Starting Over

By Lynn Olson — February 01, 1995 25 min read

To reach Thomas J. Rusk Elementary School from downtown Houston, you cross the railroad tracks and pass a string of run-down wooden bungalows and industrial warehouses. To the west, the city skyline floats above the rooftops like a distant vision of Oz.

In front of the modest brick building, a row of saplings supported by wires is struggling to take root: a mute testimony to the rebirth taking place within.

Two years ago, Rusk Elementary was a school in crisis. Children roamed the halls and fought in the cafeteria. Test scores ranked among the lowest in the district. Teachers and the principal were at war. Various school factions had twice marched down to the school board demanding that something be done. “It was terrible,’' recalls Jane Cardenas, president of the school’s parent-teacher organization. “The kids were running around the halls, and the teachers were not doing what they were supposed to do. Sometimes, I’d come to school, and my son would be the one to open the door.’'

In June 1993, then-superintendent Frank Petruzielo announced that he would wipe the slate clean and start over. He reassigned the school’s principal, declared all the teaching positions vacant, and told the teachers they’d have to reapply for their jobs or transfer elsewhere in the district.

Today, only three of Rusk’s 29 teachers remain from that spring. A new principal has recruited an almost entirely new staff. The floors and walls sparkle. Classroom doors are painted bright red. Students pass through the halls, accompanied by their teachers, in quiet, orderly lines. Plans are in the works for a school health clinic, with funding from the district and area hospitals. The positive changes have been noted in Austin; last year, Rusk was taken off the list of the state’s low-achieving schools.

Few districts have taken the drastic step of completely restaffing a school--a practice now referred to in education-policy circles as “reconstitution.’' But that soon may change. Chronically low-achieving schools plague most inner-city school systems. And as the demand for accountability grows, officials in more and more districts are looking to rebuild them from scratch.

Already the San Francisco and Cleveland school boards have adopted policies (as part of court-ordered desegregation plans) that call for the systematic reconstitution of poorly performing schools after three years. In Kentucky, beginning in 1996, schools deemed to be “in crisis’’ could have their principals and teachers replaced. In New York, district officials are in the process of replacing two troubled high schools with up to six smaller ones; each will be run by a director who can select his or her own staff members. In Texas, a law approved in 1993 allows the state to reconstitute any poorly performing school that fails to bring up its test scores and other academic indicators for several years in a row.

“We just did a 50-state survey on accountability,’' says Susan Fuhrman, a professor of educational policy at Rutgers University and director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, “and 43 states say they’re changing their accountability systems, and one of the main features is some type of sanction. It’s a popular notion, but a lot of this is still rhetoric. What we found is that these things are more in planning than on the books. And even when they’re on the books, the ultimate interventions have yet to be applied.’'

Except in a few cases--like Rusk.

No one denies that Rusk Elementary needed help. The tiny building is tucked away in the southeast corner of the 312-square-mile Houston Independent School District. It’s in a poor neighborhood populated mostly by Hispanics, many of them recent immigrants. The majority of the 442 students comes from homes where Spanish is the primary language spoken. Of the school’s 20 preK-6 classrooms, half are designated for bilingual or English-as-a-second-language instruction. Many of the students read below grade level in both English and Spanish.

About one-fifth of Rusk’s population comes from two homeless shelters--the Star of Hope Women’s and Family Shelter and the Salvation Army. This contributes to a student mobility rate that climbed to 175 percent during the 1991-92 school year.

When Johana Briseno Thomas, a first-year principal, took over at Rusk that year, it was already a school in academic trouble. Its standardized test scores were among the lowest in the district; fewer than 20 percent of students met the minimum expectations on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Still, there was little to distinguish Rusk from the other struggling inner-city schools in the 201,000-student school system.

Soon, however, reports of problems began to reach the area superintendent and the central administration. Representatives from the homeless shelters complained that teachers were mistreating their children, many of whom were African-American. They alleged that the children were being unfairly scapegoated for the school’s disciplinary problems. Parents charged that the principal refused to meet with them. Teachers reported that they were left out of the decisionmaking process. Thomas requested the transfer of several veteran teachers based, in part, on her contention that they were physically and emotionally abusing children from the shelters.

