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Taking the Lead

Member-led innovation has students defying labels.

Found In: School Life

Education reform is not just about raising test scores; it is about raising the success rate for the one in five U.S. students living in poverty who face learning disadvantages from the start. At Glendale Middle School and Kit Carson Elementary School, both targets of the NEA Priority Schools Campaign, teachers and education support professionals are using all of their collective expertise and resources to defy the odds and lead their students to higher levels of success.

Glendale Middle School

Have a Little Faith

Teachers and staff dedicate themselves to transforming a problem-plagued school.

The students at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City, Utah, face some formidable obstacles when it comes to learning. Most live in poverty, and many have enormous challenges in their home lives that they can’t help but bring to school with them.

Photo by Julie

But Glendale also has teachers like Greg Mohammed, also known as “Mr. Moe” (pictured left)—the kind of teacher serious enough to motivate his science class, but playful enough to craft a giant, wooden hall pass the size of a butcher block—the only one he hasn’t lost.

At Glendale, one of Salt Lake’s consistently low-performing schools, Mr. Moe and his fellow teachers are leading the profession in transforming the educational experience for students, and, after making some major changes, they’re seeing signs of growth. Glendale made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) last academic year, and it is on track to do so again this year.

 Mr. Moe gets emotional talking about the dedication he and his fellow teachers have for the students at Glendale. “It’s incredibly touching to me that so many of our teachers have said they’d gladly give up a bonus if it would go to the kids,” he says.

Glendale is a designated site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign (PSC), which works with educators, schools, local associations, and districts to level the playing field for disadvantaged students.

The school won a three-year federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) with a faculty-approved plan that boosts the rigor of the curriculum, extends class time, fosters parental engagement and community partnerships, and increases teacher development—all with staff input and collaboration between the faculty, administration, and district.

“It happened quickly, but the faculty has really gotten on board with the grant,” says Susan McFarland, president of the Salt Lake Teachers Association. “There were a few initial struggles, but with the help of the PSC, we’re really moving forward.”

To kick start the process, Glendale’s staff and administration attended training and workshops, including a C.A.R.E. (Culture, Abilities, Resilience, and Effort) workshop led by PSC staff, which offered proven strategies to raise achievement at low-income schools with high English language learner (ELL) populations. The faculty, administration, and district personnel also participated in training on communicating their renewed drive toward greater student success.

Educators Making Decisions Together

As part of their communications training, teachers came up with “dream headlines” for the collaborative effort to transform Glendale. The winner: “Together We Can Make Clear and Effective Decisions for Our Schools.”

Already, they’ve made several effective decisions, and the school day at Glendale looks a lot different than it did a couple of years ago.

The academic year has been extended by 12 days, and 55 minutes have been added to each school day. Students now attend two periods of math and two periods of language arts. There are Extended Learning Program classes for academically gifted students. There’s a Newcomers Class for students new to the country, or even to school. Salt Lake City has a huge refugee population, and many students had no formal schooling before arriving at Glendale.

Glendale also offers the AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) program, which targets students in the “middle” who have the ability to go on to college but who need extra support and encouragement. Also in place at Glendale: a continuous in-school academic support program, which prepares students for college eligibility and success, and, for ELLs—nearly half the student body—additional class time and support.

“Given their language barriers, these kids are doing fantastically well,” says Jeff Sorenson, who used to teach the Newcomers Class but now heads the AVID program. “These kids have challenges. They go home to an empty house, they don’t have the support a lot of other kids get, but they are great kids, and we’re all so proud of them.”

Sorenson knows that he and his colleagues at other low-income, struggling schools are leading the profession in transforming student outcomes, so he tries not to get discouraged by the negative media attention heaped on teachers over the past year.

“There’s a real backlash, as if we’re not doing our jobs and are just sitting around drinking lemonade,” he says. “But the teachers at Glendale are here because we really want to be. We haven’t had an increase in years, but we’re dedicated to what we’re doing and are working in overdrive to serve the needs of all different kinds of students.”

We all know they can do it. We just want them to know it.

Like most cities, Salt Lake has a clear divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”—it’s even marked by the classic railroad track separating the affluent east side from the low-income west side. Glendale is in the west, and some might say it’s therefore on “the wrong side” of the tracks.

Mr. Moe and the other educators at Glendale are working hard to convince the students that they’re not on the wrong side of anything. Just because they have a few more challenges, and might not have as much money as the students in other parts of the city, it doesn’t mean they can’t succeed. He reminds students that he also came from a poor background, but that through hard work, he is achieving his goals.

Sarah Herron, the new library technology teacher at Glendale, said she’s been impressed by the commitment of the teachers to raising not only student achievement but also their belief in their abilities.

“They’re teaching the kids about respect for themselves and each other, and they’re putting in the extra hours and extra time to make the grant work because they know it will lead to these kids’ success,” she says. “We all know they can do it. We just want them to know it.”

Turns out, some of them just might know it already. Like 12-year-old Dakota, who wants to be a TV anchorman or concert pianist when he grows up. “Last year I realized I wasn’t really doing the work I needed to, but my teachers helped me realize that I needed to do it for my future in TV,” he says.

Then there’s Darius, 13, who wants to be an attorney or a doctor. “With all the stuff we’ve been through, we’re still hanging on, and it’s because of our teachers,” he says. “The teachers encourage us, and make us want to work because they believe in us, so it sort of makes us believe it too.”



Kit Carson Elementary

Disproving the “Failing” Label

Educators at a troubled Nevada school commit to raising student achievement.

