School & District Management

Trophy Case

April 05, 2005 12 min read
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Betsy Rogers was working one day in a kindergarten classroom in this old steel-mill town west of Birmingham when she found the snakes.

One critter. Then another. Another. Little creatures slithering onto a floor where children spent their naptimes. In two days, Rogers and others discovered 16 snakes in the room.

Turns out that snakes had been a problem in the room for years. One of the school secretaries had complained to the district office before, but nothing had been done.

“Our system let it go. Why? ’Cause it’s Brighton,” Rogers says.

Here at Brighton School, considered one of Alabama’s worst, snakes are only the most visible challenge to overcome.

President Bush lauded Betsy Rogers at the White House in 2003.

Rogers, the 2003 National Teacher of the Year, chose this K-8 campus of about 395 students for her first year back on the job. Unlike some of her former pupils during a 17-year career in the nearby town of Leeds, Ala., every child here comes from a family of modest means. Many students struggle with reading, writing, and math. Some are learning to speak English.

The school building itself needs a lot of work. Most teachers are overwhelmed by the problems many students have with schoolwork and the burdens of living in a poor neighborhood. The principal, who formerly worked with Rogers in Leeds, spends much of her time on the middle school portion of the campus, leaving Rogers and others to lead the elementary classes in a separate building.

Believe it or not, this is what Rogers wanted. As the nation’s top teacher, chosen from among her fellow state teachers of the year, she was honored by President Bush two years ago in a White House ceremony, then toured the United States and even Japan during the 2003-04 school year. When her stint in the limelight was up, she decided to return to the classroom—not become a superintendent or principal, or a consultant or full-time motivational speaker, a path chosen by some other high-profile award winners in education.

Widowed with two grown sons and the caretaker for her aging parents, Rogers wanted to be where she feels most at home: the classroom.

She decided on Brighton School, in part, because of the snakes. Rogers wants to show other good teachers an example of how they can make a difference for needy children in hard-to-staff schools.

Her journey at Brighton actually began two years ago with the snakes. It turns out that was just the beginning. “I thought I really understood” schools like Brighton, Rogers says. “But when you’re there behind closed doors, you really see how critical those needs are.”

During her time as Alabama’s teacher of the year, the 39,500-student Jefferson County school district that surrounds Birmingham and includes Brighton School provided her office space to use when she wasn’t traveling. Her desk was near that of Janet Hagood, who worked in federal programs for the district. Hagood first brought Rogers to Brighton School.

The two women developed a special affection for the school. It’s a place where some children are so needy that their responses to attention and teaching show vividly on their faces.

“They’re just so excited,” Rogers says. “They’re so good; they behave so well.”

Betsy Rogers: In Her Own Words

Former National Teacher of the Year Betsy Rogers is keeping an online diary, or Web log, for Teacher Magazine about her experiences this year at Brighton School. Here are excerpts:

Over a period of two days, 16 snakes were found in this room. I was relieved when I was told the snakes were not poisonous. However, this was not the issue, the issue was that children do not need to be in classrooms with snakes! … I am astonished when people wonder why the children in this school are not achieving at the expected level.

My principal told me that the teachers did not want me at Brighton. As harsh as this seemed at the time, I needed to understand that much of the attention I brought to the school was more hurtful to the faculty than helpful.

One gray morning as I was driving to work, I realized I was the only one on my side of the road; everyone else was going in the opposite direction into town. I asked myself, “Am I going the wrong way?” Daily, I question myself, “Am I the right person to work at this school? Can I really help and have impact? Do I have what it takes?” … I just know that I want to be in this school. I want to help create a positive culture that will enable the students and teachers to overcome this label of failure. I also have learned the key to this change of climate lies within the teachers at my school, not me.

I really owe the faculty and staff an apology. I had no idea the stress involved in working under these conditions. I actually thought I had the answers needed to turn this school around. The afternoon of the first day, I began to understand how little I knew.

Our kindergarten students benchmarked at almost the 80[th] percentile and our 1st grade students benchmarked at 87 percent with no students labeled needing intensive instruction. This was an incredible gain for our school. … There were shouts of joy and tears of happiness in our school that day.

Can we as a profession talk about our weaknesses without finger pointing? If your school is not making the needed progress, do we hold each other accountable or just ourselves? Are teachers really ready to accept accountability? … I so often wish the format and the standards for accountability had come from educators instead of policymakers.

Read Betsy Rogers’ Web log.

Brighton is a town of 3,600 residents who mostly live on narrow, hilly lanes in aging wooden houses. Some homes were grand at one time, but many have fallen into disrepair. A few stores and beauty shops mark the short downtown commercial district, but there may be more churches in Brighton than cash registers.

