Photo by Anne Marshall

November 23, 2011

A turnaround tale

Iroquois and other struggling schools search for the right combination to achieve success

It’s about 2:30 on a drizzly Thursday afternoon in south Louisville. Tonda Dunn corrals kids into three different Iroquois High School classrooms.

“OK, Algebra 2 in this room!” she calls out over mumbled pockets of conversation and the rhythmic hiss of a copy machine spitting out worksheets.

About 80 kids have arrived for after-school “interventions,” commonly known as tutoring. Most hold orange half-slips of paper from their math teacher indicating the specific concept they’re not grasping.

Dunn’s blown away by the crowd. This isn’t mandatory.

“We have at least 60 a day, just for math,” she says while sorting sheets. “Last year, we were at like 30.”

Dunn, who has worked at Iroquois as a math teacher and math coach for the last eight years, credits that surge to a new sense of urgency at Iroquois. She says there’s a clear, well-communicated focus on catching struggling kids and getting them back up to speed, quickly.

If words indicate commitment to the cause, then the whole school community is dedicated — even students speak in wonky terms, like “proficiency,” “standards,” “diagnostic assessments.”

Sometimes students remain at school until 5:30 or 6, and Dunn stays until the last one leaves.

“Depending on how hard they want to work,” she says. “And I’m fine with that.”

At the rate students are showing up, funds budgeted for teachers to stay late as well as TARC tickets for kids to get home long after the last school bus has left will be depleted by next semester.

Much of this extra effort stems from the state labeling Iroquois a “persistently low-achieving” (PLA) school, a designation it received last fall for winding up in the bottom 5 percent of Title I (high poverty) schools. There are 18 PLA schools in Jefferson County, and not all are high poverty.

“Who needs the quadratic formula?” Dunn asks the students. Hands shoot up. Two other teachers stand by ready to help. Math is a weak spot here. In 2010, the number of children testing proficient in math tumbled to only 15 percent. Last year, there was some improvement, but scores for African-American students still lagged.

It’s the day before exams, so that may attribute to the large crowd. But throughout the school, stories of hard-working students filter in.

Dozens of kids voluntarily show up for Saturday lessons. Counselors are committed to puzzling together how home life may be impeding students and ways to get around it. Iroquois now has one person who spends her days crunching data from every test taken. Someone else structures one-on-one help. If that means pulling kids out of electives like band or art, so be it.

After all, Iroquois’ band may have awards encased in glass throughout the halls, but those don’t factor into a school’s achievement. Standardized tests do, and historically, Iroquois hasn’t measured up. And certain student subgroups, mainly African-American, low-income and disabled students, have tested the worst.

Seventeen percent of Iroquois students have a learning disability; the district’s average is 10 percent.

“End of course exams are sacrosanct,” says Seth Pollitt, a U.S. History teacher. “We’re laser-focused … we don’t take two days to watch ‘The Patriot.’ We’re moving.”

This surge of determination pumping through Iroquois comes as no surprise to Heinrich Mintrop, a former teacher and professor at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. For a 2009 report, he and another researcher from the George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education dug through dozens of studies on teacher motivation, test scores and education policy.

He says the sequence of events is by now predictable.

First, comes the “public shaming” associated with a label. Then, schools adopt prescriptive remedies thought up by the federal government as a condition for receiving “fix-it” cash. In Iroquois’ case, they received $628,000 through the School Improvement Grant program after replacing a large portion of their staff, including the principal.

Finally, schools implement changes. Half of Iroquois’ money is going toward math and literacy specialists chosen by the Kentucky Department of Education to strengthen instruction. Iroquois has yet to receive their math specialist.

When money runs out, the hope is those dollars will have built a better machine that can run on its own.

“As far as research is concerned, there’s absolutely no evidence this is working. Zero,” Mintrop says. “It’s a high-risk proposition that more often fails than it succeeds.”

Mintrop has studied the government-sanctioned reforms that grew out of the No Child Left Behind law, along with other federal initiatives like Race to the Top and, most recently, School Improvement Grants.

“Money and programs don’t change schools,” Mintrop says. “People do.”

