In Troubled Schools, Policy and Reality Collide

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It takes 3rd grader Yancey Smith a couple of minutes to recall all of his old schools. He's been to four different ones in as many years.

Susana Rodriguez, a 4th grader, counts on a classmate to help her follow what's happening in class because she understands little English and receives instruction from a bilingual teacher only 45 minutes a day. Two teachers are out on "stress disability," partly from working in such a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood.

These images from a single afternoon at Jefferson Elementary School suggest the tall hurdles that make tightening accountability far easier said than done, particularly in large, urban districts.

Last fall, the 137,000-student San Diego system told Jefferson, a single-story school surrounded by palm trees in a working-class neighborhood, and 19 others to shape up or ship out. If they don't improve their test scores, grades, and enrollment in college-preparatory courses by 2000, their teachers and administrators will have to reapply for their jobs. Many, if not all of them, will be involuntarily transferred.

"We've put the whole district on alert," said Sally J. Bennett, the manager of the accountability program.

Recent visits to Jefferson Elementary and O'Farrell Middle School here provide a window into how accountability is playing out on the front lines. When the 20 schools were identified in the fall, many of them asked, "Why us?" Now, they are starting to ask, "How can we do better?"

Scant Resources

While the district has offered much in the way of constructive criticism, through an intense review process in December and January, it has offered few dollars. Each of the 20 schools is slated to receive only $16,500 in extra money this year--an amount that educators in these schools say won't begin to address some of the serious shortcomings confronting them and their students.

For example, says Jefferson Principal Bonny Russell, an evaluation of the school prepared under the accountability program calls for a full-time nurse and a full-time counselor. Ms. Russell says she doesn't have enough money for those positions.

Money is just one of the many areas, educators here say, where the lofty goals of accountability run head-on into everyday realities. At Jefferson Elementary, 40 percent of the 450 students have limited proficiency in English. And many of their parents can barely read or write the language.

"We've graduated students over the years who are illiterate, and then they have children," Ms. Russell said. "But we're not funded to teach adult literacy."

Flipping through the recommendations in the 10-page accountability review, she said she has no space for a parent room, no money for a prekindergarten program, and no control over union regulations regarding seniority.

Ms. Russell compares grappling with the district's ultimatum to grieving the loss of a loved one. "It's almost like a death--there's death, shock, grief, and anger," she said. "And then you realize life has to go on. We've pulled together, and we're going to do the best we can."

Staff Turnover

Jefferson students are engaged in a variety of activities one recent afternoon, with a 2nd grade class spelling their names in Braille with split peas and another squealing over an insect crawling out of a cocoon in the teacher's hands. Strains of "The Hokey Pokey" drift into a hallway.

"Our staff works so hard," Ms. Russell said in a hoarse voice caused by a battle with bronchitis. "They're young and enthusiastic or experienced and still have that spark."

But she acknowledges that it's difficult to maintain stability when one-third of the 20 teachers are brand-new.

Another problem is that those rookie teachers are dealing with one of the biggest challenges in education: a school where the overwhelming majority of students come from poor families.

The percentage of poor children at Jefferson Elementary has increased over the past five years from 76 percent to 90 percent, Ms. Russell said. Their families move often, which appears to hinder their achievement, the principal said. "We have some students for all six years, but not many."

Across town, O'Farrell Middle School, founded in 1960, became a charter school four years ago with the mission of creating a progressive, nurturing learning environment. School assemblies are called "town meetings." The 1,360 students are divided into "families," which attend academic classes together.

"We want students to feel a part of something, which is very important in an urban setting," said Principal Byron King. He also encourages teachers to mix students from different grades in one class, include disabled children in regular classes, and assign group projects instead of lecturing.

In one humanities class, 7th and 8th graders recently broke up into teams to study the Middle Ages. Each team will do a presentation on a different culture during that time period, explained Patty Gray, 28, who has taught at the school since she graduated from college.

Shifting Gears

"I want them to be active learners," Ms. Gray said. "I could teach more standardized-test skills and give them practice tests, but that would deter them from doing projects like this. It's a tough balance."

Eighty percent of O'Farrell's 7th and 8th graders read below grade level. Following an intensive review by 13 educators, parents, and residents under the accountability program, the school has decided to devote half of one school day a week to reading. Letters were sent home to parents, asking them to make sure their children read for at least 20 minutes every night.

Asked whether the accountability program was forcing the school to second-guess its trademarks like mixed classes and numeric grades, Mr. King said, "I don't think we need to question all our values and commitments."

But he conceded that it has forced the school to face up to the realities of the academic standards being developed by the district and the state.

"This school was founded by teachers who are extremely creative and push the envelope on assessment," the principal said. "We barely tolerated standardized tests. Now, we're realizing that we need to pay more attention to them."

The crack of the district's educational whip came as a surprise to the charter school, which President Clinton lauded for its innovation and community involvement during a 1995 visit.

"It makes our school look bad," said 8th grader Crystal Hinton. "We're very worried about getting our school off the list."

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