The school stands on a hilltop. Once a local segregated high school for black students and the center of a working-class community, the school now has football-field goalposts that are rusty brown, and swing sets that droop without swings.

Brighton is one of Alabama’s “tier one” schools, meaning it has shown a lack of improvement on state tests for four years in a row. A state-assigned “accountability teacher” constantly monitors student achievement on the campus and works alongside the principal, Rogers, and others.

“Some people in this district did not want me to come out here. … I think a lot of them want to ignore this [school],” says Rogers.

Rogers and Hagood were making one of their regular visits to Brighton one day in 2002, while Rogers was state teacher of the year, when the snakes appeared from a hole in a classroom wall. Then, Rogers spent last summer preparing the same classroom where the snakes had been found as her own.

But weeks before school began last fall, Brighton’s new principal, Margie Curry, asked Rogers to coach all the teachers rather than teach one group of children. Rogers hesitated, but agreed to take the job as Brighton’s curriculum coordinator.

In truth, she essentially is the co-principal of Brighton’s elementary school building, down the hill from the middle school. Rogers says it took “until Christmastime to get some sense of order. We were just scrambling.” Student records were not updated, and other serious administrative problems had to be addressed. “All of those things had really been sort of neglected,” she says.

Now, she spends much of her time in classrooms, and many other hours in meetings. Rogers tours the classrooms and knows many of the children by name. She models lessons for teachers and consults with them on lesson plans and activities.

Rogers also meets with the reading coach, the principal, and others. And she finds tissues for runny noses, and still finds the time to give an occasional speech.

“I don’t think my dream has changed,” she insists. But she admits: “It’s different [here] from what I thought it would be when I got inside the doors.”

Pleasant and unassuming, Rogers speaks with a thick central Alabama accent (her O’s and A’s are flat). The only signs of the prestigious national award in her office—which she shares with guidance counselor Georgia James—are a colorful patchwork quilt on the wall sent by an anonymous donor and a photograph of Rogers and her sons with President Bush after winning the national honor.

Rogers was humbled when she was named Jefferson County’s teacher of the year in 2002. She “thought others were better,” she says. Then she became Alabama’s teacher of the year the same year she taught 1st and 2nd graders at Leeds Elementary School east of Birmingham. She traveled to Washington in the spring of 2003 for three days of interviews with leaders of national education organizations.

A week later, Rogers received a call from the Alabama state superintendent telling her she had been selected for the top honor, which is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.

Working with children or adults, she’s always the same. She discusses training and academic standards with teachers in the same breath that she asks about their families.

“She makes you feel so comfortable. Kids just flock to her,” says Hagood, the colleague who first brought Rogers to Brighton School. “I think there are teachers out there that have a heart and a dream to work in high-need schools. Sometimes you need a role model to follow.”

Rogers, 53, seems as comfortable speaking at a national education conference as she does addressing a half-dozen retired educators at the Irondale Cafe, the train-depot setting in nearby Irondale, Ala., used in Fannie Flagg’s novel and the movie version of Fried Green Tomatoes.

“She’s just a common person, and that’s why the children like her,” says Yolonda Lucas, the reading coach at Brighton who has taught at the school for 10 years.

Roger meets with fellow Brighton School teachers during a grade-level meeting.

Even so, Rogers does not exactly chew on her words. In a meeting with teachers here at Brighton School, she questioned a teacher’s reading instruction methods. The teacher didn’t see the point of the discussion at first.

“I’m not trying to be difficult,” the teacher said. “You’re always difficult,” Rogers replied, somehow sounding sweet.

She also isn’t afraid to speak her mind in more public forums. She raised the ire of the Alabama Education Association by declining to support a major pay raise, and supporting Republican Gov. Bob Riley’s proposal for “full funding” of all state education programs instead.

“They do more to help bad teachers than they do to help our good teachers,” Rogers says over a lunch of barbecued ribs. “They have all this power, yet we’re still funded at the lowest.”

The union could not be reached for comment.

She’s also chairing the governor’s new task force on teacher quality and hopes to make recommendations that will influence state policy on the subject.

Her willingness to speak her mind comes across in Rogers’ new blog for Teacher Magazine. Her diary-like Web postings about life at Brighton School are astonishingly frank, and have drawn responses from around the globe.

“I’m really not this controversial,” she says. “I’m not going against teachers. I’m for teachers and for kids at the same time.”