Area assistant superintendent Jose Hernandez says that by November 1992, he was receiving complaints almost daily. Several people described Thomas as a novice administrator who was put into an almost impossible situation. By her second year, almost half the teachers were new to the building, and many of its more experienced teachers had left.

Noemi Martinez, a stout Hispanic woman who works as the cashier in the school’s cafeteria, crosses her arms and lets out a snort of disgust when asked about conditions at the school back then. “Huh,’' she says. “Very bad. Faculty and staff, you were either on the principal’s side or against her. And the parents were fighting each other. And the kids were running wild, up to the point where we even had a teacher locked up in a closet. For two years, it was like chaos here.’'

In 1992, parents and teachers addressed Houston Independent School District trustees twice concerning the school’s weak curriculum and disciplinary problems. Hernandez says he sent in Chapter 1 and bilingual supervisors to work with the school, but nothing seemed to make a difference. Thomas alleges that she asked for more staff and help allocating $200,000 that the HISD had earmarked for Rusk but that her pleas went unanswered.

Then, in April 1993, the Texas Education Agency sent in an accreditation team to conduct a peer review of the school. It was a few months before Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 7, the new accountability measure that would enable the TEA to restaff low-performing schools. “The campus was generally in turmoil,’' says Larry Garcia, who works in the accreditation division of the state education department. “There was just a lot of strife and divisiveness.’' TAAS scores--which already fell significantly below the state standard--had been steadily declining for three years. Although Rusk’s primary goal was to improve student attendance, it had set no specific, measurable objectives. The school’s shared-decisionmaking committee stood divided. Its other committees had been abandoned, leaving many teachers without needed workbooks and other materials all year. “Basically,’' Garcia says, “the peer-review team concluded, ‘This campus just needs to start all over,’ and that was placed in the report.’'

Petruzielo had already proposed a new accountability system for the school district called “Blueprint: Houston Schools of Excellence.’' In it, he suggested overhauling low-achieving schools that did not improve over a reasonable period of time. The school board endorsed the blueprint, but the district had never resorted to using the intervention strat-egy. In fact, the district didn’t even have a detailed policy on the books that spelled out the specific steps leading up to intervention or the criteria that would make such a drastic measure appropriate.

In a closed board session in the spring of 1993, Petruzielo informed the HISD trustees that he planned to use his existing authority to transfer administrators and teachers out of Rusk Elementary School. “There was considerable discussion,’' recalls Houston’s new superintendent, Rod Paige, who was then a school board member. “It was not a unanimous issue. I was for reconstitution, but I wanted some definite guidelines and rules set down for when we ran into this situation again.’'

In the end, the accreditation report forced the school district to act. Reconstitution, Paige says, “was almost a spontaneous response. We couldn’t think of anything short of this that was going to fix it.’'

On Friday, June 4, Petruzielo, with the Houston press corps in tow, made a surprise visit to the school to announce his plans. Everyone but the custodial and cafeteria employees would have to reapply for their jobs or move on. Thomas, the principal, was placed on “special assignment’’ with the school district. Area newspapers described reconstitution as the “death penalty’’ for schools.

“It was volatile,’' Paige says. “We were frightened by the way it was played.’'

The staff members at Rusk today don’t like to talk about the past. Many came to the school because they liked the idea of starting fresh. A few didn’t know much about the school’s history when they applied for their jobs. A sizable group--eight of the school’s 29 teachers and one teacher’s aide--followed principal Felipa Young from her former post at Andrew Briscoe Elementary School across town.

Robin Henry, a 1st grade teacher with a thick Southern accent, came to Rusk from another school in the district. “My principal had left the school I was at,’' recalls Henry, who stands barely higher than her students. “I was there for four years, and I just wanted a change. I didn’t even know what all had gone on here. I still don’t know everything, and I don’t even want to know.’'

