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Alabama Schools Turn Tide Through Focus on Collaboration, Outreach

By Kevin Hart

Take a drive through Alabama, whether through the lowlands of the Gulf Coast or the Appalachian highlands to the north, and it won't be long before you see the words "Roll Tide" scrawled across a billboard, storefront window or bumper sticker on a passing vehicle.

This oft-repeated motto for the University of Alabama athletics program has become a rallying cry for an entire state that has seen its share of changing tides, from the desegregation battles of the 1950s and 1960s, to the recovery from the 2005 devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, to the recent pressures created by the lingering recession.

But it wasn't long ago that the tide was rolling the wrong way for several Alabama public schools, which had contended with years of under-performance and serious social issues ranging from violence to drugs. In July 2001, the Alabama State Board of Education slated seven schools in Barbour County, Montgomery County, Mobile County, Sumter County and Russell County for state takeover in a dramatic effort to turn around their performance. All seven schools had a majority of students scoring in the bottom third (the first through third stanines) on state standardized assessments, leading the state to assign new leadership at the schools and implement new instructional and remediation strategies.

"We were asking, 'What else can we do?'" remembered Kennith Jackson, a reading interventionist at Ella Grant Elementary School in Mobile County, one of the schools taken over by the state. "We were at a point where (the intervention) was much needed."

"No one enters this profession wanting to fail children," added Merrier Jackson, who was hired in 2007 as principal at Mae Eanes Middle School, another school that had been taken over by the state. For Eanes Middle School, it was the second takeover in a decade.

What Jackson and Kevelyn Trotter, principal at Grant Elementary, came to realize was that the state takeover brought new resources, but also new challenges to their schools. A state takeover did little for student morale and the negative community perception of their schools, and it also created challenges for recruiting and retaining staff.

But these two schools also found they had powerful allies in their communities. Groups such as the Alabama Education Association (See sidebar Alabama Education Association Takes Lead in Helping Struggling Schools), as well as parents, local businesses and community leaders stepped forward to help the schools taken over by the state reach their potential. Eight years after they found themselves lumped in with some of the lowest-performing schools in the state, schools such as Eanes Middle School and Grant Elementary are now regularly making Adequate Yearly Progress on state exams and have become turnaround models for educators around the country. 

Focus on discipline
Students can't thrive until they feel safe, and establishing a culture focused on discipline and consequences was a top priority at Eanes Middle School.

"We had 17-year-olds alongside 11- and 12-year-olds, and they weren't here to get an education," said Jackson, adding that some older teens had found Eanes Middle School to be fertile ground for gang activity and the sale of drugs.

Jackson was able to divert some of the older students to alternative education programs, and the change among the rest of the student body was almost immediate.

"Students who had been afraid started blossoming," said Gwen McHugh, a seventh-grade math teacher at Eanes Middle School.

Eanes Middle School began requiring students to dress according to grade level. Sixth graders wear light blue shirts, seventh graders wear dark blue, and eighth graders wear gold. That way, staff can tell instantly when older children are with younger children, or if a student does not attend the school.

Uniforms are also part of the success strategy at Grant Elementary, where all students wear light-blue shirts. Trotter says the uniforms eliminate some of the social pressures and conflict that often arise over designer, brand-name clothes.

 Part of establishing discipline involves instilling in students a respect for the school grounds. Custodians are considered valuable members of the school learning team at Eanes Middle School and Grant Elementary. When students see that their schools are clean and well cared for, they are more likely to act respectfully. 

Parental engagement
Not long after assuming her duties as principal at Grant Elementary in 2004, Trotter realized she had a serious problem with parental engagement. High staff turnover after the state takeover ended the year before had created distrust among parents.

Part of improving parental engagement is showing parents that they are welcome members of the school community. Grant Elementary and Eanes Middle School send home regular newsletters and bulletins for parents. Grant Elementary students have folders that chart their progress and must be signed by parents. As part of the professional development program at Grant Elementary, teachers participate in mock parent-teacher conferences to help them hone their communication skills.

Sometimes, what parents need most is a helping hand. Grant Elementary and Eanes Middle School serve many single-parent families where mothers or fathers work several jobs to make ends meet. Staff will often hand out toiletries to students or refer parents to assistance groups that will help them get their power turned back on or stock their pantries with healthy food. At Grant Elementary and Eanes Middle School, nearly all students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Teachers and counselors will also work with parents to show them how they can support their children and help them succeed at school.