Kit Carson Elementary School in West Las Vegas, Nevada, is used to being ranked, listed, and labeled, but rarely in a positive way. It’s part of the Clark County School District, whose schools rank among the nation’s poorest-performing schools. It sits in an aging neighbor-hood that’s been listed as one of America’s Top Ten Most Dangerous. And 83 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Unemployment in West Last Vegas is around 14 percent, making it among the worst places to find a job, and the state’s home foreclosure rate is the highest in the country.

In the face of all that, Kit Carson’s educators and staff are undaunted—they are standing strong in the community and using all of their professional training, expertise, and available resources to lead their students to greater levels of achievement.

Kit Carson’s teachers and staff have good reason to be optimistic. With the help of the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), the school received its federal SIG in 2009. And one year after implementing the SIG’s various requirements and programs, their hard work began to pay off. The school made AYP and demonstrated improvement in every subject area: Forty-one percent more students met or exceeded writing standards, 27 percent more met or exceeded science standards, 19 percent more met or exceeded math standards, and 14 percent more met or exceeded reading standards.

“The stereotypes are there,” said Kit Carson principal Cynthia Marlowe. “But once people come on campus, they get a feel for the students, the parents, and the teachers, then they have a different story.”

Some Labels Are Positive

Not all of Kit Carson’s labels are bad. Besides being a SIG school, it’s an Empowerment School, a magnet school, and an International Baccalaureate Candidate School.

CCEA deserves credit for its work with the NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which led to Kit Carson also being named an Intensive Support Site for the campaign, with additional resources being offered through NEA school improvement programs such as KEYS (Keys to Excellence for Your Schools) and English language learner training.

CCEA also had a hand in Kit Carson’s designation as an Empowerment School. The program seeks to improve student performance through collaboration between teachers, administrators, students, families, community members, smaller class sizes, a longer school day and year, and more financial support.

This year Kit Carson also became a magnet school, with an emphasis on college prep, creative arts, and technology. That designation has brought in students from around the school district, expanding opportunities for all students in an area that had been largely isolated by poverty.

While simultaneously fulfilling all these program requirements can be overwhelming at times, teachers and staff are up to the task.

“The teachers at Kit Carson believe in the school, they believe in the community and the parents,” said Marlowe. “I think that’s the big difference for us. We’re all working together toward one goal to not be that school that’s labeled as an at-risk school that’s failing.”

Professional Educators Making a Difference

Although Kit Carson’s teachers and staff are grateful for all the help they’re getting to turn the school around, they admit that there’s a lot of stress involved in helping transform a persistently low-achieving school in a bad economy.

“We’re taking on so many new programs right now,” said Pamela Muniz, a second-grade teacher at the school. “All of those different elements have different requirements and different things that need to be posted in the classroom, so it’s been a challenge. We put a lot more into it than I ever have in my teaching career.”

The school day at Kit Carson is 49 minutes longer than the traditional day. Teachers meet weekly for structured planning time and for their professional learning communities. Staff participated in the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program authorized training in addition to dozens of hours spent in job-embedded professional development sessions.

“You have to bring in your experience and then be flexible enough to make changes to fit the turnaround school requirements,” said Jonalene Ly, a first-grade teacher who joined the staff two years ago. “It’s a lot of work.”

Many of the staff at Kit Carson also lead afterschool activities, ranging from tutoring and Chinese classes to martial arts and Zumba. It’s not unusual to see staff still working at 7 p.m. on any given school night.

“We are all very excited about making the students the best students they can be,” said fifth-grade teacher Michael Lang. “We’ve set the blueprint for a great, great, great school here.”

Tackling the Poverty Factor

While the teachers and staff at Kit Carson focus on raising student success rates, they can’t ignore the fundamental needs of the students that must be met to enable them to be ready to learn—fundamentals like clothing, food, and health care.

To help provide a comfortable learning environment, the school has an emergency food pantry, a school supply closet, and a closet with donated backpacks, shoes, and clothing items from sweatshirts to underwear.

Every Friday, a weekend’s supply of food is left discreetly outside classrooms in backpacks to be picked up by students in need. Because the teachers and staff foster a culture of respect and empathy, nobody gets made fun of for picking up a backpack.

“It’s like a family,” said Elsa Flores, a parent of a Kit Carson student. “The teachers are asking what we need, what the kids need, and they help us with everything.”

The school has been successful in recruiting community partners to help provide services for students and their families. For example, Big Smiles dental company set up shop at the school and took x-rays, fixed fillings, and cleaned teeth for students without dental insurance, and a local ophthalmologist donates glasses to the students.

Helping Parents Help Their Kids

Kit Carson’s Oneta Christian helps provide students and their families with resources to be better learners. She is the school’s project facilitator, a position funded by SIG, in the Parent Resource Center, where any day of the week, from 7 a.m. to long after the school day ends, parents can be found helping out teachers with tasks, or taking ESL or computer classes. 

When Principal Marlowe and Christian first started at Kit Carson, family involvement at the school was low. So Christian made a point to stand on the sidewalk before and after school to greet parents and personally invite them to the Parent Resource Center.

Last year, 98 percent of the parents participated in parent/teacher conferences.

“The key is to make parents feel like it’s their school too, not just ours,” said Christian.

Julia Ryan has a first grader and a third grader at Kit Carson, and is the president of the Parent Committee. “The teachers are very involved,” said Ryan. “They are here above and beyond for these children, and it’s really exciting to see that. One of the reasons I put myself on the Parent Committee is because I see the dedication they have for our children, and I want to be part of that.”

Through collaboration among the highly professional staff, the administrators, families, and community partners, Kit Carson has become a bright spot in an area that desperately needed one.

With obvious pride, Muniz said, “I really believe that Kit Carson is becoming a community hub in a sense.”

Find out more about how NEA is leading the profession and advancing student achievement. Check out President Dennis Van Roekel’s new action agenda for advancing the Association’s goals as well as related articles.

Click here for more information on NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.


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