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Wrong Solution for Struggling High School

Publication Date: 2012-04-06

My comment is on a New York Times article School District Lives On, but So Do Its Struggles by Morgan Smith, April 6, 2012. The article is included below.

The question is what does "doing something visionary" mean in a school with 100% "economically disadvantaged," (GreatSchools.com terminology for poverty)? It seems more than significant that the New York Times account fails to mention this figure. It mentions the purchase of a 114-gallon aquarium but not the astronomical poverty rate.

Maybe a 114-gallon aquarium doesn't quite cut the mustard for school improvement but I wouldn't sneer at its purchase. I'd rate the soothing effect of that aquarium to be far more beneficial to students than professional development Power Points that urge teachers to crunch data and teach from that data.

Information for those who think schools should follow a medical model: My primary care physician has a large aquarium in the waiting room of her office.

Question: Why is it that suburban kids may wear whatever they like but poor kids must adhere to a strict dress code? Here's the North Forest requirement for "tops": All students must wear white, black, or gold polo-style shirts. The shirt must be a three or four button pique-knit with short or long sleeves.

I don't know about the other colors, but the gold ones have to be the ugliest shirts I've ever seen, including the garb brought back by tourists to Hawaii. I'm sitting here thinking about how I'd feel if I had to start every day donning this goofy-looking shirt.

Proposal: "Doing something visionary" should start with making sure residents in the North Forest Independent School District have living wage jobs. According to Wikipedia, "of the school districts in urban areas in Texas, NFISD had the highest concentration of ex-prison inmates." Consider how difficult it is for these people to get living wage jobs.

Put the Needs of Students First:

  • Feed them. (and I'm not talking pink slime here. Hire Moms/Aunts/Grandmothers/Cousins to cook real food in the cafeteria.

  • Fix their teeth.

  • Guarantee their housing.

  • Give them a lot of books. . . books they choose. . . books that come without interrogation.

  • Read stories aloud to them. Wouldn't it be great if every teacher read aloud something (s)he found interesting/suspenseful/amusing/outrageous/inspiring? At least once a week.

  • Give a Happiness Index in the school top priority. The aquarium is a start. Next could be the musical staircase. It doesn't have to be a staircase; it could be a hallway. Schools need a bit of fun. So do faculty. . . and all those police officers employed by the school district. I am serious: Besides giving students and their teachers something to play with, it gives them something to think about. Everybody could learn a lot by watching how people of all ages use such stairs.

    Then start examining what makes people feel satisfied. Listen to what students and teachers say.

    Instead, the North Forest I.S.D. turnaround plan includes:
  • reform instruction through a variety of means, including leadership, alignment of instruction with standards and benchmarks, curriculum adjustments as required after monitoring and assessment, provide different teaching modes, emphasize homework and parent involvement, and finally employ effective classroom management

  • lead change with communication, acting on collected data, optimizing educational conditions, and be willing to discontinue failing strategies.

  • The board voted to hire an education consultant familiar with this type of demographic, LEAD4Ward to aid in implementing and assessing the new Texas STAAR tests. Dr. Noguera is co-author of a book, Unfinished Business about education in an urban minority district in New Jersey, and the ability to reform it.
  • Subtext: I'm very bothered by the term "this demographic," which is clearly a code phrase for "those" black [and Latino] kids. Although I recognize the need for people with core community values to be working in these schools, I also worry about a sort of self-stereotyping, overlooking some basic needs like fancy aquariums and musical staircases in the name of pushing test scores.

    I wonder if "this demographic" is why the school list of Departments includes ROTC but not Art or Music. As it happens, the school marching band has a Facebook page and apparently they are very active. Why they don't rate space on the school site, I don't know.

    The North Forest I. S. D. Police Department employs 22 sworn officers "dedicated to providing a safe, secure, and tranquil working and educational environment to the approximately 8000 students and staff of the North Forest Independent School District."

    The town of Shelburne, VT, population 7,144, employs 8 full-time officers and six parttime, plus a chief, an animal control officer, and two crossing guards. Five miles away, my village of Charlotte, VT, has 3,569 people living in an area of 41.5 square miles.[North Forest ISD covers about 33 square miles.] We employ no police but hire a Shelburne officer to patrol our roadways 12 hours a week to reduce speeding.

    I am not trying to make comparisons--except at a deep psychological level. I'm trying to say that it is very very rare for me to set eyes on a cop when I go about my daily life, and I'm sure the sight of 22 cops patrolling a school district, not to mention a metal detector in the school, creates an atmosphere with heavy effect on school climate.

