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Published in Print: November 9, 2005, as Against All Odds

Against All Odds

More than a decade ago, no one held out much hope for the poor, immigrant children at Kennedy Middle School. Nobody thinks that now.

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The warm desert breeze ushers in another morning here as 700 students descend by car and on foot to the grounds of John F. Kennedy Middle School, marking with characteristic chaos the start of another school day. As they enter the blue gates of the campus, a surprising order kicks in: The animated conversations, in a mix of English and Spanish, slow as boys and girls instinctively lower their voices, tuck in their uniform shirts, and shuffle faster toward homeroom. By the first bell, the courtyard is empty, and students are settling into classrooms.

In the office, a handful of parents and teachers chat, exchange paperwork, or wait for an administrator. Photos and awards adorn the walls. Among them is a plaque that boasts the school’s standing as a “School to Watch,” a designation by a national middle-grades reform organization in recognition of Kennedy’s drive toward rigorous academics, responsiveness to students’ academic and developmental needs, and equity for all students.

In many ways, Kennedy Middle School has become a model of middle-grades improvement. Test scores, though still inadequate and recently targeted by the state for improvement, have been rising steadily, despite most of the students’ language barriers and deficient preparation in schools in their native Mexico. Attendance is consistently around 97 percent. Classes are at the same time lively and orderly as students focus on rigorous lessons, in English. Teachers have a thorough grasp of each child’s progress, aided by the pages of individual and group data compiled in neat white binders. Parents interact with teachers and staff members regularly, both on campus and in students’ homes, in spite of the embarrassment it might cause their adolescent children.

The transformation at Kennedy illustrates how schools facing some of the greatest challenges can rise above them with strong leadership, the support of teachers and parents, and an extended, continuous effort.

A decade ago, the scene here was far less serene. The recently expanded and renovated campus was crowded and in disrepair. Out-of-class time was marked by endless scuffles, often sparked by gang-related conflicts. In-class time was often spent on discipline problems, disjointed lessons, and the basic skills most students hadn’t yet mastered. Absenteeism and suspension rates were high, test scores low.

Given the student demographics—99 percent Hispanic, some 70 percent of whom speak Spanish as their primary language, 100 percent economically disadvantaged—educators had few expectations that the preteens and teenagers from the depressed and sometimes violent neighborhoods surrounding the school would do well, academically or otherwise.

“Kids were out of control. Teachers were out of control. There was no connectedness between home and school,” recalls Suzanne Smith, who began a 15-year stint as principal here in 1990. “I refer to it as a dysfunctional family. It was extremely unhealthy.”

But Smith, a school counselor who accepted her first leadership post “maybe out of naiveté, stupidity, or ignorance,” didn’t come here to nurture the status quo, she says. She refused to believe that the children of this farming community in southeastern California—just a few miles from the Mexican border—could not meet high standards.

Quickly and firmly, the principal teamed up with like-minded teachers to tackle the destructive behavior and press for more aggressive strategies to address students’ academic needs. Just as quickly, she butted heads with entrenched teachers and other staff members who were skeptical that any change in the school climate or student achievement was possible.

Given the student demographics, educators had few expectations that the preteens and teenagers from the depressed and sometimes violent neighborhoods surrounding the school would do well, academically or otherwise.

Skirmishes with the school board and calls for her ouster ceased only after an evaluation by an outside consultant hired by the district and the comments of a number of parents supported Smith’s actions to turn the school around.

“In the end, I decided I was not going down without a fight,” says Smith, who took over this school year as the superintendent of the troubled school system in San Pasqual, Calif., some 60 miles east of here. “The parents went to the superintendent and the board and said they supported me. When that happened, I knew I was OK.”

That change was beginning when Osvaldo Martinez arrived as a new teacher nine years ago, one of a number hired to replace the teachers Smith deemed ineffective and pushed out.

Kennedy Middle School had been assigned many of the district’s failing students and those apt to make trouble. As a result, Martinez, a math teacher, spent much of his time trying to get his classes under control. A half-dozen of his students were expelled for fighting or other offenses that first year.

“To me it was shocking. … Teachers were isolated; gang activity was prevalent,” he says.

He didn’t feel overwhelmed for long, though, before Smith offered to send him to workshops on classroom management or helped him mediate discipline problems.

“With Sue [Smith], it was, ‘Here’s the curriculum, here are the expectations, … and we’re going to help each other,’ ” he says.

The transition took years, however.

“Those first few years, the day was spent checking the tracks [on students’ arms], looking for knives, smelling kids for pot,” Smith says. “In 1995, I was finally able to get around to what I was supposed to be doing.”

That meant highlighting academics and setting a strategy for moving underperforming students toward proficiency in core subjects and preparing them for high school. It also meant coaxing parents—only half of whom were high school graduates—to get involved in their children’s studies.

The school set up a parents’ academy, an eight-week course—offered in Spanish and English—that offers tips for communicating with adolescents and helping with homework, and that outlines in detail the coursework and skills students need for high school and college.

On a recent Wednesday evening, a few dozen parents arrive for the first session of the new school year, a number Renato Montaño, the new principal, says will grow when he sends formal invitations to hundreds more families.

It kicks off with a fiery pep talk from Celina Gonzalez, who directs pupil services for the El Centro Elementary school district.

Path to Proficiency

Kennedy Middle School, whose student body is made up almost entirely of English-language learners, has already exceeded its target for adequate yearly progress in math, but fell shy in language arts.

Actual performance

“How many of you want to see your children succeed in life?” she asks. As hands go up, Gonzalez rattles off a list of worrisome statistics: Fifty percent of the students in Imperial County drop out of high school, and just 3 percent graduate from college. The county has the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in California, and one in four children is growing up in a home affected by alcohol or drug abuse. “We are here to make sure your kids don’t get left behind anymore,” Gonzalez says.

