A School That Works By Working Together
Kudos to Fisher for the spin
he chose to put on this story. Kudos to the
school for putting a health clinic in the
building--and a lot more.
By Marc Fisher
The school was failing, but the kids had done
extraordinary things. This was the paradox at
Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring.
If test scores are awful but the children have
walked through deserts, waded across rivers and
learned new languages, the question becomes not
so much "Why are the children failing?" as
"What's wrong with this school?"
At Broad Acres eight years ago, test scores
were so low that the state threatened to take
the place over. Montgomery County
Superintendent Jerry Weast and Principal Jody
Leleck decided to remake the school. They
negotiated with the teachers union to add extra
hours to the workweek for extra pay. Teachers
would offer no more excuses about poor kids
from dysfunctional families; expectations would
soar. About a third of the faculty left; Leleck
hired 27 veteran teachers that first summer.
"We were doing the children of Broad Acres a
disservice, and that's criminal," says Leleck,
now the system's chief academic officer.
Criminal is the word D.C. Schools Chancellor
Michelle Rhee has used to describe the failure
of many city schools. But whereas Montgomery
has had striking success in turning around low-
income student performance, the District is
still at the starting gate, locked in a fierce
battle over how to purge lousy teachers.
Rhee's faceoff with the Washington Teachers'
Union creates a dynamic different from the
cooperation between Weast and Montgomery County
Education Association President Bonnie
Cullison. She said she hears Rhee telling
teachers, " 'You're not doing the job,' as
opposed to 'Let's work together.' You cannot
make it happen in a district where you set up
Or can you? Rhee has turned D.C. politics on
its head and become a national figure because
she did what no previous schools chief had
done: She blasted through decades of resistance
to change. The question now is, what good is it
Weast won't criticize his D.C. counterpart, but
he will say that narrowing the achievement gap
is about expecting all children to work hard
and love learning. "You can do it anyplace if
you treat people like you want to be treated,"
To see what can be done to boost achievement
among kids like those in the D.C. schools, I
visited Broad Acres, where 88 percent of
students qualify for meal subsidies and three-
quarters come from homes where English is not
spoken. Two-thirds are Latino, 22 percent are
black and the rest are Asian. Kids move in and
out at a breathtaking rate; only 30 percent of
fifth-graders have been there since first
"Thirty apartments in the complex next door are
scheduled for evictions in January," says
Principal Michael Bayewitz. "That's several
dozen kids we'll lose. One-third of our
families have no working phone numbers. The
families are in survival mode, just like in
All of this is by way of description, not
excuse. Bayewitz and his faculty work to turn
Broad Acres into the center of its community.
There's a health clinic in the building.
Teachers make home visits. A sign on Bayewitz's
office wall says, "Student achievement will not
be predictable by race."
"Yes, our kids have been through trauma --
unbelievable stories," he says. "We recognize
that and we sympathize, but it's no excuse for
He hands me a stack of essays that students
wrote about their journeys to America. They
tell of being chased across the border, of
encounters with coyotes both human and animal.
Whatever your beliefs about illegal
immigration, these are children who were
ordered onto trucks to travel to a place they
could not imagine, for reasons they could not
Now those children are learning: 81 percent met
reading proficiency standards this year, up
from 47 percent in 2003.
Broad Acres did this without Rhee's reform
tactics: no young recruits from Teach for
America, no cash for students who come to
class, no linkage of teacher pay to test
Rather, the faculty gathers every Wednesday for
hours of mentoring and brainstorming, creating
plans for each child who is falling behind. In
classrooms, bilingual or special education
teachers slide in alongside the regular
teacher, taking two or three children onto the
floor to focus on computation or reading aloud.
The formula includes after-school activities,
arts and music, and a mental health team that
swoops in to examine the family crisis that may
lie behind a classroom outburst. But teachers
say it's not extra budget lines that make the
difference; it's the conviction that nothing
will stand in the way of achievement.
When a kindergartner keeps falling asleep in
class, a teacher goes to see the parent.
Problem identified: The family has one twin
mattress for four children. Solution: The
school gets the child a bed.
A boy arrived from North Africa last year and
began acting out in kindergarten. "We couldn't
keep him in a seat, couldn't talk to him," the
principal says. "We had him evaluated and put
him in Kim's class." That's Kim Burnim, the
national Teacher of the Year in 2006.
In many schools, the boy would be labeled
"special ed" and shunted to a separate track.
But Burnim set up behavior markers and put peer
pressure to work. "To stay here, where he
wanted to be, he had to get in line with all
the other ducks," she says. "We involve the
other children; they take him under their wing
and let him know we don't do disruptive things
When I saw the boy, he moved easily from one
activity to another, competing to finish his
work and move on to the next bit of math fun.
Too often, schools desperate to boost test
scores become grim factories in which children
are force-fed rote skills. But at Broad Acres,
teachers coach each other to keep kids engaged
in rich material for its own sake.
In Andrea Sutton's fifth-grade class, 16 kids
sit on the floor, jumping up to explain to one
another the roots of the American colonists'
grievances with the British. The teacher's
voice never rises above a stage whisper as she
plies the class with questions that would fit
nicely in a high school course.
"With all the pressure from No Child Left
Behind, it's so easy to cut out history and
science," Bayewitz says. "But these kids are
going to need those complex skills in high
school and college. And these kids are going to
Can D.C. schools do this? Can Rhee's
confrontational style produce cooperative
learning? I looked for a D.C. school that
matches Broad Acre's population. The results,
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