools are released one hour early. According to the district's memorandum of understanding with the United Teachers of Dade, teachers use that time for collaborative planning.
Hiring also takes priority in Zone schools. Woodard says that the district's human resources office ensures that vacancies are filled in Zone schools first, before they're filled in other schools. The goal is to open Zone schools fully staffed by early August, the start of the academic year.
The Zone is a three-year initiative. And the district is only in its second year. However, the end of the Zone should not mean the end of the district's focus on these schools. Rather, the district must sustain its support so these schools can continue to improve. "The fallacy would be to say we're done," Crew contends. Now the school system must "never ever let a school backslide."
Contract Is Key
Making sure these schools continue to improve is a tall order. But union officials believe they have helped lay the foundation for the Zone's continued success. A key to the initiative was explicitly stated in the contract that the Zone would last for three years, says Karen Aronowitz, president of UTD. "We had a timeframe for this so that it wasn't going to go away." What happens with many teachers is that they just get so burned by new programs, she says. "People turn themselves into pretzels trying to comply." Then six months later, a year later, the money dries up and the program and the administrator that implemented it are gone. "After a while, teachers don't believe in new programs," Aronowitz says. "They find if they just wait long enough it'll go away." But with the Zone's three-year timeframe written into the contract, teachers knew that the effort they put into the Zone's reforms would be worthwhile.
Discussions between the union and the district began in November 2004. After Crew presented the idea to UTD officials, they embraced it. UTD's Randy Biro recalls that "we were very excited about an opportunity for schools that have historically received so little attention to be given the appropriate resources."
In negotiating with the district, the union pushed for the 20 percent salary increase for Zone teachers so they would be compensated for the extended day and year—and so it would be possible to attract teachers to the schools. "Our teachers are so poorly paid as it is … we couldn't settle for less than that," explains Biro.
While the union and the district mutually agreed on the extended time in Zone schools, the district wanted a greater number of hours of professional development (56 hours annually) for Zone teachers—more than the union would have liked, according to Biro. UTD wanted professional development more in the 42-hour range, she says, an amount that would have been less onerous. "Teachers are already extending their day," Biro says. In the final agreement, professional development is the full 56 hours. But the quality of the support, the time for teacher collaboration, and the additional pay all made the agreement an exciting one.
After all the give and take, UTD helped market the Zone to teachers. UTD ensured that all teachers had the opportunity to transfer out if they couldn't commit to the longer day and year. Only about five percent of the teachers chose to transfer before the Zone was implemented midyear in January 2005, Biro says. In addition, less than two percent were asked to transfer by their school administrations who felt it was in the school's best interest.
Biro, the union's point person for the Zone, meets with Woodard, the associate superintendent, regularly. Biro says they talk about concerns they may have about individual schools or teachers—and ways to help them. They also try to head off grievances, but that's not always possible. The union has filed a grievance against the district for involuntarily transferring a union building steward and is getting ready to file another one over a Zone school that is not implementing the Academic Improvement Period the way it was intended.
The Zone works because the partnership isn't just a slogan. Initially, Crew appointed Irving Hamer, a former Columbia University Teachers College professor, to the Zone's top spot. "Every Zone principals meeting, we were a part of," Biro explains. "Every union building steward meeting, the district representative was a part of." At these principals' meetings, which Biro or another UTD representative still attends, principals would share information, give updates, and review best practices. But then came difficulties. When Hamer left, his two successors, according to Biro, "resented the fact that we participated in principals meetings." They "weren't part of the initial conversation of the seriousness of this collaboration. They didn't clearly understand the intention."
One in particular, she says, wanted the Zone to function like other regions in the county. For example, he did not provide enough oversight to Zone schools. So some administrations ended up turning the extended time in Zone schools—the Academic Improvement Period—back into a traditional academic course which was not at all its original intent. Because the use of the Academic Improvement Period was in the contract, the district couldn't backslide.
Rudy Crew admits as much, saying that "their penchant for doing business as usual did not match the sense of urgency for these schools." It took a while to find someone like Woodard, a former Miami-Dade principal, who knew enough about the system to change it, he says.