He’s talking about teachers. It’s hard to find someone in education who would disagree with the notion that teachers are the most important piece to this puzzle. Still, the challenge of attracting and retaining the best people to the worst schools remains.

Over the last couple of years, there have been glimmers of success at individual schools, but for the most part, those that have historically struggled remain at the bottom of the heap, Mintrop says.

Within the last few months in Kentucky, many low-performing schools breathed easier when they heard that this school year, annual standardized tests wouldn’t solely determine academic triumphs and shortcomings.

The state is applying for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that gives states and local districts more control over improving and evaluating performance. Assuming it’s approved, a school’s success will no longer be determined by how many students get a certain percentage of test questions right. Academic improvement — even in small increments — would finally account for about 20 percent of a school’s overall portfolio.

The Kentucky Department of Education gave this new, more comprehensive scale a test run recently to see how schools would stack up. What they found may disappoint: Jefferson County had 35 percent of the state’s 20 lowest performing high schools, with Iroquois, Valley, Shawnee and other familiar names stuck at or near the bottom.

Iroquois High is a Clydesdale, with its brick, bulky frame and hallways that stretch for a quarter-mile. It may lack in the architectural elegance and academic esteem of other Jefferson County public high schools, but its role is every bit as important. While magnets like Male and Manual can turn students away, Iroquois accepts all high school-aged students in its designated zone — no matter what. They lose several hundred high-achieving kids to magnets every year.

It’s a sunny morning on Aug. 17, the first day of school. The blue sky still cradles the moon above Iroquois. Inside the front office, phones incessantly ring. Two secretaries hop from their desks directing new teachers to copy machines and assisting bewildered students and parents.

“Bye, small fry!” a mom calls out to her daughter whose eyes, outlined in black eyeliner, look reddened from tears.

“I hate this school,” she mumbles. It may be first-day jitters. But other Iroquois kids admit, at least initially, they’ve felt the same.

Jordan Pullen, a junior and talented saxophone player, left Manual after ignoring music history assignments. As he talks about it he swipes chin-length, frizzy hair from his face.

“I didn’t want to write articles about the guy who invented the sax,” he says. “I wanted to play sax.”

At first, he had doubts about Iroquois, but one year into honors classes and playing in the school band has changed his mind.

“This school surprised me,” Pullen says. “People don’t give it credit.”

One of Iroquois’ secretaries turns her attention to another family crowding the front desk.

“Are you enrolled?” she asks a father and his son who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent. The son looks at the floor. His dad shakes his head, unable to understand or speak English. A translator is called. Minutes later, another family in need of language help arrives. Fifteen percent of Iroquois’ students are considered limited in their English skills.

Over a two-way radio, a report of a student hiding in the gymnasium is dispatched.

Upstairs, a team of adults attends to a girl with bangs shielding her eyes. She refuses to tell anyone what her name is, where she lives, or what school she attended last year. All they know is that she arrived on the bus.

About 80 kids who have yet to enroll pile into an auditorium. Many will spend the day there as paperwork is sorted. This is typical start-of-the-year stuff, especially for a school filled with the children of non-English speaking and low-income families. Eighty-five percent of Iroquois’ students qualify for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Today, 1,110 students fill classrooms, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Believe,” the school’s motto.

Chris Perkins, Iroquois’ principal, emerges from his office in a crisp blue dress shirt and tie that matches his University of Kentucky ring. He was assistant principal until last spring when a state audit of the school resulted in the former principal’s removal.

Perkins holds a large Styrofoam cup of coffee. It’s typically his only fuel until after school lets out. He begins to make his first-day rounds, ducking in and out of classrooms, and hustling past a room now dubbed the “data room.”

Perkins is a “numbers” guy. The former math teacher and civil engineering major will spend hours crunching test scores, figuring out exactly how many students would have needed to test better last year in order for the school to have shown that the entire student population was making progress in every subject. The answer: 24.

“We had teachers dancing around the room when I showed them this,” Perkins says. “The whole thing I was trying to get at with the staff is this is doable.”

Still, even if a couple dozen kids had tested better, that wouldn’t be the bungee chord that finally lurched Iroquois out of low-performing status.

The school would still have some of the lowest reading levels in the district and state, with around 40 percent testing proficient.