Brighton School is still a virtually all-minority school, though it now includes Latinos. Eighty-four percent of students are black, and a growing proportion, now 16 percent, are Hispanic. Almost every child qualifies for federally subsidized meals. Many students do not see a doctor regularly. The school could use a medical clinic but doesn’t even have a nurse.

How the school looks and feels is embarrassing to Rogers and others who work here. Brighton’s recent struggles are even trying Rogers’ own philosophy on school improvement. “Our schools can be fixed!” she proclaims in a quote printed on Starbucks Coffee paper cups nationwide.

The school library is nothing more than two classrooms filled with a short supply of well-worn books and shredded carpet that was installed directly onto concrete. Thankfully, students from nearby Samford University, Rogers’ alma mater, are planning a renovation.

Rogers says the school had no public-address system for six years, and the current one came out of a school damaged by a tornado. Brighton still has no outside bells to help teachers and students know when to report to class. Worse, the elementary school building’s computer lab is in such disrepair that it can’t be used.

“This does not look like a Jefferson County school,” Rogers says. “It has been neglected for a very long time.”

The conditions of Brighton’s campus may be fixed in the future. Rogers says the school is first on Jefferson County’s list for replacement. But planning for the school has been delayed by a court case over the use of local sales taxes for school construction.

Yancy Morris, the deputy superintendent for administrative services in Jefferson County, says the district will respond to requests for repairs on the existing campus. “If it’s reported and we have the resources to do it, it should get fixed,” he says, noting that some repairs have been made at the school in recent years. On the academic side of things, science and social studies are not stressed at Brighton, as the school faces state and district pressure to raise math and reading test scores.

“That is the snake of Brighton—that in this school we don’t have the same standards” as traditionally better schools have for their students, Rogers says.

Rogers and Brighton School Principal Margie Curry, right, reach for chocolate during a meeting with teachers.

The good news is that Brighton’s scores on state reading tests, given three times annually, are much improved. With Rogers’ guidance, the school adopted the scripted, phonics-based Open Court reading program for the early grades. In 1st grade, 87 percent of the pupils met the state standards on January’s test.

At Rogers’ urging, more student work hangs in the hallways, and some fresh paint has brightened the place. Students from Samford and other local universities now volunteer so often at Brighton that they have their own sign-in book.

For their part, Rogers’ colleagues say even a former National Teacher of the Year has had to learn tough lessons at Brighton. Staff turnover has been a problem. Second grade teacher Ursula McDonald, who is leaving Brighton to get married, says only four of the school’s 30 teachers have remained during her eight years at the school. Teachers feel overburdened with new programs since Rogers’ arrival, McDonald says. The school had adopted the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Modern Red Schoolhouse reform model, and now with Open Court and other reading programs, the overlapping programs are too much, she says.

“I kind of sort of feel like I haven’t been able to teach, per se, and be as personal as I have been with my children,” McDonald says.

Eloise Butler, a veteran teacher now in her fifth year at Brighton, says Rogers “has found out there’s more to do here than she originally thought.”

Butler says some Brighton teachers, most of whom are African-American, did not appreciate a white, suburban teacher descending on their school like a prophet. “Since she’s been here, there are some people I know who resent her,” Butler says.

Even with the difficulties, Butler is complimentary of her new colleague. “She has helped me realize there are things that can be done [to improve the school],” Butler says. “This has been my hardest year working, but it has been my best year, because I feel better about my professional life. I feel like we’ve had more support than we’ve had in the past.”

Lucas, the school’s reading coach, says that she hopes Rogers’ presence means that better days are just ahead. “This will be a school where people will want to bring their children. I truly believe that,” says Lucas.

Rogers says persuading more teachers to follow her lead will take lots of attention from political and educational leaders—not to mention money. She suggests stipends for teachers who work extra hours helping students or in professional development, and extended-year contracts for stronger teachers.

“I really think it’s going to take an incentive. I really do,” she says. “It’s not easy work. It is hard teaching.”

But Rogers opposes linking salary bonuses for nationally certified teachers like herself with working in low-performing schools and doesn’t want teacher pay or bonuses tied directly to students’ test scores. “I would like to see teachers get a bonus for coming to hard-to-staff schools,” she says. “And there’s some I have asked [to come to Brighton]. Maybe we’ll get a few.”

She’s working with community and business leaders to spur development of new houses on hundreds of vacant lots throughout the community.

She hopes that next school year—and she does plan to return—she’ll spend more time working with children who need the most academic help. “I want to go back and get in that room more,” she says, forgetting about the snakes.

The ride may be rough, but she has no regrets about coming to Brighton School.

“It’s the most I’ve ever learned,” she says.

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