    And doesn't prevent crime: Note the shooting at North Forest High School in January.

    But the curriculum solution is far worse than the presence of so many police. The curriculum solution of alignment of instruction with standards and benchmarks, curriculum adjustments as required after monitoring and assessment, not to mention emphasizing homework, is worse than merely realigning the deckchairs on the Titanic.

    Guaranteed failure.

    Yes, I have a better plan.

    First Step: Implement the Put the Needs of Students First suggestions listed above. At the same time, Make any curriculum in the school justify itself in terms of the real needs and interests and welfare of the students, not the pronouncements of the Common Core State [sic]Standards or any other committee pronouncements. Although I know it's easier to move a graveyard than to change a curriculum, I say let the curriculum be a flexible, pliant, moveable force. No, force the curriculum to be a flexible, pliant, moveable force.

    Require every staff member, including members of the police force, to read David Hawkins' "Bird in the Window", a 22-page essay that can be found in The Informed Vision. Here is one practical application of Hawkins' vision applied in one rough-neck classroom.

    I can guarantee that changing the curriculum--moving it far away from test prep and "the standards" into which teachers are supposed to cram every student--would reduce discipline problems dramatically.


    Expecting students to remain quiet, passive, and obedient for six hours in an boring, irrelevant, stultifying environment is not reasonable. Rebelling against such oppression is actually a sign of health.

    Here is an item from the North Forest High School Bulletin. A subhead banner declares: News you can use for a successful week, April 2, 2012, and here's the first item:
    Faculty Meeting 4-4-12
    Crisis Management
    North Forest High School will have a faculty meeting on Wednesday, April 4, 2012, 3:15 p.m. We will be hosting a Crisis Management Training and follow-up campus plans. Everyone needs to be trained.
    I'm a hard-nosed realist but I have to ask: What if you called a faculty meeting on Happiness Creation Training--with follow-up campus plans?

    Meanwhile, here's item #2 from The North Forest High School Bulletin:
    Teaching and Learning -----This is the official countdown to TAKS. We are in the fourth quarter. We are down by a few runs based upon our data reports. This is prime time. We must ensure that our students are highly focused, motivated, and constantly engaged in instruction at every conceivable moment. In addition to this, we must ensure that our lessons are well planned and laser focused. Our academic performance depends on how we respond to the challenge in the coming days. Let̢۪s focus on obtaining optimal results. I anticipate that Team North Forest will shine because we are the best. Let̢۪s make it happen!!!
    Item #3
    Discipline 101 As we move closer to the end of the school year, we all must tighten up on our discipline. The following is expected.

    1. Expect your students to arrive to class on time. Close your door at the tardy bell. Warm-up needs to begin immediately. Late arrivers are to report to Room 2066 upon hearing the tardy bell.

    2. Discipline Issues in Class â€" Contact parents, change student’s desk, use a discipline contract, etc. (Do not place students in the hall.)

    Prepare powerful lessons that will engage your students throughout instruction.

    Dead time cannot exist. SUCCESS IS THE ONLY OPTION!!!
    I respectfully submit that all those lessons "laser focused" to the TAKS is not only "dead time," it is deadly. . . and guaranteed to provoke discipline problems.

    Ironically, the Bulletin closes with this inspirational homily: Educational Quote: You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.--Clay P. Bedford

    School administrators can buy books of these quotes but actions speak louder than homilies.

    Stop doing test prep.

    Go out and spend 15 minutes with the aquarium.

    Create a Happiness Index.

    By Morgan Smith

    HOUSTON --In the eight years that Vivek Agarwal has taught science at North Forest Independent School District's lone high school, he has watched six principals and four superintendents come and go.

    "By the time they learn the system, they are gone," he said. "There are too many changes."

    The turbulence is familiar to the northeast Houston district, which for almost three decades has wrestled with poor academic performance and financial mismanagement. Between 2008 and 2010, the Texas Education Agency took over the struggling district in an attempt to turn it around. In 2010, only 48 percent of the students at North Forest graduated within four years, and just 27 percent of ninth-graders passed state math exams. Then in July, the district was told it would be closed by the state and annexed into the neighboring Houston Independent School District.

    North Forest I.S.D. has now gotten what amounts to a stay of execution. The Texas Education Agency announced a week ago that the district would get another year to make financial and academic improvements. But the question of whether students would be better off attending different schools still lingers. Though staying in underperforming districts holds clear risks, some education advocates say there is little research that indicates closing districts improves outcomes for students. <

    When the education agency announced the forced closing of North Forest I.S.D. last summer, reaction from the community was immediate. United States Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Houston, called the decision to close the predominantly black school district "the highest level of hypocrisy and racism." Carol Mims Galloway, then a member of the Houston I.S.D. school board, questioned whether her district could adequately serve the 6,400 new students who would probably attend some of its lowest-performing schools.