On top of that, under federal law, once a school is dubbed a PLA, they remain so for three years. There’s no guarantee hard work will move a school up and out. If scores remain among the worst in the state, the label sticks.

“To pass up low-achieving status we need to pass up schools who are doing the same things we are,” says Autumn Reece, the school’s “intervention” specialist. It’s her job to catch students before they plunge into educational failure. She must also figure out how to keep that safety net there once the dollars that fund her position run dry.

Many at Iroquois wonder whether a lot of the changes implemented as part of their turnaround will stick long-term, but Reece says when you’re given three years to fix a school, and zero silver bullets, you’re left with a handful of good ideas.

“There’s a lot of theories out there (about improving schools) over 10 years, over 12 years,” Reece says. “We’ve got two years left.”

In his 2009 report, Heinrich Mintrop writes that there is “a lack of realistic alternatives that address the problem as forcefully as the sanctions approach … promises to do.”

By sanctions, Mintrop means those mandates states must abide by to receive a large influx of federal dollars.

The choices given to PLA schools include: 1) closing a school, 2) allowing an outside agency to take over, 3) arranging a transformation plan, including professional development for teachers, or 4) restaffing (replacing) a large portion of staff, including the principal. The Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education has so far opted for No. 4.

There’s no doubt Iroquois is definitely in need of assistance.

In JCPS’s application for federal school improvement dollars, the district states that the school suffers from a lack of engaging, effective instruction, which is partially to blame for high suspension and absentee rates. Last year, 307 students missed 25 school days or more. That’s up from 275 in 2010.

But the restaffing model has left some at Iroquois bitter, including the kids.

Four students sit at the end of a long conference room table. When asked if they recall a team of state auditors visiting last year, it’s an immediate chorus of “Yeah!”

Senior Jeremiah Khampadith vividly remembers when he heard that Iroquois’ popular principal, Joey Riddle, would exit in the spring, before the school year was even over, and the disappointment
that followed.

Auditors, having spent a few days interviewing staff, decided Riddle wasn’t doing enough to hold teachers accountable for student success.

“The status of the principal position was announced over the intercom,” Khampadith says.

Jordan Pullen, a junior, pipes in.

“I heard about the audit daily,” he says. “Even from teachers saying, ‘You all have to focus. We’re getting audited this year.’ They would say stuff like that. That was a day-to-day thing.”

Mark Harvey, a sophomore, says the audit was a “terrible” idea. He’s swung the achievement pendulum in the last couple years, going from straight As to teetering on failure. He says teachers largely determine the swing.

“There are the ones who just throw a book in front of you and say do the work,” Harvey snaps. A few of his favorite teachers left last year post-audit, both voluntarily and involuntarily.

His mother, Aletha Fields, is a longtime English teacher in the school and its union representative. Her anger blends personal with professional.

“I’ve never been so pissed off as a parent,” she says. “People who had built successful relationships, some of them were removed from his life forcefully.”

Fields also questions the removal of Riddle. Last year, before any sweeping reforms came in, some test scores had inched upward.

“If he was such a poor leader, why’d they go up?” she asks.

Fields, who’s now been through two state audits at Iroquois, wouldn’t think of leaving out of loyalty to the kids — kids she feels struggle to make sense of the constant tag-team of reforms

“This is pure political strategy, trying to satiate policymakers who are making education policy and who are not educators,” she says.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan doesn’t see it that way. The tall, lean ex-collegiate basketball player and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools visited Louisville a few weeks ago.

During an education roundtable at the Academy at Shawnee, he applauded the school’s gains since starting a turnaround process two years ago. Last school year, the number of kids testing proficient in math climbed from 5 percent to 25 percent. Reading scores also rose by about 20 percent.

Despite those gains, Shawnee remains one of Kentucky’s lowest performing schools.

But just like Iroquois, Shawnee teachers and administrators exert great effort from all ends. It’s widely agreed that the school has managed to attract some of Jefferson County’s most highly skilled teachers. The challenge now: Will they stay? And can other schools follow suit?

Keith Look, Shawnee’s principal, is optimistic. He says tough schools can often act as the “minor leagues” for newer teachers who want to prove themselves worthy of a higher caliber school.

