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Published in Print: May 12, 1999, as Group Helps Troubled Schools Find Answers

Group Helps Troubled Schools Find Answers

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Three years ago, Selma Middle School was a dismal place to be.

Seventh and 8th graders scored F's on the Stanford Achievement Test, the statewide measure of academic achievement. Only a handful of parents in the 600-student school bothered to attend conferences with teachers. Teachers came and went faster than a Southern rainstorm.

Then reformers from the Cornwall, Vt.-based Foundation for Excellent Schools entered the picture. The building's test scores skyrocketed, parental participation increased tenfold, students began to regain interest in learning, and teachers found inspiration. While district leaders acknowledge that much work remains, they say the help they've gotten from the foundation has been pivotal.

"The whole landscape of how we do things has changed," said James H. Carter, the superintendent of the impoverished, 4,600-student Selma school district and a former principal of the middle school, located 40 miles west of Montgomery. "We have objectives and a list of strategies. We ensure there's accountability."

Over the past nine years, the Foundation for Excellent Schools has been quietly providing support to more than 100 public districts and schools such as Selma Middle School, helping to reduce dropout rates, increase attendance and test scores, and forge partnerships between K-12 schools, businesses, and universities from coast to coast.

Rick Dalton, the president and co-founder of the FES, says the foundation's success comes from a simple formula: Empower educators, administrators, and community members to fix their own schools by providing mentors to challenge and aid them.

"We help in the process, but the core values exist in the school and that community," Mr. Dalton said. "Each school needs to develop a custom-fitted plan."

'One More Step'

The foundation points to achievements like these in the schools it's worked with:

  • The dropout rate shrank from 42 percent to 8 percent at Pickens High School in Jasper, Ga., between 1990 and 1993; the proportion of students who pursued college, meanwhile, jumped from 27 percent to 67 percent.
  • Participation in school and community-service projects reached 99 percent for students and their families at Tiogue Elementary School in Coventry, R.I., where once such participation had been lackadaisical.
  • Test scores at New York City's David Ruggles Junior High School in Brooklyn rose 6 percent between 1996 and 1999, attendance increased 10 percent, and discipline infractions dropped by more than 50 percent.

"The overreaching goal of our program is to get every student to take one more step," Mr. Dalton said. "We want the group of young people that is not graduating from high school to graduate; we want the group that is graduating [from high school] and not going on to postsecondary training to ... take that step."

The foundation evolved from the National College Counseling Project, an initiative started in 1984 by Mr. Dalton, then a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, and David Erdmann, the dean of admissions at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. The two men were looking for common links between high schools around the nation that outperformed expectations in sending students to college.

In 1987, grant providers at the Jessie Ball duPont Fund asked Mr. Dalton and Mr. Erdmann to start an organization that would go beyond monitoring schools to actually aiding schools and districts in their reform efforts.

Funding for the foundation--which will have a nearly $1 million budget for the 1999-2000--is now garnered from 75 philanthropies, corporations, and individuals. Local school projects are financed in part by the school's local community and funds from the FES.

The foundation works with a school for three years, outlining problems, determining goals, and coming up with solutions. It keeps schools on task by requiring monthly, in-depth progress reports.

"I view [the FES] as a vital partner in our effectiveness to ensure students receive a quality education," said Marc E. Hull, the commissioner of education in Vermont, where the foundation has been working with seven schools for the past year and a half. The foundation "has allowed teams from schools to break away from the daily routines to analyze student data and set measurable goals," he said. "It has given life to our students."

Troubled History

Each school or district that the Foundation for Excellent Schools works with has its own challenges. Here in Selma, the community first had to overcome its own history.

Mention Selma to many Americans and what they'll remember is "Bloody Sunday," the day in March 1965 when lawmen violently turned back civil rights marchers trying to walk across the Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery, the state capital.

More recently, violence erupted on the town's streets during the first week of January 1990, when the school board declined to renew the contract of the district's first black superintendent, Norward Roussell. Students, their parents, and other community members protested outside the district offices, claiming the ouster was racially motivated. The situation eventually quieted, but not before the governor had called in the Alabama State Guard to keep the peace.

Soon after, nearly all of the white students who attended grades 7-12--about 15 percent of the student population--withdrew from Selma public schools and enrolled in the city's fledgling private schools. The effect on students and teachers was devastating.

"There were a lot of tears, and a lot of days when we just hugged each other," recalled Rosyln Farris, a special education teacher who has taught at Selma Middle School for 23 years and is now the coordinator of the school's reform effort.