Now with Woodard, Biro says, "the collaboration is back."
Both the district and the union have also agreed to bring intensive professional development to teachers in the Zone. For more than 20 years, the American Federation of Teachers has offered Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) courses, high-quality professional development, to teachers across the country. This past summer, UTD sent 23 union members to ER&D training so that they could then teach ER&D courses.
Norland Senior High School, in the School Improvement Zone, was chosen as the ER&D model site for this semester since a number of Norland's teachers were interested in having the courses there. (Courses were also offered in the district last semester.) So every Wednesday evening for about three hours, from February through April, Foundations of Effective Teaching 1; Managing Anti-Social Behavior; Instructional Strategies That Work; and School-Home Connection are taught there. Each course is worth 45 hours of credit, which goes a long way toward helping Zone teachers fulfill their 56 hours of annual professional development. Teachers at Norland have first crack at signing up for the ER&D courses, usually capped at no more than 25 participants.
This is the first year that the district and the union have jointly funded the courses. The district gave the union $50,000 to pay for the materials and trainers' salaries, according to Tom Gammon, UTD's teacher coordinator. The union takes care of the rest.
Gammon emphasizes that the 10 consecutive sessions are grounded in research that teachers can apply to their own classroom. In one case, ER&D-trained teachers responded to a principal's excessive loudspeaker announcements with research that showed how such announcements interrupt the flow of instructional practice and set students back academically. And, as a result, the principal reduced such interruptions.
Alex Heras credits the ER&D courses with helping him become a more effective teacher. Last fall, the social studies teacher at Norland Middle School took Foundations of Effective Teaching 1, and he's now enrolled in Managing Anti-Social Behavior. The courses have improved his teaching delivery, he says. For instance, when students interrupt his lessons with questions about whether they can be excused to go to the restroom or other distractions, Heras would often find himself skipping over parts of the lesson. Students would then yell out that he skipped something. "That's called dangling," says Hera. He explains: It's when you don't provide clear enough road signs in your instruction. The courses have made him more aware of "little faux pas" that all teachers make. "If we provide a better lesson, the kids will always get more out of it."
A teacher for 15 years, Heras has been at Norland Middle School for nine years. When the school became part of the Zone, he stayed. "I was close to some of the folks," he says. "I didn't feel comfortable leaving. I knew it was a good school." And most importantly, he says he was up for the challenge.
Heras says the union and the district have provided the support he needs. Although Woodard, herself, has not visited his classroom, a Zone official from the district did sit in on his class last year. Heras recalls the administrator telling him, "I like what you're doing. What do you need?"
Heras told him that he needed extra workbooks and materials, "stuff we don't normally get." Since the Zone, Heras says his school has received these supplies. He's also seen more district officials and more staff both visit and work at the school, which primarily serves lower-middle-class, African-American students. "There are a lot of obstacles for them," Heras explains. Many come from single parent homes and receive free and reduced-price meals at school.
The increased attention and resources have paid off. Under the state's accountability system, schools are assigned letter grades based primarily on student achievement data from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Last year, Norland Middle School improved its letter grade from a C to a B. (To learn more about the grading system and find out how the Zone as a whole is doing, see the sidebar "Zone Schools Are Off to a Strong Start.")
With the extended day and year, "I know the kids get tired," Heras says. "We get tired." But "if I keep seeing results like this, the sacrifice will be worth it."
A Matter of Time
Despite all the support it provides, the Zone is no silver bullet. District and union officials do not believe the initiative will solve all the schools' problems overnight. Especially in the high schools, it will take time. Older students have not come through the Zone, UTD President Aronowitz says. So high school is "the last place you're going to see success."
On the school grounds at Miami Edison Senior High, success appears to be in short supply. The red and gray box of a building is located right off I-95. Two tall, chain link fences surround the school. A security guard must unlock them for visitors who wish to park in the lot.
Inside, another security guard sits at a small desk and asks visitors to sign in. A few feet away in the main office, a map of the world hangs on one wall, celebrating the school's enormous diversity. "Countries of Birth of Edison
Students," is the name of the display. Alongside the map is a list of nations: France, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, India, Belize, Brazil.
