Leadership, trust make the difference

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In 1996, Chase and McNair elementary schools were both placed on probation. Chase got off probation in 1997, but McNair is still on. These two schools, chosen by Catalyst are examples of a pattern identified by researcher Jennifer O’Day: Test scores rose more sharply at schools where teachers trusted their colleagues, collaborated and took responsibility for all students—not just their own.

Chase elementary:

When Chase elementary in Logan Square landed on probation in 1996, teachers were upset and frustrated, recalls librarian Kathy Lynch, then a 4th-grade teacher. The faculty already worked well together, but under probation they became even more serious and focused, she says. “We’re a very cohesive group.”

Mary Mack, who was principal at the time, gave them input on decisions and tried to keep their spirits up, Lynch adds.

Two years later, the school’s reading test scores rose enough to lift the school off probation. Since then, reading test scores have continued to climb, reaching 41 percent of students at or above grade level in 2002.

“In retrospect, [probation] was a good thing,” says Lynch.

McNair elementary:

McNair elementary in Austin also landed on probation in 1996. Today, test scores are up, but the school remains on probation with 23 percent of students scoring at or above grade level in reading.

Last spring, probation-weary teachers complained of disorganized school leadership and negative school politics. “At McNair, we’re more interested in getting someone in trouble than in educating the child,” one teacher remarked. “We’re not a team here,” another agreed.

This fall the principal retired, and the School Board appointed Gloria Archbold, formerly principal of Leland elementary, as McNair’s interim principal.

Brenda Martin, a 3rd-grade teacher, says that the school climate is improving already. “We’re talking together more. We help each other. There’s no back-biting.”