Diane Smith, a kindergarten teacher, was ready to leave the district for work in the suburbs. “I was very frustrated and just thought I needed to have a change of pace,’' she says. But she knew Young, who had evaluated her teaching for the district. So when she heard the news on television, she decided to apply. “When I got here it was filthy,’' Smith recalls. “I got a room that really looked like something had exploded. There were pencil shavings mixed in with blocks and toys and torn pieces of paper just everywhere. Somehow, we threw everything in containers and just put it away. And the children were very needy--a lot of tears, a lot of trouble adjusting. They needed love and happy surroundings.’'

Today, Smith’s room is decorated with a brightly colored carpet, and artwork hangs from the ceilings. It’s a few weeks before Halloween, so she’s wearing an orange apron decorated with bats, and witches dangle from her ears. Gathered on the rug in the front of the room, the kindergartners carve letters out of the air with their hands, then with their whole bodies. Last year, Smith had two classes--one in the morning and one in the afternoon--of 22 students, but she ended up teaching 80 different children over the course of the year. “You have to want to be here,’' she admits. “You have to want to be in this kind of atmosphere.’'

Principal Young positions herself in the hallway as the children pass by. She is a cross between a mother hen and a sentry guard. Warm brown eyes shine out from a square face surrounded by graying curls. A large, chunky wooden necklace, with a schoolhouse swaying from the end of it, is her only concession to fashion.

When Petruzielo decided to restaff Rusk Elementary School, he recruited Young because of her work at Briscoe Elementary, an inner-city school where she had successfully increased parent and community involvement. “He gave me no choice,’' Young claims. “I really wanted to stay at Briscoe a couple more years and then, maybe, go to a middle school. I gave him some other names.’' But a few days later, when Petruzielo came back and asked her again, she relented.

“When I came to Rusk,’' she recalls, “the park next door was dirty, run-down. The school was not kept. It was just--the way the building looked, the way the grounds looked--it was nothing like what I had left. It just didn’t have a cheerful warm feel about it.’'

One of her first decisions was to install a window in every classroom door so she could see what was going on inside. She painted the walls. The school’s business partners--Arthur Andersen & Co. and NationsBank--contributed to a beautification program at the school and the park next door. Thanks to the combined efforts of some 100 neighborhood residents and other volunteers, more than 75 trees were planted around the school grounds. The fences, bleachers, and basketball courts at the park were painted and repaired. Glass and litter were removed and flowers planted.

Young sought--and received--a waiver from the school district that lets her release students at 1:30 every Wednesday afternoon so teachers could make time for grade-level and cross-grade-level meetings and professional development activities. She revived the school-based decisionmaking committee. And she began to reach out to the community.

A grass-roots advocacy group, the Hispanic Family Education Support Center, agreed to help. So far, it’s held about a dozen meetings at the school. Group leaders encourage parents to vent their feelings and to get involved in school issues. “The Hispanic community, they’re reluctant to come in, unless they really feel that they’re a part of the school,’' Young explains. “I want my parents to feel that the school belongs to them.’'

On this particular afternoon, more than 30 parents pour into Rusk for a meeting about the school’s Chapter 1 remedial education program. Speaking through a translator, Sylvia Trevino, the parent of a 1st and 5th grader, says before reconstitution, the situation was so bad that only one or two parents would show up at school meetings. Now, to make up for the years when she didn’t feel comfortable at Rusk, Trevino tries to come to every meeting and school event.

“Everything has changed,’' says PTO president Cardenas. “The principal is always here. Her door is always opened to us. She’ll put anything on hold to attend to the person who wants her right here and now. Everybody is nice. Everybody treats you good. We can’t believe it.’'

In a small--but significant--gesture, Young requires every teacher to wear a name tag on a daily basis so parents can identify him or her. The name tags have turned into tiny pieces of artwork decorated with apples, rulers, and other symbols of the teaching profession. Young’s goal--still unrealized--is to have every parent, including those who live in the shelters, volunteer at least eight hours at the school.

Teachers at Rusk like to talk about the camaraderie that comes from having a strong leader and a sense of mission. “We’re all really good friends, as well as colleagues, and we share ideas and philosophy,’' Henry, the 1st grade teacher, says.