    "We would love to see T.E.A. do something visionary, do something with effort and some future in it to help North Forest," said Ivory Mayhorn, a community activist. "But to just close it and find an easy way out, no, that's not going to happen without some serious response from the community."

    North Forest I.S.D. officials said the education agency was punishing the district for mistakes that happened while it was under the agency's control. "It almost seemed like a move of opportunity, truthfully," Superintendent Edna Forte said.

    Now, with the news of the extension -- which by early February, the district had spent about $200,000 in legal costs to obtain, according an open record request -- supporters have reason for encouragement. But the battle for its future is far from over.

    One day in February before the district learned of its reprieve, fliers for college financial aid workshops and motivational speakers -- new offerings this year -- hung in the high school's worn corridors. Laporsha Ford, a junior, said she had noticed a difference at the high school this year. School leaders are "more organized," she said, and the whole place has "a brighter edge to it."

    "It's not as depressing as it once was," she said.

    But signs of the district's struggles remained. In an unexpectedly full math class, six students stood without chairs. Students shouldered see-through backpacks, which they have been required to carry since January, when one student shot and injured another on campus.

    Debbie Ratcliffe, a T.E.A. spokeswoman, said North Forest had made progress on all fronts. But she also said the decision to give the district more time was based on the agency's own failure to fulfill a provision requiring a review of how absorbing North Forest I.S.D. students would affect the Houston district -- and a concern that the state was running out of time to clear the annexation with the United States Department of Justice.
    >br> When the education agency took over North Forest I.S.D. in 2008, the district was nearing bankruptcy. The Houston Chronicle had recently uncovered that North Forest had used $6 million in construction bond money -- a number that would grow to $13.3 million -- for other expenses. But embarrassing details about the district's finances continued to emerge while it was under the T.E.A.'s control, like the $18,000 spent on renovations to the foyer in the district central office, including a 114-gallon aquarium.

    A few months after the state's two-year takeover ended, the board voted to oust the agency-appointed superintendent and chose Ms. Forte to take his place in March 2011. Since then, she has trimmed more than $4 million from the budget and cut staff. She also contracted with Pedro Noguera of New York University, an education researcher who specializes in reforming struggling urban districts.

    Within the next year, North Forest must meet requirements set by the T.E.A., which include beginning a five-year repayment of the remaining $8 million the board borrowed from the construction bond fund, developing a dropout prevention plan and improving standardized test scores.

    The district plans to sell surplus property to raise extra money. But there is a possible flaw in that plan: Area real estate values have dropped 5 percent in the past year and a half. The district may also continue to lose money from the state if families keep moving out of the neighborhood. Student enrollment has dropped almost 30 percent in the past five years.

    Achieving the academic goals hinges on changing the culture at the district, which has suffered with the constantly shifting leadership, Mr. Noguera said.

    "Kids were getting good grades and failing the state exams," he said. "Teachers were sending the wrong message to kids about what the expectations are."
    ,br>Mr. Noguera said he has been working to "recalibrate everything" with professional development sessions with the staff. He was also critical of the state's role in supporting the district.

    "What has the state done to help this district? It has sent in advisers that have not been there to help them," he said. "We are the first group that has come in and provided that kind of support."

    "Compounding the challenges in the district, said Mr. Agarwal, the science teacher, is the lack of support for students outside the classroom. Many of his students are from low-income families, and they must work after school to help support their families. Others are grappling with dire circumstances. Mr. Agarwal said that when he asked about a formerly cheerful model student who had grown listless in his class, the school nurse informed him that the student had recently been raped.

    "The kids are in adult situations," he said.

    If Houston I.S.D. is eventually required to take on North Forest's students, the high schoolers would most likely be split among three neighboring high schools: Kashmere, Wheatley and Booker T. Washington. Each of those schools was rated academically unacceptable in 2011. But because they are part of a larger district, with other schools that are not as low performing, Ms. Forte said, their students' poor performance is disguised.

    For parents in the small North Forest district, she said, moving to a slightly higher rated district is not worth giving up local control. She said her district is able to provide services tailored to its student population, like Saturday tutoring sessions where free breakfast and lunch are served.

    "One thing is not changing, and that is the kids," Mr. Agarwal said. "If this group disperses in different schools, it is going to taint everywhere, and they are going to have to deal with the conflicts because they won't be able to perform as well as everybody else."


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