For the next several years after the 1990 upheaval, the situation at the school went from bad to worse. Test scores plummeted, and 16 percent of the students dropped out of school during the 1995-96 school year.

Mr. Carter, then the assistant to the superintendent, and a small group of teachers recognized the distress and began looking for outside help. They learned about the FES at an education conference held by International Paper Co., a major employer here. The Purchase, N.Y.-based company later provided a $15,000 grant to the district to pay for the foundation's services.

The dialogue began in September 1996, when Mr. Dalton and a team of 10 educators, administrators, and community members met in Selma for a daylong brainstorming session to diagnose the school's problems and draft a plan of action. The problems were clear: student apathy, a lack of parent involvement, poor morale, and low test scores.

The solutions, though, weren't so obvious.

Many schools "just aren't sure how to do it or don't know what is the right process," Mr. Dalton said. "The more steps that don't work, the less confidence they have to do it--hence the need for outside support."

Network of Ideas

One of the most important roles the foundation plays is that of a coordinator. It links isolated schools with others in the region and around the country that have been through successful improvement efforts and are willing to share ideas. The FES schools are in frequent communication with one another, swapping plans for everything from student incentives to more productive methods of teaching social studies.

Tracie Dye, the former chairman of the FES reform team at Ballard-Hudson Middle School in Macon, Ga., where she was a teacher, served as Selma Middle School's program director. She agreed to mentor schools in crisis after her school participated in the program and saw students' reading scores jump several grade levels.

Ms. Dye, who also works with FES schools in Vermont and Rhode Island, visited Selma Middle School five times during the three years of the program to mentor educators and provide workshops on teaching techniques.

"We try to reinvent the wheel so often," said Ms. Dye, now a high school English teacher in Macon. "Teachers don't have time to come up with programs for every weakness in the school."

Many ideas also come from FES conferences, where teams from around the country meet one another and share insights.

"You realize your concerns are echoed throughout the United States," Ms. Farris said. "FES helped us realize we're not isolated."

For example, Selma learned from an FES school in Port St. Joe, Fla., how to align the curriculum with the state's standardized tests and ensure that students understand the tests' importance. From the FES school in Macon, the Selma educators learned ways to increase parents' access to educators and raise student and teacher morale.

But many of the reform ideas were homegrown and came from teachers and administrators at Selma Middle School, Mr. Carter said. The reforms were discussed at extensive professional-development seminars.

Test scores at Selma Middle School reflect great improvements. The state gave 7th graders a C-minus on the school's 1997-98 report card, up from an F in during the 1994-95 school year; 8th graders received a C, up from an F that year. The school made the highest gains in the district, Mr. Carter said.

Communication between parents and teachers has also changed. The school has started holding open houses. Educators hand out schedules showing the dates that progress reports and report cards are distributed, along with the classroom phone numbers of those teachers who have been given answering machines. The school also shifted meeting times for parent-teacher conferences from the afternoon to the evening so parents who work during the day can attend.

"There's a lot more parent participation than even before 1990," said veteran English teacher Teresa Kelly, adding that she receives five or ten messages from her answering machine each week. "I feel I'm working with the parents rather than against them."

Differing Attitudes

Seventy-five percent of students have joined new extracurricular clubs, meaning there's no longer "an empty building at 3 o'clock," Ms. Farris said. "If kids are involved, they feel empowered. We've seen a change in attitudes."

But not from everyone, she acknowledged.

"We have some that are not there yet," Ms. Farris said.

The troubling social factors that confronted the school before the reforms remain. The school's students are poor; more than 80 percent of them receive federal aid for school lunches. Most families are headed by only one parent, and education remains undervalued, said Mamie Williams-Soloman, the 7th grade counselor.

Such factors contribute to discipline problems and an often hectic learning environment in the school, some people here say.

"It's the children who go here that make the school bad," said Derrick Dixon, a soft-spoken 8th grader who hopes to attend college on an ROTC scholarship and study biology. "They cuss at teachers. They fight."

Students can receive a good education at the school if they "sit down and listen to teachers," said Tekima Howard, an 8th grader who aspires to attend Spelman College in Atlanta and then get a law degree at Harvard University. But every day, students throw things at teachers and are otherwise disrespectful, she said.

But in Ms. Kelly's African-American literature class one recent afternoon, there is only positive energy. Students fill the front rows of her room chattering loudly as the teacher gears up a video on Maya Angelou, part of a lesson on the author's work. The room, decorated in hues of pink and peach, glows.

"I'm happier than I have ever been," Ms. Kelly said.

Vol. 18, Issue 35, Pages 1,14-15

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