Edison is one of three Zone high schools that the state has placed under corrective action. This means that under the state's scoring system, the schools earned Fs two years in a row. Because of their low-performance, Crew redesigned the leadership structure in each of these schools. Instead of one principal, all three schools now have two.
Jean Teal and David Moore have been the co-principals at Edison since July 2005. He deals with discipline and operations, while she focuses on curriculum and instruction. According to Moore, Crew appointed co-principals in these schools "to ensure that everyone's appropriately focusing on teaching and learning."
Both Moore and Teal say the school has benefited from the district's ongoing support. A science education
specialist, a professional development specialist, and an ESOL specialist are each assigned to the school. Last year only one reading coach and one math coach served all grades. But this year, after test scores showed that students still needed to improve in those areas, the school has a reading coach and a math coach for each grade, nine through 12. "Where there's a need, the district is right there," Teal says.
The increased attention has improved student performance. Last year, Edison registered a 20-point increase in the state's scoring system. But it fell short of the cut off score for a D by four points.
"We were disappointed," Teal says. Although school officials wanted the letter grade to change, they were proud of the improvement students had made. "We were only here eight months," she says. "We were trying to change what had been done over years."
A Passion for Teaching
Atunya Walker welcomed the challenge. That's why the 14-year veteran teacher moved to Edison in the summer of 2005. "I relish the opportunity to offer my expertise to students who are struggling," says the teacher in Edison's Academy of Law Studies and Public Service, a small learning community within the school. She also enjoys "working with students previously overlooked."
Walker says the longer day and year are not difficult for her and that while money is a big incentive, a passion for teaching—and not a bigger paycheck—keeps her in the job.
The Zone works, so "kudos to Dr. Crew," she says. "He came in and saw a need." Walker applauds the superintendent for making it mandatory for schools like Edison to provide students more time on task. The school's increase in test scores, she believes, proves one of Crew's points: Give the students support and they will achieve.
Judy Brown also felt the Zone concept would work. A teacher for 34 years, Brown says "the children need more time." And she's happy to give it to them. "My philosophy is I will bring you where I want you to be. I don't whine about where you are."
Brown knows exactly where her students are academically. In her classes—90-minute literacy blocks—they keep a daily reading log, in which they write summaries of what they have read. "That makes them accountable for what they do here," she says.
Every week, Brown reviews student data. Everything in her class is tracked because these students are below-grade level and need to be brought up to speed. One look at the back wall of her room, labeled the "Student Data Wall," reveals this. Printouts of her 10th-graders' mastery of reading on benchmark assessments are posted on a bulletin board there. The printouts allow Brown and her students to see where they need to improve.
The first sheet, dated September 5, 2006, shows that, according to bar graphs next to students' names, only seven percent achieved mastery on that particular test. On the sheet Brown has written, "We must talk. Too low!"
The next printouts, from September, October, and November, show steady improvement to 12, 27, and 49 percent. "We are getting there step-by-step," Brown has scrawled on one of them.
By December, 61 percent of the class achieved mastery. "Wow!" Brown has written on that sheet. She also has posted a sticker that reads "Nice Work."
Brown came to Edison in 1991. She stays because, as she puts it: "I feel I'm needed here more than somewhere else."
Jennifer Jacobson is the assistant editor of American Educator. Previously, she was a journalist with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
†Vitual District, Real Improvement: A Retrospective Evaluation of the Chancellor's District, 1996–2003. New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy, June 2004, 9. (back to article)
§Urban Schools, Public Will: Making Education Work For All Our Children, Teachers College Press, 2007, 56–57. (back to article)
**"State Takeover, School Restructuring, Private Management, and Student Achievement in Philadelphia." RAND Corporation, February 2007, Research Brief, 3. (back to article)
Here's the Boost That Poor Children, Their Teachers, and Their Schools Really Need
By Antonia Cortese
In the Zone
How a Virtual District Provides Real Help for Really Struggling Schools
By Jennifer Jacobson