By Mary Koepke — October 01, 1990 15 min read

Whenever a grading period would end at the school near Juanita Cunningham’s home, she could count on finding her yard full of trash. The students at Howard Middle School in Ocala, Fla., didn’t bother bringing home the stacks of work sheets, tests, and reports that teachers had returned. Instead, they littered the campus and neighborhood with them.

But last year, Cunningham didn’t have to pick up any paper, and she noticed that the school grounds were clean, as well. “Things have changed over there,” the community leader remarks happily.

The school in Cunningham’s area--an economically mixed, predominantly black neighborhood on Ocala’s west side--had a painful birth. Before the late ‘60s, the racially mixed middle school did not exist: all-black Howard High School did. But compulsory integration following the civil rights movement dispersed the black teens at Howard High. In the reshuffling, the high school was closed and the 850-student middle school was installed at the site.

As in countless schools across the country, when whites and blacks were bused into each other’s neighborhoods in Ocala as part of forced integration, racial tension mounted. As emotional conflicts accelerated, academic progress stalled. Over the years, tensions died down, but Howard developed a hard-to-shake reputation as a place where students didn’t want to learn.

Now, Howard is experiencing a rebirth. Behavior problems and apathy among students have taken a nose dive, while attendance, test scores, and pride are on the rise. Try to find out who’s behind the transformation and the folks in Ocala sound like members of a mutual admiration society. The teachers applaud their new principal, Clyde Folsom. He, in turn, brags about the staff. Still, everyone at Howard humbly admits that the recent road to success has had its share of bumps. Overall, they sound a little shocked that they have traveled so far so fast. In August 1986, Folsom joined the Howard staff as principal. Immediately, teachers noticed that the seasoned administrator--a burly former basketball coach--was not one to hide behind a desk. He started taking care of business--and the school. He made sure that the chronic leak in the 6th grade hallway got plugged and that the bushes dotting the school’s sprawling, concreteblock buildings received a manicure. Teachers even saw him outside in his shirtsleeves picking up trash.

Many teachers had no idea that Folsom was also coming into the office on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. In an effort to understand the profile of Howard’s students, he pored over cumulative files. In folder after folder, he found indications of trouble. The absentee rate was high, standardized-test scores were low. Too many students were being passed to the next grade level, regardless of whether they were academically ready.

Toward the end of his first year, Folsom called together several central office supervisors to ask for help. According to language-arts supervisor Shirley Nichols, they were delighted by his concern. Nichols suggested using the inservice budget to hire Gloria Houston, a language-arts specialist from the University of South Florida’s College of Education, to help restructure the language-arts curriculum. If reading and writing skills could be improved, clearly all subject areas would benefit.

Paying a professorial type to tell teachers how to do their jobs could have been the perfect way for a new administrator to alienate his faculty. But Folsom didn’t worry about that. He believed that all teachers--regardless of how antagonistic they might seem--would rally around a good plan. “You have to understand Mr. Folsom’s style,” explains Houston affectionately. “He principals like he coaches. Once he gets a play in mind, he puts it into action.”

At a back-to-school departmental meeting in 1987, Howard’s eight English teachers were introduced to Houston--their new team leader. At first, they weren’t at all sure they wanted to play the game. Says veteran teacher Susan Garcia, “When you’ve been teaching 30 years, and you hear that some professionally paid, outside consultant is going to tell you how to teach, you’re skeptical.”

Like Folsom, Houston was undaunted. She called out her ideas as if she were facing 100 eager teammates instead of eight pairs of silent eyes. She introduced a teaching technique for integrating reading and writing called “process writing.” The logical edit-and-revise method uses students’ own experiences rather than textbook assignments as a resource to stimulate creative thinking. The approach was a dramatic departure from Howard’s previous curriculum. Following state-adopted guidelines, grammar and spelling skills had been taught in isolation from reading or writing experiences. The primary goal, according to many teachers, had been to prepare students to master the objectives on state and national achievement tests.

The process-writing method, on the other hand, allows pairs or small groups of students to “talk through” a rough draft of what they want to write about. “They share the story that they want to write aloud so that mechanics don’t get in the way,” says Houston. Next, they write first drafts and read them aloud. After getting feedback from peers, each writer incorporates the changes into a final draft. Spelling, sentence construction, punctuation, and all the other grammatical particulars are studied and applied as they edit their stories.

To generate story ideas, Houston advised teachers to begin each class with “free writing"--writing in a personal journal without the threat of being graded. The thoughts students express in the journals then can become topics to develop into stories. She also taught the teachers how to use a brainstorming technique known in reading research as “clustering” or “semantic mapping” to help students organize their ideas.

A few teachers warmed up as soon as they got the gist of what Houston was proposing. Says Garcia: “Gloria was talking about integrating reading and writing skills--having kids write, revise, and edit their work. Although I never called it process writing, I had always believed in teaching this way.” Having Folsom endorse Houston’s approach was “like getting a license to teach again,” according to Garcia, who had been frustrated by the previous administration’s push to teach isolated skills.