Carlos Cuevas, a Kennedy graduate who dropped out of high school a few years ago, came to the session in the hope of helping his sister, Hilda, an 8th grader at the school, do better in her classes. Their mother, Marisol Quirarte, is attending the Spanish-language class across the auditorium.

“My mom and me want my sister to know that we care and want her to get better grades, even if it embarrasses her,” says Cuevas, who is still working toward his diploma. Hilda is doing well in school now, he says, but he worries she will get off track in high school. “I messed up, and now I’m paying for it. I want her to learn from my mistakes.”

Gonzalez urges the group to learn more about their children’s teachers, their classwork, and how they are doing in school.

Teachers at Kennedy now have much of that information at their fingertips.

Montaño, a former principal at an El Centro elementary school, is adept at clicking through online databases for charts and graphs that show trends in student performance.

“Teachers here are willing to look at the data and make necessary changes, so that they can prescribe instructional changes for their students,” Montaño says.

Cecilia Larios, a 6th grade teacher here for the past five years, uses the online data and printed reports of class and state test scores to gauge her own effectiveness.

“I can look at the incoming and ongoing results for each student, and I see where I’m weak or where I’m strong,” she says. “This helps me to organize students in my room and to know when someone is in trouble …. and where they need some reteaching.”

One recent morning, Karla Valenzuela is doing just that. After most students in her class of new Mexican immigrants had difficulty on a quiz on integers, Valenzuela recast the lesson, primarily in English, to explain the concept better.

A few weeks into the school year, the Spanish-English dictionaries on students’ desks are already starting to show the wear of daily use.

Valenzuela then explains some algebraic terminology, using the lesson as an opportunity to reinforce the students’ English vocabulary.

“What is ‘help’ in Spanish?” she asks. “Ayuda,” the class responds.

A few weeks into the school year, the Spanish-English dictionaries on students’ desks are already starting to show the wear of daily use.

“I have high expectations for them to learn everything in English,” Valenzuela says. “They are very motivated to learn.”

While Larios and other teachers report that the data analysis has helped them improve instruction and move more students to proficiency, that progress was not enough recently to satisfy federal requirements for adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Although the proportion of students demonstrating proficiency in language arts jumped nearly 5 percentage points in the 2004-05 school year, to 22 percent, the school fell slightly short of the expected target of 24.4 percent.

The news came as a shock, teachers here say, especially since the school has improved its standing on the state accountability measure each year—including a 25-point rise, to 651 on a 1,000-point scale, last school year. The real irony, Montaño says, was in gaining national recognition and federal sanction at precisely the same time.

The Schools to Watch program was established by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, in Champaign, Ill., to promote academic rigor and relevance in the nation’s middle schools, a sector widely criticized as lacking strong curricula and instruction. As part of the forum initiative, a team of educators and experts spent hours visiting classrooms and interviewing teachers, students, and parents at Kennedy.

“This school has fought incredible odds to … attain the level of success they have reached,” says Irvin Howard, who directs the state-level Schools to Watch initiative in California. The review team, he says, “believed that this school is on a trajectory toward becoming a high-performing middle school that meets the needs of its students and community in ways that others could learn and benefit from.”

The federal requirements that labeled the school for “program improvement” dampened the forum’s recognition, but only temporarily.

That designation under the No Child Left Behind law could have been an ominous start for the new principal, especially considering the staff’s affection for his predecessor, Smith, and concern that they might lose the momentum and support she offered.

But the mild-mannered, business-like Montaño didn’t wallow in the bad news.

“The teachers were just disgusted,” he says of the federal label. “They had worked so hard, but not hard enough.”

Failure to make adequate yearly progress—and the school’s failure to show sufficient progress among Hispanic students—requires Montaño and his staff to craft a plan for accelerating student achievement. That report is due to state officials this month.

On the last day of vacation for students this past August, Kennedy teachers had already turned in the desert sun for the fluorescent glow of a windowless room. Colored markers in hand, they listed on oversize sheets of paper the test results—and ambitious new benchmarks—for each grade, each department, each teacher. Across the room they crafted strategies for getting more students on track toward proficiency and ways to tackle other student and parent concerns, such as bullying and inadequate communication between home and school. The exercise has already led to changes, from the grouping of students—including intervention classes for those performing below the basic level on state tests—to additional professional development, support staff, and instructional materials for teachers.

“This is a chance for teachers to have ongoing reflection, ongoing differentiation of their instruction,” says Montaño. “We want to prepare students for the high school exit exam.”

That preparation had already started for dozens of incoming 6th graders who participated in a summer program at Kennedy that introduced them to middle school procedures and content. When the school year began, those students deemed most in danger of failing were assigned to an intensive intervention class, where they get double doses of math and reading lessons. In other classes, tutors work side by side with struggling students to ensure they understand the lessons. Teachers are permitted to keep students after school to reinforce lessons or for making up classwork.

There are other signs that students are doing better. The school now has two classes for advanced coursework that provides support services for average students hoping to attend college. Two classes of 8th graders are taking algebra, something that a decade ago was a far-off goal. And discipline problems seem well contained: Most incidents are considered relatively minor, compared with the infractions of a decade ago.

For the teachers, particularly those who have persisted throughout the good times and bad, one thing hasn’t changed, says Montaño, who, like most of his students, has family roots in Mexico.

“These teachers are used to working hard,” he says. “I wasn’t asking them to do anything they hadn’t done before.”

Vol. 25, Issue 11, Pages 32-35

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