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H.O. Wheeler enters second year as a magnet school with interim principal

Michael Winerip covered this story in The New York Times. At last, a Vermont paper notices. Like other papers across the country, Vermont papers seldom cover education.

by Molly Walsh

Joyce Irvine wept when she found out she was being pushed out of her job as principal of Burlington's Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler. But the toughest part was telling her mother.

Irvine's mother, a high-school dropout, grew up in Burlington's high-poverty Old North End in a family of 14 children and attended Wheeler. To see her daughter complete college, earn a master's degree and eventually become principal of her old school was a source of great pride. Irvine hated to put an unhappy spin on the story.

"That was the hardest part of losing my job," Irvine said. "Leaving those kids broke my heart, but telling my mom was the hardest part."

Irvine was removed as principal June 30 after Wheeler was identified as one of Vermont's 10 lowest-performing schools under a federal education reform championed by President Obama and his U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan. The program dangled millions of dollars in aid at identified schools willing to make significant changes, ranging from replacing teachers to removing principals.

Burlington school officials chose to apply for the grant and fire Irvine, one of the least-disruptive routes under the grant’s "transformation" option. Last week Burlington's grant application was accepted by the Vermont Education Department, which will dole out more than $8 million across the state under the federal program. Wheeler will receive $783,000, and the Burlington school district will take in a total of about $1.2 million.

The district could not afford to forgo the grant money, said Burlington schools superintendent Jeanne Collins. Nor could Wheeler -- a school with many recently arrived refugees from Africa and other parts of the world, many students from deep poverty, and notably low test scores. One of the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act and its successor initiatives is to close the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students.

The emphasis on accountability is a good thing, but the federal reforms are flawed, Collins said. "This punitive aspect is going to scare away people from wanting to work in high-poverty schools because of the unrealistic targets that are set," she said.

Irvine remains employed in the city school district as a school improvement coordinator. She says she earns $93,000 annually; Burlington's city report says she was paid about $103,000 during the 2009-10 academic year as principal at Wheeler. After her one-year contract ends, there's no guarantee of a job.

When news of her ouster became public in the spring, many parents rallied in support. "I was just incredulous that they would lose someone who I thought did just a phenomenal job, who had so much enthusiasm. She knew every kid in the school," said Patrick Henry, a data analyst and father of two children at Wheeler.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined Irvine's supporters and led the call for reforms of the reforms. A July 18 article in The New York Times about Irvine’s situation prompted national discussion. Her name has even reached the White House, via Vermont's congressional delegation, sources say.

Meanwhile the Burlington School Board appointed Brian Williams, an assistant principal at Burlington High School, to be Wheeler's interim principal. He comes to the job as the school enters its second year as a magnet school open to students from the entire city. About 50 percent of incoming kindergartens are from middle- or upper-income families, a significant departure for a school where historically more than 90 percent of children met the income threshold for free and reduced lunch.

The grant will not result in major programmatic changes, school officials say, because those already were under way with rebirth of Wheeler as a magnet school. "Again, we're not starting over," Collins said. "We feel as though we are already a year into this transformation."

Williams is unsure about applying for the permanent job as principal. "Who wants to be the captain of the Titanic?" he asked. "I need to have some job security. Although I love working here, I would kind of need to make sure that the work that we're doing is going to lead to the school getting off that list.”"

Under Irvine's leadership, suspensions at Wheeler dropped from more than 200 to less than 20, and behavior incidents fell from about 2,000 a year to 117. She fostered a sense of taking care of the whole child -- whether that meant finding winter coats and boots, helping children obtain glasses or assisting the school’s many African refugee students learn the ins and outs of the school.

Her own life experience -- as a professional whose parents did not graduate high school -- helped drive her effort to make the education a good one for Wheeler’s 220 students.

"Education is the way out," Irvine said. "One of the reasons I loved working at Wheeler is because I understand poverty, and I understand that you just have to have that one person who’s going to go to bat for you and get you out of there."

Many of Irvine's supporters point to the absurdity of federal reforms that expect recently arrived refugees with no English background to score at grade level on standardized tests.

However, Wheeler's performance problems go beyond test scores among English language learners (ELL). And for all the praise Irvine receives, the numbers present a sobering picture.

Scores for children who are not ELL students went from bad to worse during Irvine's tenure. Between 2005 and 2009, the percentage of students in this group who scored at or above proficient on the New England Common Assessment Program reading test fell from 41 percent to 24 percent. Math NECAP proficiency dropped from 31 to 21 percent. A substantial portion of non-ELL students was not only below standard but "substantially below."

Low-income students at other schools in Burlington often perform better than those at Wheeler. At J.J. Flynn School, about 40 percent of low-income students were at proficiency on the NECAP reading test in 2009, and about 34 percent were at proficiency in 2008. At Edmunds Elementary, the corresponding figures are 44 and 43 percent. At Wheeler, 19 percent of low-income students were at or above reading proficiency in 2008.

Wheeler's scores suggest that at the very least some students are graduating to middle school without adequate preparation.

"With test scores like that, that shows that the kids are missing the foundation, the foundational knowledge that they need to build on to go through middle and high school," said Rae Ann Knopf, Vermont's deputy education commissioner.

It is possible to close the achievement gap, Knopf emphasized. "I don't think that we can just accept that kids who are economically disadvantaged don't have a chance," Knopf said. "They call that the caste system."

Irvine acknowledges that scores flatlined during her years at Wheeler. Individually, many children made impressive progress, but it didn't show up on test scores because the students started out well below grade level, she said. Further, Wheeler had a particularly needy subset of children moving up the grades during the past five years, Irvine said: "It had a substantial impact on the school."

A high proportion of the recently graduated fifth-grade class had special-education needs, Irvine said. Many had "very, very low IQs," she said, and some "really struggled to learn how to count to 100."

The school's high poverty rate affects learning in many ways, she said, but it never affected her standards. "You can have the same expectations, but it might take us a little bit longer to get there," Irvine said.

Wheeler became a magnet school partly due to concern that outcomes for students weren’t good enough, even with a low student-teacher ratio and many support services. Few Wheeler alumni are enrolled in Burlington High School's honors classes, Williams said.

A district study published a few years ago concluded students from Wheeler and neighboring Lawrence Barnes, now the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes, were less likely to complete algebra II in high school or participate in extra curricular activities. Truancy rates were higher.

Hoping to change these outcomes, district officials considered mandatory redistricting of city elementary schools along socio-economic lines. School officials backed off after some parents opposed the plan. Instead they went with a magnet approach to help promote voluntary socio-economic integration.

Irvine has overseen this transition and helped to recruit many middle class families. Henry, a resident of the New North End, is among them. His children were districted to C.P. Smith School, but he and his wife decided to enroll them at Wheeler last year after meeting with Irvine. Her enthusiasm was impressive, and so was the open, creative atmosphere at the school, Henry said.

He's pleased with the progress his children are making and unconcerned about the school's test scores. He said landing Williams, an administrator known for his high energy level and strong people skills, takes some of the sting out of losing Irvine. The designation of Wheeler as a low performer does not shake his confidence in the school.

"I'm very optimistic about the school," Henry said. "The teachers there are phenomenal."

— Molly Walsh
Burlington Free Press





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