Many of Garcia’s colleagues were less enthusiastic. “I thought it was a bunch of junk,” recalls teacher Annie Bell Bright, laughing. The Ocala-born teacher was a traditionalist, accustomed to teaching by the book. But Houston’s enthusiasm impressed her. And the dichotomous style of Folsom--a gentle steamroller--convinced her to give process writing a try. Explains Bright: “Some principals would say, ‘You’re going to do it because I want it done.’ But Mr. Folsom’s approach was different. He had a strong vision. And he believed that if we became involved, we would become enthusiastic, too.” Almost immediately, Bright and her colleagues got results--albeit sometimes confusing ones. Houston vividly recollects the day when an angry teacher confronted her with a student’s journal. “The teacher was beside herself because the student was writing lies,” Houston recalls. And what’s more, because the stories were being shared aloud, the entire class was hooked into hearing the next episode of his ongoing saga.

Intrigued, Houston opened the boy’s journal, which was covered with dirty fingerprints, and found a hilarious, sophisticated parody of his life, called “The Adventures of the West End Stud.” His teacher was appalled; Houston was delighted. In the two years that this student had repeated the 8th grade, never had he plied his pen to paper with such animation or diligence. After Houston reminded the teacher to look at the work as fiction rather than fibbing, the teacher began to understand the significance of his effort.

Learning how to use students’ stories to improve specific writing and reading skills took a little longer. Over the next few months, Houston worked with teachers regularly. Sometimes, she jumped onstage, teaching a lesson to students and giving teachers the rare chance to observe. Other times, she simply sat down with teachers individually, listened to their stories of unpredicted snags, and helped them brainstorm solutions. Several times that year, Folsom hired substitutes, enabling the entire English department to meet with Houston during the school day. She introduced other innovative techniques--such as grading essays on the basis of one rule of grammar at a time--that have since become as common as chalk in many Howard classrooms.

Meanwhile, Folsom was working to improve schoolwide discipline problems. He decided to create a “secondary-learning center” to which teachers could send recalcitrant students; supervision and a packet of work would be waiting. The idea was to remove the child from class quickly and quietly. “Don’t even emphasize the disruption,” says Folsom.

The center offered teachers an alternative to paddling--a practice used by some Howard teachers, but one that Folsom believes is ineffective. Bright says it took a few months to adjust to the new policy, but it paid off. “I used to paddle them and say, ‘Shut up!’ Now I send Johnny right on out of the classroom so Johnny won’t get everyone else upset,” she says. Although separated from the classroom, the child is able to continue experiencing the learning process, according to Bright. “It’s not a punishment, and it’s not busywork either. I kind of like that.”

Folsom also implemented a mandatory academic summer school program to help weaker students improve their skills.

Encouraged by progress thus far and believing that his moves had won points with the staff, Folsom decided to go for broke. In the summer of 1988, with the help of Houston, his assistant principal, and central office supervisors, he outlined a plan of action he called “Project Impact.” It involved the schoolwide implementation of process writing and a dramatic schedule change. In preparation, Houston personally wrote two weeks worth of lesson plans for every teacher. Folsom ordered boxes of new supplies and visual aids, such as overhead projectors and acetates, which the school had been lacking.

At the back-to-school meeting, all 63 teachers sat around tables in Howard’s library and listened in silence as Houston described how the thinking skills of students would improve if process writing were implemented in math, science, and social studies, as well as the language-arts classrooms.

At the same time, teachers were told that the seven-period day--which had never been challenged before--had suddenly vanished. In its place was an arrangement that sounded more like a college than middle school schedule. Each class met for 98 minutes every other day. For example, a teacher might have one class in the morning, followed by a 98-minute preparation period and a 25-minute lunch break. After lunch, a new 49-minute session called “Prime Time” would give teachers the chance to design and offer activities or lessons on a subject of their choice. Another 98-minute academic class would end the school day.

Teachers were stunned. To an outsider, the prospect of only teaching two academic subjects and an elective might sound a lot more interesting than having to analyze “The Road Not Taken” or prove the Pythagorean theorem five times in one day. But teachers who had followed the same routine for decades felt as though suddenly the linoleum had been pulled out from under them. “My first reaction was: How am I going to fill 98 minutes?” recalls teacher Georgine Fondots.

As soon as the shock wore off, teachers realized that they had no choice. A few grumbled, says Houston. But to her surprise most were willing to give it a try. During the first two weeks of school, the change in schedule brought an undeniable sense of calm to the campus. It was “pure heaven,” Nichols says without exaggeration. The rowdiness and fights that erupted as students walked from one building to another decreased by 50 percent. Students only changed classes three times a day with the new schedule, so they simply didn’t have as much time to get into trouble.

Although teachers enjoyed the calm, they had difficulty budgeting their time. “I was always either 10 minutes too short or 10 minutes too long,” says Fondots, recollecting the frustration.

Folsom realized that adjusting to major change wasn’t going to be easy--even for teachers with open minds. “The 98-minute schedule was a tremendous shock,” Folsom recalls. “People had difficulty with lesson plans. At first, they thought that all they had to do was add two lessons together. But it doesn’t work that way.”