“Teachers feel that there is a value to what they’re doing,’' adds technology teacher Juannie Kyriakides, one of those who followed Young from Briscoe. “They feel that their opinion, their input, is valued. And they don’t have a fear of expressing their disagreements.’'

Mary McMurtry, a 3rd grade English-as-a-second-language teacher who first taught at the school in 1962 and has now returned, admits that Young is strict. “She believes in discipline, but she gives us the freedom to want to do better,’' McMurtry says. “She gives you an opening where you feel like you can do more because of her high standards.’'

Fifth grade teacher Dolores Alanis grew up in the neighborhood and still attends church here. Her mother runs a local flower store. “Ms. Young believes in keeping everyone together like a family,’' she says. “She’s willing to work with you--with professional help, with home, with anything.’' The school still has problems, Alanis admits, but “they’re normal ones.’' There’s no gymnasium, for example. And teachers say they are overworked.

For children, the most obvious change is the new sense of order and discipline at the school. There’s no talking or running in the halls, no talking in the cafeteria. At the end of the day, teachers accompany their classes to the front of the building. Some students even wear uniforms, an optional alternative to street clothes. All of the classrooms have visibly posted classroom rules. And many sport signs such as “Hard Work + Sacrifice = Success.’'

But the increase in discipline has been accompanied by plenty of added support, too. This year, the school has started an “adoption’’ program that makes every employee responsible for the well-being of a small group of students. In an effort to keep campus spirit high, a school drill team has been created. Students in the 5th and 6th grades can now look to single-sex support groups for guidance. And with money from a state program for homeless students, the school plans to launch an after-school arts program. Each day, the children listen as the Rusk Elementary learners’ creed is read over the public-address system: “I believe in myself and my ability to do my best at all times.’'

Early this morning, art teacher Perry O’Brien held down the front desk because the school is currently without a full-time secretary. As children straggled in late, he scolded them: “You need to get up earlier; it’s your responsibility, not your parents’.’'

When asked what has changed at Rusk, a group of 5th graders runs through a short list. “When you’re in the halls, you’re supposed to be quiet,’' Gerardo says. “We can do a lot more fun things, and we can learn at the same time,’' Edilma explains. “People used to just walk in the halls--go back and forth--and now they don’t do that,’' notes Fernando. And, he adds, there’s no more trouble in the bathrooms. The school isn’t messy anymore, another says, and students are encouraged to wear uniforms instead of baggy clothes. Do they mind all the changes? No, the children say. It’s better.

While it is certainly true that reconstitution has brought a much-needed sense of order and stability to Rusk, the school program, for the most part, remains traditional.

There is 20 minutes of silent reading in every class each day, and Young encourages frequent oral reading to perfect students’ English. Last year, all teachers participated in a series of workshops on whole language instruction and using literature across the curriculum. And as a group, the teachers have begun to set academic goals for each grade so continuity exists from one grade to the next.

But inside the classroom, every teacher does what he or she thinks best. In some rooms, desks are arranged in rows, and students fill out work sheets. In others, children work in groups, tutor peers, write in journals, and read literature. In general, however, teacher talk appears to be the norm; adults stand at the front of the room dispensing information or asking questions. And all Rusk teachers put a heavy emphasis on the basic skills students will need to pass the statewide test--the ultimate barometer of how a school is faring. “I want all the students to feel successful,’' Young says. “If you come to school every day, you’re prompt, you’re ready to work, you are going to get better.’'

Last year, student mobility at Rusk dropped to 134 percent, a decrease of nearly 24 percent from 1991-92. Surveys show that the level of parent and community involvement is up. But aca-demic progress, as measured by test scores, is more uneven. “It’s very frustrating,’' says Susan Sclafani, Houston’s associate superintendent for administration. “Some scores have gone up, and some have gone down.’' In the past four years, the state has changed its testing program so often--in terms of when students are tested and the grades in which they are tested--that there are no comparable year-to-year data.

