When a Teacher of the Year takes on a failing school

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

To some, moving up as a teacher means working at an affluent school with few academic struggles.

Not to Betsy Rogers. After being named National Teacher of the Year in 2003, she switched to Brighton School – Jefferson County's poorest school, which held the longest run on the county's school-improvement list.

She took a job there as curriculum coordinator – in essence, a teacher for the teachers – believing that beleaguered schools ought to have the best instructors. But the challenge at the K-8 school was so steep that early on she couldn't even get out of bed some days.

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Most Brighton teachers have fewer than five years of experience. On top of learning issues, kindergartners had to cope with a classroom snake infestation. Some pupils had never been on a playground swing before.

At the end of 2004-05 school year, the school had failed to meet the state's testing goals for seven years. Could a teacher – even one chosen as Teacher of the Year – turn it around?

This is the story of how Ms. Rogers and her colleagues are trying to turn around one of America's most challenged schools. At times, the effort has come down to stacks of paperwork – and a relentless focus on the standardized tests.

But as far as Rogers is concerned, "teacher quality" has been the key. "It should be obvious why a teacher would want to go into a needy school," she says. "I don't see this as being a big sacrifice or a big thing. I just think it should be the norm."

Near Birmingham, atop a hill

The town of Brighton (pop. 3,640) is a working-class community about 15 miles southwest of Birmingham. Many of the homes have been abandoned, and a few have burned to the ground. The downtown consists of a furniture store, liquor store, barbershop, arcades, and a place called the Peacock Lounge.

The school complex itself – part of Alabama's second-largest school system – sits atop a hill across the street from a graveyard. Currently, 350 students are enrolled at Brighton, but enrollment has dwindled: Since 2003, 149 students have transferred to better-performing schools in the district, an option allowed under federal law.

When Rogers arrived at the school, she wasn't as warmly received as she might have hoped. The school had become a revolving door for teachers, administrators, state intervention specialists, and consultants, so to many on staff, Rogers was just another outsider coming in to point out what they were doing wrong.

"You have to get a little tough-skinned," she says. "You just have to let them know that you're here to stay."

On the plus side, Rogers's arrival brought some much needed attention to the school, which is painted with pastel hues in the elementary section and beige in the middle school (although burgundy paint is chipping off the lockers). The attention resulted in college volunteers redesigning the dismal library, and corporations subsidizing field trips and installing playground equipment. But the limelight also had its downside: For better or worse, all eyes, it seemed, were on Brighton.

"We have a lot to prove," Rogers says. "This never will stop."

At the same time that Rogers signed on, the school district placed seasoned principal Margie Curry at the helm. She's a steady, authoritative figure, but she isn't above donning a hairnet and serving lunches to keep the lines moving. And she sometimes accompanies students on their bus ride home to keep up with where they live. "Some schools don't have to do this much," Ms. Curry says.

Rogers and Curry, along with a state intervention specialist, have held weekly meetings with the teachers of each grade level. Before Rogers and Curry, those meetings would take place sporadically, says Pauline Zinnerman, a seventh-grade English teacher at Brighton for six years. Now, teachers are required to submit weekly lesson plans and to spell out exactly which part of the state curriculum each lesson is meant to address. Also, every four to five weeks, teachers send Curry their student grades, as well as all the material they've covered in that period.

"You have tons and tons of paperwork," Ms. Zinnerman says. Still, she says, it's worth it.

Yet at this time last year, when Rogers evaluated student progress, things didn't look good. "We were pretty panicked," she says.

The school district dispatched subject specialists from the central office to team-teach in Brighton's classrooms for six weeks. "We wanted to make sure that no child was ever surprised [by] what they had to learn, and that every teacher knew what they were expected to teach," says Joan Buckley, federal programs supervisor for Jefferson County schools.

Other resources have been available at Brighton, too. The No Child Left Behind law requires the district to provide services like tutoring, and more than 130 students have taken advantage of that after school. Brighton also receives federal dollars to reduce class size and train teachers. Two consultants provide such training, and the state's Department of Education has also sent a peer assistant.

Overall, the district spent $7,032 per Brighton pupil in the 2003-04 academic year, according to a Jefferson County schools spokeswoman, using the most recent data available. "There's no doubt that Brighton has more per-pupil resources than most schools in the district," Ms. Buckley says.

The moment of truth

Finally, last academic year, a breakthrough occurred. The school improved not only on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test, which is the state accountability measure, but also on benchmark tests throughout the year. Eighty-two percent of last year's fourth-graders, for example, couldn't read. This year, 73 percent of that same group are reading proficiently.

"People are really pulling for us," Rogers says. "I have faith in us."

And the crucial players, she contends, are the teachers: "Bottom line in all of this is that teacher quality makes the difference."

One parent who gives the teachers good marks is Marie Lipscomb, whose two daughters, Shantoria Lipscomb and Willisha Holmes, are tutored in reading three afternoons a week. "The teachers are one on one with the students," Ms. Lipscomb says. "They're not just about a paycheck."

Of course, Rogers's work is hardly over. On a recent afternoon, she spent several minutes thumbing through a thick stack of papers with colorful bar graphs, and not so colorful results. Her grim conclusion: The students have a lot to learn before the next Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test.

"It's kind of discouraging, but I know it's December, and I guess we have until April," she says.

Another way the school is trying to improve results is by focusing on parents' involvement. From 7:20 a.m. to 7:55 a.m. once a month, parents pay $1.50 to gather in the school library over sausage biscuits, toast, milk, and juice. They watch a short parenting video, and a school counselor talks to them about the importance of reading to their children and knowing what's going on in their lives.

Patricia Minniefield, mother of two daughters in first and second grades, attends every breakfast, though her parents never did anything of the sort. "I'm trying to be better than my parents," she says.

For Rogers, the pull to teach herself is still great, and ideally, she says, she'd be doing that at Brighton. "I would go back in a heartbeat," she says. "I just love being in a room with kids all day."

But these days, she is fighting new battles. Foremost among them is getting the district to build a school that would house K-5. Under this plan, Rogers says, Brighton's sixth- through eighth-graders would attend one of two nearby middle schools, both of which have things that Brighton lacks: sports teams (Brighton offers only basketball), honors classes, and band. "That's my biggest concern – what's not being provided for these kids," she says.

While the board plans to build a school in Brighton, it hasn't yet determined the configuration of the new school, says district superintendent Phil Hammonds.

In the meantime, Rogers agreed this year to take on the role of school improvement specialist for the district, because it would offer her more training so she can better help Brighton. Periodically, she makes rounds at other struggling county schools.

She agreed to the job change on one condition: Brighton remains her home base. "I've learned more here in the last three years than I have in forever," she notes.

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