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A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government’s Good Intentions

At last we have some reporting that isn't a megaphone for power. Go to the url below and read the comments readers made at The New York Times. It is good to see people so righteously outraged. The New York Times shut off comments at 292. Novelist Jane Smiley was the third person to offer outrage.

As always, Winerip is a master at seeing that telling anecdote that will convey the deep moral of the story.

Beside the travesty of the school itself, there's outrage in the fact that this story is so unreported--in Vermont and in the rest of the country. After all, communities across the country are suffering under the weight of the "5% worst" rule imposed by Duncan.

But I'm glad Winerip revealed local complicity. Burlington sold out for the money.

by Michael Winerip

A Popular Principal, Wounded by Governmentâs Good Intentions

BURLINGTON, Vt. â Itâs hard to find anyone here who believes that Joyce Irvine should have been removed as principal of Wheeler Elementary School.

John Mudasigana, one of many recent African refugees whose children attend the high-poverty school, says he is grateful for how Ms. Irvine and her teachers have helped his five children. âEverything is so good about the school,â he said, before taking his daughter Evangeline, 11, into the schoolâs dental clinic.

Ms. Irvineâs most recent job evaluation began, âJoyce has successfully completed a phenomenal year.â Jeanne Collins, Burlingtonâs school superintendent, calls Ms. Irvine âa leader among her colleaguesâ and âa very good principal.â

Beth Evans, a Wheeler teacher, said, âJoyce has done a great job,â and United States Senator Bernie Sanders noted all the enrichment programs, including summer school, that Ms. Irvine had added since becoming principal six years ago.

âShe should not have been removed,â Mr. Sanders said in an interview. âIâve walked that school with her â she seemed to know the name and life history of every child.â

Ms. Irvine wasnât removed by anyone who had seen her work (often 80-hour weeks) at a school where 37 of 39 fifth graders were either refugees or special-ed children and where, much to Mr. Mudasiganaâs delight, his daughter Evangeline learned to play the violin.

Ms. Irvine was removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.

And under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.

And since Ms. Irvine had already âworked tirelessly,â as her evaluation said, to âsuccessfullyâ transform the school last fall to an arts magnet, even she understood her removal was the least disruptive option.

âJoyce Irvine versus millions,â Ms. Irvine said. âYou can buy a lot of help for children with that money.â

Burlington faced the difficult choice because performance evaluations for teachers and principals based on test results, as much as on local officialsâ judgment, are a hallmark of the two main competitive grant programs the Obama administration developed to spur its initiatives: the stimulus and Race to the Top.

âI was distraught,â said Ms. Irvine, 57, who was removed July 1. âI loved being principal â I put my heart and soul into that school for six years.â Still, she counts herself lucky that the superintendent moved her to an administrative job â even if it will pay considerably less.

âI didnât want to lose her, sheâs too good,â Ms. Collins said, adding that the schoolâs low scores were the result of a testing system thatâs âtotally inappropriateâ for Wheelerâs children.

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the United States Department of Education, noted that districts donât have to apply for the grants, that the rules are clear and that federal officials do not remove principals. But Burlington officials say that not applying in such hard times would have shortchanged students.

At the heart of things is whether the testing system under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 can fairly assess schools full of middle-class children, as well as a school like Wheeler, with a 97 percent poverty rate and large numbers of refugees, many with little previous education.

President Obamaâs Blueprint for Reform says that âinstead of a single snapshot, we will recognize progress and growth.â Ms. Collins says if a yearâs progress for each student were the standard, Wheeler would score well. However, the reality is that measuring every studentâs yearly growth statewide is complex, and virtually all states, including Vermont, rely on a schoolâs annual test scores.

Under No Child rules, a student arriving one day before the state math test must take it. Burlington is a major resettlement area, and one recent September, 28 new students â from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan â arrived at Wheeler and took the math test in October.

Ms. Irvine said that in a room she monitored, 15 of 18 randomly filled in test bubbles. The math tests are word problems. A sample fourth-grade question: âUse Xs to draw an array for the sum of 4+4+4.â Five percent of Wheelerâs refugee students scored proficient in math.

About half the 230 students are foreign-born, collectively speaking 30 languages. Many have been traumatized; a third see one of the schoolâs three caseworkers. During Ms. Irvineâs tenure, suspensions were reduced to 7 last year, from 100.

Students take the reading test after one year in the country. Ms. Irvine tells a story about Mr. Mudasiganaâs son Oscar and the fifth-grade test.

Oscar needed 20 minutes to read a passage on Neil Armstrong landing his Eagle spacecraft on the moon; it should have taken 5 minutes, she said, but Oscar was determined, reading out loud to himself.

The first question asked whether the passage was fact or fiction. âHe said, âOh, Mrs. Irvine, man donât go on the moon, man donât go on the back of eagles, this is not true,â â she recalled. âSo he got the five follow-up questions wrong â penalized for a lack of experience.â

Thirteen percent of foreign-born students, 4 percent of special-ed students and 23 percent of the entire school scored proficient in reading.

Before Mr. Obama became president, Burlington officials began working to transform Wheeler to an arts magnet, in hopes of improving socioeconomic integration.

While doing her regular job, Ms. Irvine also developed a new arts curriculum. She got a grant for a staff trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington for arts training. She rented vans so teachers could visit arts magnets in nearby states. She created partnerships with local theater groups and artists. In English class, to learn characterization, children now write a one-person play and perform it at Burlingtonâs Very Merry Theater.

A sign of her effectiveness: an influx of new students, so that half the early grades will consist of middle-class pupils this fall.

Ms. Irvine predicts that in two years, when these new âmagnetâ students are old enough to take the state tests, scores will jump, not because the school is necessarily better, but because the tests are geared to the middle class.

Senator Sanders said that while the staff should be lauded for working at one of Vermontâs most challenging schools, it has been stigmatized.

âI applaud the Obama people for paying attention to low-income kids and caring,â said Mr. Sanders, a leftist independent. âBut to label the school as failing and humiliate the principal and teachers is grossly unfair.â

The district has replaced Ms. Irvine with an interim principal and will conduct a search for a replacement.

And Ms. Irvine, who hoped to finish her career on the front lines, working with children, will be Burlingtonâs new school improvement administrator.

âHer students made so much progress,â Ms. Collins said. âWhatâs happened to her is not at all connected to reality.â

E-mail: oneducation@nytimes.com.

— Michael Winerip
New York Times





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