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When a Teacher of the Year takes on a failing school

By Gigi DoubanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 2006


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

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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.

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.