Still, Sclafani says, signs do suggest that Rusk Elementary is headed in the right direction. The percentage of students meeting minimal expectations on the statewide test is highest in the upper grades, among students who have been at Rusk the longest. In 1993-94, for example, only 33 percent of 4th graders met the state’s minimum expectations in reading, but 67 percent of 6th graders did. In mathematics, those figures were 30 percent and 79 percent, respectively.

Despite the encouraging signs in both academic performance and atmosphere, there are critics of reconstitution and particularly of the way it was handled at Rusk Elementary.

The teachers’ unions complain that the practice casts all teachers in a bad light, including those who are doing their jobs. “It puts a permanent, negative mark on a teacher,’' charges Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “They’ve done this in two schools, and I’ve watched the teachers go out and attempt to find jobs. And none of the other principals want them.’'

The federation offered to file a grievance on behalf of Rusk’s former teachers, but no one was interested. Last spring, Houston school officials partially reconstituted Mamie Sue Bastian Elementary, moving out the principal and nine teachers. The union filed a grievance on behalf of four of those teachers, but it was withdrawn after the district agreed to help the teachers find jobs.

The unions blame the problems at Rusk and Bastian on bad management. “Both lacked leadership,’' charges Lee Barnes, president of the Houston Education Association. “The school district lacks competent principals. That’s just the bottom line.’'

Irene Kerr, executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, disagrees. But she says the experience at Rusk “reinforced for my members that every administrator is subject to reassignment. What was done at the time wasn’t illegal, but it was surely badly handled. And because it was badly handled, those teachers were basically lepers.’'

Johana Thomas, Rusk’s former principal, has filed a lawsuit against the school district, Petruzielo, two assistant superintendents, and five current and former school board members. In her lawsuit, Thomas alleges that Petruzielo reassigned her “in direct retaliation’’ for speaking out about possible child abuse at the school and for trying to transfer “problem’’ teachers. She charges that the school system demoted her without any inquiry into the facts and punished her without establishing personal guilt. The negative publicity, the lawsuit alleges, has damaged Thomas professionally and has made it impossible for her to secure future employment as an administrator. The case, which is set for trial this spring, has been filed in federal court because Thomas claims that her constitutional right to freedom of speech was violated.

To further confuse the issue, three months before Petruzielo removed Thomas from her post and placed her on special assignment, her annual evaluation was upgraded. It is not clear why. In her complaint, Thomas asserts that area assistant superintendent Hernandez correctly upgraded her evaluation after discovering that it was based on an earlier one that had been discredited. Hernandez, who is reluctant to talk about Thomas’ lawsuit, says he gave the former principal higher marks “just to give her a chance to succeed.’' Thomas, who now serves in one of the district’s area offices, is cur-rently earning $56,392 a year.

Olga Gallegos, a school board member who is a friend of Thomas’, says she supports accountability but did not support the actions taken at Rusk. “Accountability did not apply there,’' she argues, “because the principal there had been having problems with part of the staff. She was a new principal, and usually the area superintendent has to support and help a new principal. And she was not getting that support.’'

Whether the school district could have avoided reconstitution at Rusk if officials had intervened earlier remains an open question. But many businesspeople, parents, and teachers connected with the school allege that their cries for help went unanswered for at least a year. “Rusk isn’t terribly unusual,’' argues Jose Salazar, president of the Hispanic Family Education Support Center, the advocacy group now working with the school. “It just rose to the forefront somehow. There is a very strong sentiment in the Hispanic community that most of the schools that are in areas like Rusk are probably having very similar problems and are probably being very ineffective.’' According to Thomas’ lawsuit, the year Rusk was reconsti-tuted, 56 schools in Houston had fewer than 20 percent of students passing the TAAS exam.

“It wasn’t any one factor that made this school the candidate for change; it was the combination of factors,’' asserts associate superintendent Sclafani. “It was that the administrators and teachers and parents were not united in working for student improvement. These are very difficult situations, and they’re never clear-cut. What can be said is the resulting changes of both teachers and administrators have been positive for the school. And that was our goal: to improve the learning environment for kids.’'

n May 1994, the Houston school board adopted a new accountability system that formalizes the procedures used to reconstitute Rusk Elementary. The system rates schools--primarily on state test scores--and then places them in one of five categories: ranging from exemplary to low-performing. Principals at low-performing schools that are making no progress must devise a plan--with help from their shared-decisionmaking committee--to raise student achievement over two years. They can also request additional resources and authority. Each plan is negotiated with the school board.