"Part of it is convincing the parents they can do it, too," said Eanes Middle School teacher McHugh.

Professional development
Like many urban schools, Grant Elementary and Eanes Middle School often experience difficulty recruiting teachers. They hire many new teachers who need a great deal of training, support and professional development. Both schools aggressively apply for grants, and the staff at Grant Elementary believe that a grant provided by Reading First, a U.S. Department of Education program targeting early readers, has helped jump start literacy skills among students.

"Professional development gives us teachers what we need to scientifically figure out why a reader is struggling," said Marsha Grim, a K-3 reading coach.

Teachers and administrators begin meeting over the summer for training and to set goals for the year. By the time the first day of school rolls around, "it doesn't feel like the first day," said Carlita Dixon, a sixth-grade math teacher who credits professional development with helping her survive her early years in the teaching profession. 

Peer review also plays a significant role at Grant Elementary and Eanes Middle School. At Eanes Middle School, teachers regularly observe each other and collaborate on best practices. At Grant Elementary, teachers for each grade level meet once a week in professional learning communities, where they can discuss challenges and instructional strategies. At both schools, this peer collaboration is built into teachers' schedules.

Data-driven decisions
Despite all the gains the faculty at Eanes Middle School and Grant Elementary have made in terms of morale, discipline, community engagement and student self-esteem, they know their schools will be judged as successes or failures based on student academic performance. Instruction at both schools is guided heavily by student data.

The goal, according to Grant's Trotter, is to "identify strengths and weaknesses on a child-by-child basis." Students are regularly tested and their performance monitored, so staff can quickly identify and correct skills gaps. Staff and administrators meet regularly to analyze data for each student.

In fact, all teachers at both schools know exactly which students are performing at grade level, which are not, and why. They then work together to develop customized remediation programs designed to ensure students don't fall behind.

By the time a teacher inherits a new class of students at the start of the school year, he or she already has a wealth of data about each child. This sharing of data creates "a continuity of care for the students," said MaShawn Williams, a fifth-grade teacher at Grant Elementary.

Community outreach
Many of the students at Eanes Middle School, Grant Elementary and other urban schools around the country grow up surrounded by drugs, gangs and violence. It is critical that educators show students other models of success. Fortunately, the Mobile community is filled with role models who are happy to help.

Law enforcement professionals visit Eanes Middle School to talk to students about avoiding gangs and drugs. Business owners, representatives from the district attorney's office, staff from the University of South Alabama and ministers from faith-based organizations also visit the schools to show students more traditional models for success. Many of these same groups, Trotter said, sponsor events at her school or provide incentives for students.

Faculty and staff at Eanes Middle School also started a mandatory advisement program that meets every other week, where students learn the basics of preparing for college. They learn about scholarships, grants, and academic requirements, and start to realize that college is a very achievable dream -- as long as they stay focused on academics.

"They start to understand that every missed assignment is determining your income tax bracket," Jackson said. "You're determining your Zip code. Everything you do matters. Everything you didn't do mattered, too."

Incentives and celebrations
Grant Elementay uses a series of incentives to keep students motivated to perform. For example, at the start of the year, the school will host an ice cream party for all students. If students want free ice cream during the second quarter, they need to pass their reading or math benchmark test. For the third quarter, they need to pass both.

Kelly Brannon, a first-grade teacher, hands out colorful pencils to her students when they perform quality work, and the students take great pride in showing off their prizes. Sometimes a simple, 50-cent pencil is all it takes to get students excited about learning.

But the prizes aren't always small. Grant has been able to work with community partners to offer other incentives, such as bicycles and honors parties to recognize student achievement. The school even holds a pep rally before state testing. The end result is that students buy in to the school's mission to help them become top performers with bright academic futures.

"I have seen the children go from I don't care attitudes to wanting to be the best," said Williams.

"These kids can really thrive, but you have to treat them like your own," added Julia Patterson, a special needs teacher who has taught at Eanes Middle School for 16 years. "You're not going to be a success overnight, but if we give up on them, what will they have?"

Photos, from top: Billboard sign outside Mae Eanes Middle School; Mae Eanes Middle School math teacher Carlita Dixon works with a student; Mae Eanes Middle School sixth graders answer a question in math class; Ella Grant Elementary School teacher Yolanda Porter helps a student with a reading lesson; Writing by Ella Grant Elementary School students is proudly displayed. Photos by Kevin Hart.


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