The transition was toughest for teachers who relied heavily on work sheets or “seat work.” Explains Fondots: “You can’t expect students to write for 98 minutes. You have to change activities five or six times per period. That took a long time for people to get used to.”

Folsom kept a sharp eye out for teachers who were having difficulty or who simply didn’t want to be involved. “People wanted to fade out, and I couldn’t let that happen,” he says. So, he identified those teachers and began working with them in small groups once a week. He gave specific help with lesson plans, but he also challenged them philosophically. Says Folsom: “I always say, ‘If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll get more of what you got.’ And then, of course, the next question is, ‘Do you like what you’ve got?’ If not, then you have to change your habits.”

In pushing so relentlessly, Folsom admits that he stepped on some toes. But he says he tried to be nurturing. Above all, he wanted teachers to get the message that change was possible. Bright, for one, says the fact that Folsom believed in her made a difference. “Mr. Folsom kept on telling us that if we tried, we could do it,” recalls Bright. “Ms. Houston said the identical thing. It was sort of soothing.”

Not everyone was comforted. After the first year, about 10 teachers continued to oppose the new system. Many felt that they needed to see students more than twice a week. In the fall of 1989, as the second year of Project Impact began, Folsom changed the schedule. Monday through Thursday would remain long-period days; but, on Friday, the short-period schedule would give teachers the chance to see every class before the weekend.

Math teacher Lawana Croskey believes that the compromise was a crucial move. “Friday has made a big difference,” she says. “Now we are able to tie everything up with the students.” In time, the success of Project Impact became obvious. Students started to notice the schoolwide consistency of both instruction and behavior management. As a result, behavior problems during class diminished, meaning fewer students had to be pulled out of class. Just as Folsom had refused to buy into the stereotype that teachers are resistant to change, he had faith in students. “All you have to do is look a student in the eye and say, ‘I know you can learn and behave, and I expect you to do that,” insists Folsom.

His positive approach worked wonders--and it was infectious. Bright recalls the epiphany that sold her on Folsom’s philosophy. During a conference, one of her students had told Folsom that Bright didn’t believe he could learn anything. When Bright heard this, she realized that it was true. Says Bright: “I would get on him all the time because he would come to school without materials. ‘What’s wrong with your head?’ I would say.”

One day, she decided to change. In private, she confessed to the tall, slender boy that he was right. She didn’t believe he could learn. But, she assured him, her attitude was going to be different from now on. In a voice with the thunder and wonder of an earnest preacher, Bright describes how she looked deep into the boy’s brown eyes. “I said, ‘Right now, I’m going to turn the tide! I believe that you can learn. Yes, I believe it!”’

The boy’s face lit up with a sparkling smile. He promised Bright that if she gave him a pen that day, he would never bother her for one again. “And from that day till school closed, he had that same pen,” exclaims Bright. “He went from a D to a B. And other teachers said he did better in their classrooms, too.”

As students’ behavior improved, the faculty was able to concentrate more on instruction. Tapping the resources of the English department, Folsom hired a substitute for Garcia so that she could offer an all-day workshop for people who needed help. Teachers were notified that they could contact Garcia during their planning periods. “No one was told that it was mandatory, but they came,” Garcia recalls.

Many teachers who had been uncomfortable with the idea of using journal writing began to see its advantages once they gave it a try. “Writing was hard for me,” admits math teacher Croskey. But when she incorporated journal writing into her classroom, she was happily surprised. “It gave me a chance to see what kids thought, and it gave them a chance to ask questions they normally wouldn’t ask during math class. We talked about things like what the world would be like without numbers.”

As time passed, most teachers grew not just accustomed to the longer periods, but also fond of them. Fondots, who originally could not imagine how she would fill 98 minutes, now swears by the longer classes. “Short periods are more tiring and less effective,” she insists. “On Fridays, when we have the 45-minute periods, I’m frazzled. It’s wham, wham, wham. I don’t know how I got anything done before.”

Several part-time math teachers still disagree, according to Betty Werner, mathematics supervisor for the county. But most teachers enjoy the luxury of not having to watch the clock. Class time, Werner says, is being used more creatively. She describes one new arrangement in which a class is divided into two smaller groups--one stays with the teacher while the other works in a computer lab with a special tutor. “The benefits are twofold,” she says. “Kids are getting good, solid math concepts. And the teacher, left with a small group, is able to do hands-on problem solving.” Folsom says he can’t force anyone to like the system. Instead, he is hoping that patience and persistence on his part will pay off. “I’m just like a salesman,” he declares. “I have to keep knocking at the door.”

Howard still has a long way to go, Folsom stresses. But everyone is clearly pleased with the direction it’s heading. The students used to be set apart from others in the county by being at the bottom of every list, says Werner. Now they are known for being part of an innovative project.

Neighborhood residents, like Juanita Cunningham, may not know exactly what Howard’s Project Impact is all about, but they can tell just by looking at the campus that things are changing for the better. “It looks like a school over there,” Cunningham says brightly.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Rebirth