If a school is placed in the targeted category for a second year, the principal can request adjustments in the agreement. At the end of that year, if the school has still failed to improve, the principal will be removed unless he or she can win an extension from the school board. The district can then select a new principal, identify a management team to run the school, or issue a request for public- or private-sector groups to operate the school.

Last June, six elementary schools, nine middle schools, and one high school were placed in the bottom category, meaning that fewer than 20 percent of their students had passed all sections of the TAAS exam. This fall, only three schools received the lowest rating, based on revisions in the accountability plan to reflect changes in the state’s testing system.

Don McAdams was school board president when Rusk was reconstituted. “I was upset then--and remain upset--that the area superintendent was not on top of the situation,’' says McAdams, who still serves on the board. “Here was a school that was not only low performing but also where morale was shot, where the community was unhappy, where the children were ill-served, and neither the area superintendent nor the people at the central office had been doing anything about it. I don’t think we’re ever going to have a Rusk situation again because we’re going to know how schools are performing and their intervention points.’'

Superintendent Rod Paige, who replaced Petruzielo when he moved to Florida to become chief of the Broward County schools, has also made it clear that he would like to avoid the Rusk scenario in the future. “I support reconstitution,’' he explains, “but you really are stigmatizing--to some extent--everybody, including those in the building who might have been doing a good job. What we’re saying is that the overall climate didn’t work, and we didn’t have any way to decide those who were part of the problem and those who were not. We’ll try to do it as painlessly as possible because we’re not in the business of trying to hurt people.’'

The solution, he believes, is the kind of partial reconstitution that took place at Bastian Elementary. There, the school system tried to pinpoint a small group of individuals and ask them to “voluntarily’’ relocate. McAdams compares such partial reconstitution to a “lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy.’'

“I think that’s the way to go,’' he says, “and reconstitution is a last resort.’'

Paige also suggests that students--as well as teachers and administrators--should be subject to transfer if they consistently disrupt learning. At the same time that Bastian was partially reconstituted, he moved approximately 20 “of the most severe discipline problems’’ out of the Dick Dowling Middle School and placed them in an alternative school. “We’re not going to allow a small portion of the student enrollment to disrupt the whole thing,’' he explains. “It doesn’t just stop with the teachers.’'

Others in the district are less optimistic about partial reconstitution. In fact, the Houston teachers’ unions say such a half-measure can be even more stigmatizing for those who are singled out.

And then there are those who say it just doesn’t work. Robert Green, a professor of education at Cleveland State University and an expert on reconstitution, says: “There seems to be something systemic about failure. It’s like having a fever or a virus. A virus affects your entire system. And to get at it, you should entirely clear the decks.’'

If there is any point of agreement on the overall issue, it is that reconstitution is painful. Nobody likes the process, but many like the results. “People say that we closed the school,’' superintendent Paige says of Rusk. “We really didn’t close the school. We started the school over. And I think there are situations where that remedy is appropriate. The bottom line is, schools have got to work. Children have got to learn. And these other types of issues will have to take a back seat to that.’'

For Rusk Elementary, the pressure is on to move forward and not look back. There is so much to do. So much to prove. “When I came to school here, it was very strict, very disciplined,’' says Noemi Martinez, the cafeteria cashier. “I like it now. I’m beginning to see the old Rusk--the Rusk I knew--with new teachers, new faces, but dedicated teachers.’'

Amanda Robertson, a young 1st grade teacher, began her career at Rusk before it was reconstituted. She was one of the three to be rehired. “Before, it was just negative, nothing but negative,’' she says. “It got to the point where you just did the bare minimum. It’s a positive environment now. You’re excited to come to school. You’re willing to put out the effort.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Starting Over