A Clean Sweep?

Controversial reform sparked the remarkable turnaround of the Thomas J. Rusk School in Houston. Or did it?

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Oak saplings planted six years ago in front of Thomas J. Rusk Elementary School are now a healthy seven feet tall. The school boasts a new nature center, a health clinic, and an atmosphere of calm. But the best news at this school in Houston's East End is that children are learning.

Such peace and prosperity are remarkable considering Rusk's past. In the early 1990s, it was one of Houston's worst schools, notorious for chaos, low test scores, and bitter feuds among parents and staff. There were even allegations that teachers were mistreating students who lived in two nearby homeless shelters.

Finally, in 1993, then-Houston superintendent Frank Petruzielo decided to wipe the slate clean. He reassigned Rusk's principal and declared all the teaching posts vacant. Veteran educators at Rusk had to reapply for their jobs or transfer elsewhere in the district.

The move sparked protests-teachers citywide argued that Petruzielo was unfairly pinning blame on the school's faculty-but the superintendent stayed the course.

Teacher visited Rusk in 1995, soon after the school's new principal, Felipa Young, had hired a staff to replace all but three of the original 29 teachers. At the time, few districts in the country had taken such drastic action to repair a failing school, and we wanted to see if the strategynow known as "reconstitution"-had solved Rusk's problems. We found an orderly school and relatively happy students and parents. Both Young and her new faculty were optimistic about the future. But it was too early to tell if the overhaul had truly transformed Rusk.

Today, few deny that Rusk has improved academically. State officials have given the school a rating of "acceptable" or better every year since the overhaul. Reconstitution backers say this is a sign that the policy works-fresh blood gave the school new life.

"Very often the negative synergies of the adults in the building keep a school from being successful," says Susan Sclafani, head of the district's educational services division. "And that's what happened at Rusk."

But other say that Rusk's turnaround had nothing to do with the faculty's dismissal. It was Young's gritty leadership that made the difference. "Felipa Young is wonderful," says Gayle Fallon, president of the 5,300-member Houston Federation of Teachers. "She's good anywhere she goes."

Most of the changes Young implemented were straightforward: She installed windows in the doors to every classroom so she could see what was going on inside. She required 20 minutes of silent reading each day and rewarded children for reading books. She set clear discipline policies and strictly enforced them. She encouraged teachers at the same grade levels to coordinate lessons and homework assignments.

Young also set up an advisory system that gave each adult in the building responsibility for seven students, so every youngster would have someone to turn to for help. Under her leadership, staff members often worked into the evening and on weekends, providing tutorials and enrichment activities for their students.

"Everybody who went to the school knew we had a big job to do," says Young, who retired a year ago but recently returned to the Houston system to serve as acting principal of an elementary school. "And they had the mind-set of doing it and working hard."

Fallon insists that it was Young--not the reconstituted faculty--that made the difference at Rusk. "Basically, what they did was pour in a ton of resources, put in a very good principal, and the school is doing beautifully. They could probably have done the same thing with the original staff."

Certainly, the truth lies somewhere in between. Reconstitution helped Rusk go from a school in crisis to a school in transition. The environment has improved enough so that parents from Rusk's predominantly Hispanic neighborhood now feel comfortable sending their children there, which wasn't true six years ago. "My kids, they look forward to coming to school," says Sanjuana Torres, a parent with two children at the school. "They're happy."

But reconstitution hasn't worked miracles. Some observers point out that the overhaul, while important, has not improved instruction across the board. "If you look at the school now, versus where it was before, then, yeah, things like kids running in the hall have changed," says Christopher Barbic, a former 6th grade teacher at Rusk. "But what's going on inside the classroom once the door is shut-it depends on the teacher."

Barbic began his teaching career at Rusk the year it was reconstituted but later left to open a charter middle school with other Rusk teachers and parents. "I think there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities for change that motivated people to work really hard," he says of the post-reconstitution Rusk. "And the staff the first couple of years was great; everyone was working together. [But] I think people got worn out. And the people that stayed there for the long haul just ran out of gas."

Barbic and others insist that Rusk today still faces enormous challenges. Roughly one-quarter of the school's students still reside in a homeless shelter. The majority of these students are African American, and they come and go from the school at an alarming rate. The fallout shows up on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the statewide testing program that serves as the primary barometer of student learning. Overall, TAAS scores of Rusk students are climbing. But those of the school's African American students actually declined between 1994 and 1998, particularly in reading.

Although Young persuaded the school district to send children from one of the homeless shelters to a different elementary school, she was not able to garner any special status-or additional money-for Rusk based on its unique enrollment. "To this day," she says, "I have been saying to my district superintendent and everybody who hears me: You need to classify that school as a special school because of the mobility rate. Teachers are burning out."

In particular, she asserts, the school needs more aides to assist teachers in the classroom. And it would be nice to have a school counselor. "It's a good school," she says, "but there are still the same problems that we had when I was there that need to be addressed. The district needs to give them an extra hand."

Rosa Martinez, the school's new principal, says she took the job-against the advice of some colleagues-because she wanted to be challenged and to work with a dedicated teaching staff. "There's a little cloud that still hangs over us, a little bit of leftover climate," she admits. "But we're trying to work this out."

Was reconstitution necessary? Absolutely, says Young. "I don't think just a good principal alone would have been able to do the job. I think the reconstruction had to take place."

Others say Rusk's reconstitution worked but taught city officials a key lesson. Sclafani, head of Houston's educational services, says that in some cases, districts may not need to sweep out entire school staffs to get a clean start. "We probably could do a better job of identifying and kind of surgically removing teachers who are very negative without having to do a full reconstitution."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 75-76

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as A Clean Sweep?
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