“I hope that an outcome of our PLA status is a change in that moniker, as we show that experienced, talented teachers will choose to work at a PLA school,” Look says. “… Maybe we will move from a ‘minor league’ label to one of an ‘expansion team.’”

But money that helped attract top-notch instructors is dwindling.

Kentucky’s School Improvement Grant pot went from $55 million two years ago to $8 million last year. The Kentucky Department of Education has been told not to expect much in 2012.

It will now be primarily up to states and local government to funnel money to needy schools. Since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the state has been committed to equal education for all kids, but tight financial times will limit what they can do.

Dewey Hensley recently began a job as head of District 180, the state office dedicated to overseeing Kentucky’s low-performing schools. Before this post, he helped successfully turn around J.B. Atkinson Elementary, a low-performing school in the Portland area where most kids qualify as poor.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get really, really strong teachers in PLA schools,” he says. “If not (recruit) them, build them.”

It’s idealistic. He’s not convinced the restaffing model achieves that and hopes Jefferson County will retire that approach.

Hensley says the federal government’s focus on holding teachers accountable for their performance is important. But he’d like to see support rather than sanctions.

“What makes people motivated is feeling significance in what they have to do,” he says.

For now, Iroquois, with its 28 new teachers, plugs away.

Half of those teachers are not only new to the school, but rookies in the profession.

“I’ve been here six years, and I’m one of the old-timers,” says history teacher Seth Pollitt. “The premise of taking a school with struggling students and fixing it by putting brand new teachers into a profession is asinine.”

Pollitt takes off his suit coat, rolls up his sleeves, and walks to the door of his classroom, checking the hallway, right, then left. He wants silence so that his kids can focus.

Behind him, about 20 of his U.S. History students sit with sloped backs, pens in hand as they read a handout Pollitt has written about The Gilded Age. An arsenal of slides showing dingy, New York tenements and a monument to excess from the same era, the Biltmore mansion, are at the ready.

He no longer forces textbooks on students. The teacher, whose looks and personality remind some colleagues of Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” ran the chapters through a software program that rated the textbook at a collegiate level. Kids were getting lost.

Most Iroquois students arrive with literacy rates two to three grades behind, according to David Paige, a Bellarmine University professor of education who studied literacy rates in incoming freshmen last year. Without reading skills, Paige says, all subjects suffer — history, science, even math.

“That’s what shows up at Iroquois’ doorstep. And you can point fingers, but at the end of the day, schools have to deal with it,” Paige says. “What we don’t do well right now is how we deal with this population. It’s not easy.”

And so Pollitt and a fellow history teacher write their own material, turning each lesson into colloquial narratives or fictional journal entries from that age, anything to keep interest alive and increase vocabulary. It’s time-consuming, hard work.

After taking over as principal at Iroquois, Chris Perkins juggled schedules so that teachers in each subject could meet up for at least an hour a day, allowing them to share and create dynamic lessons instead of didactic lectures.

The focus on collaboration has caught the attention of others in the district. A few weeks ago, teachers from academic powerhouses Male and Butler high schools visited Iroquois to learn about their teamwork approach.

Perkins believes the school’s focus on polishing instruction and buoying students on the cusp of failure will help.

“Would I still be doing the same things we’re doing whether we were audited or not?” he asks. “Yup.” Although, he jokes that without that School Improvement Grant, he’d probably have to “sell plasma” to do it.

In a couple more years, if all this work doesn’t result in gains at Iroquois, Perkins could be out of a job, and depending on who’s in the White House, a whole new crop of reforms will likely emerge.

Paige has been around long enough to remember the roll out of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law, which dictated that every child would essentially have to perform the educational equivalent of a slam-dunk.

By 2014, all kids — 100 percent — were supposed to be up to speed for their grade level. That’s proved impossible, so other high-hope initiatives have cropped up. He doesn’t see the cycle stopping anytime soon.

“We do a lot of policy things that are ill-conceived, that are not well thought out,” Paige says. “It’s written quickly to get something out there, and the thinking is we’ll fix it as we go along. And in the meantime, a lot of people get hurt. The kids don’t make progress.”