Sequoyah rises from 'No Child Left Behind' burden
Here's what NCLB does to teachers. And note: people with vested interest in supporting NCLB don't see a problem.
By Kristina Torres
Teachers last May walked into a 7:30 a.m. before-class meeting with DeKalb County officials knowing Sequoyah Middle School had failed to meet its academic goals the past seven years.
An hour later, they walked out unsure if they still had jobs at the school.
Sequoyah was one of two DeKalb schools the other was McNair Middle doing so poorly that system officials told staff to reapply for their jobs before classes broke for summer.
The system's decisive action still stirs resentment among teachers who felt they were taking the fall for issues tripping up schools nationwide. It also illustrates how systems have struggled under the harshest penalties of groundbreaking education reforms forcing schools for the first time to measure up or change.
Enacted by Congress in 2001, the reform-minded federal No Child Left Behind Act offers no blueprint to systems in how to deal with the consequences it imposes.
Restructuring, among the worst of the sanctions schools are subject to, is a major disruption that some experts say is not yet proven to work as a one-size-fits-all solution. Yet, DeKalb officials said it is a way to be sure Sequoyah had a highly qualified staff.
"You left the meeting feeling you were just garbage," said Carolyn Dowie, one of nearly two-thirds of Sequoyah's teachers who walked away or weren't invited back to the campus this school year.
With high poverty rates and a student body about 80 percent Spanish-speaking, Sequoyah last year was on its third principal in four years. Teachers also had to get up to speed on a new curriculum introduced in fall of 2005.
Despite those challenges, federal law required drastic change in response to the school's continued failure as measured mostly by standardized tests.
In Sequoyah's case, some teachers wonder if DeKalb officials acted too quickly. Two months after that May meeting, the state announced that Sequoyah students had met their academic goals and made what the government considers Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.
"We were doing our job," said math teacher Dayna Craig, who spent five years at Sequoyah but has now left the system. On pregnancy leave, Craig said she has soured on teaching again in DeKalb.
Sequoyah is off a frontage road near I-85 in Doraville. Teachers at the school talk of challenges in engaging students who are new to America. In some cases, students' parents speak little or no English. Sometimes, there's no home telephone to call or even a permanent address.
Teachers also talk of children eager to learn, who are smart in their own way and deserving of extra effort. The teachers say they use differences in culture and language as a tool to improve lessons.
Principal Trenton Arnold, himself a graduate of DeKalb County schools, is now in his second year at the 773-student school. Among a staff this year of about 80 certified employees mostly teachers but including counselors and others he estimates about a third returned from last year, a third came from other schools in DeKalb and the rest are new to teaching or from out-of-district.
All had to give a 20-minute demonstration of their ability in the classroom as well as write an essay about their approach to education. In turn, DeKalb for the first time is offering bonus pay of as much as $13,000 each after three years if improvement goals are met.
"I understand the county's position was they were doing what was best for students," Arnold said. "That's the sacrifice you have to make. I was looking for teachers who realize dedication to students, dedication to the success of the school, [and who] were driven by data [and] understood the No Child Left Behind law and what expectations that meant for teachers."
Even teachers angry at DeKalb's decision last year acknowledge that Arnold was up-front about what he wanted: for students to make AYP, period.
"He did treat everyone the same," said Jim Rabey, who left Sequoyah after eight years and opened his own business. "He just wasn't kind of warm and toasty."
Despite some teachers' protests, Arnold pushed for all students, including those with limited English, to participate in Springboard, a new curriculum that DeKalb expanded this year to middle schools systemwide. Developed by the College Board which also oversees the SAT college entrance exam Springboard focuses on critical thinking and reasoning.
That kind of expectation sits well with Eddie Rector, Sequoyah's PTO president, who has been involved with the school the last six years as his four children move through the system. Parents, he said, understand the push to do better.
At a meeting last week, a new school council was elected. "This was the first time people volunteered" to be on it, Rector said. "We have more parent involvement now than we ever have. Everything's going fantastic."
Georgia State University professor Eric Freeman, who studies education policies and reform, said restructuring began as an "honest attempt" to resuscitate chronically low-performing schools. It began to gain favor in the late 1980s but, he said, has proved to be unpredictable in its effect. That's because each school has a unique "culture" that often remains unaffected by change.
"NCLB is ultimately going to be an ineffective policy because of its presumptions. The biggest is that the problem is largely a school problem and not a societal problem [related to] larger social, economic and political issues," Freeman said. "Schools cannot just change themselves. NCLB, with its 'no excuses' attitude, basically says, 'we don't want to know about it.'"
The law has caused consternation among educators, in large part because of its inflexibility in how success is measured. From that has developed a push and pull with federal officials to seek relief.
Last week, for example, Federal Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced a new policy allowing states to exempt the scores of some students who speak limited or no English.
The change may help schools like Sequoyah. So should past experience, said Tricia Audrain, who works with DeKalb teachers as a representative of the advocacy group, Georgia Association of Educators. "The teachers should have been more involved," Audrain said. "They need more notice. They need the opportunity to give input. Teachers were not even allowed on the committee to decide what good skills were" best for Sequoyah's students.
The question now is whether the turnover in staff will upset student achievement or enhance it. Standardized tests used to measure AYP won't be given until spring.
"We're doing the right thing for students," said Sequoyah resource teacher Rojini Lazarus, who stayed from last year.
Others talk about embracing challenges and of everyone this year being on the same page.
"I'm truly amazed at the staff here, very cohesive, very organized," said Michelle Thompson, a 20-year teaching veteran recruited to Sequoyah from DeKalb's Cedar Grove Middle School.
"I haven't seen any morale problems," said Thompson, a trainer with the federal education department who teaches seventh-grade English and language arts here. "Because everybody is new, it's almost like coming to a new school. I feel I can make a difference."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES