‘We’ve still got to get everybody together’

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At 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12, most of Robeson High School’s 83 teachers are filing into the school’s dimly lit auditorium, taking seats near the stage.

They are gathering for a bi-weekly staff meeting on the progress of reconstitution status from last summer. Before proceedings begin, teachers exchange comments about a survey that’s just been handed to them.

“There’s a mistake. Number 7,” says a young male English teacher. Reading aloud, he says: “‘My students have become a better readers as a result of the reading program.’ A better readers?!”

“You would catch that,” says a veteran teacher beside him.

“I’m an English teacher—that’s my job,” the young teacher says with pride.

Al Foster, the school system’s director of intervention, addresses the group, mostly offering encouragement and restating the importance of the teachers’ mission “to make students learn.”

A handful of teachers file in late while Foster is speaking. An older man in tattered blue jeans and rumpled windbreaker lets out an audible sigh of exhaustion as he seats himself in front row center. Nearby, the cellophane wrapper on a bag of cheese popcorn crackles as a teacher digs in with abandon and gives the bag a final scrunch.

Foster says he also has come to answer teachers’ questions on anything from teaching challenges to employment issues. His invitation elicits no questions and only two comments—a low response rate, he says, compared with other reconstituted schools he’s visited.

The teacher with the bag of cheese popcorn blames the Board of Education and the media for labeling Robeson a bad school. “It’s their fault that students don’t want to go to school here,” she suggests, revealing that she lives within Robeson’s boundaries but refuses to send her child to the school.

Foster remains unruffled and in good nature. “The fact is, no matter who says it, the numbers speak for themselves.” He suggests that reconstitution is meeting with success at some schools, but only in those that have “thrown off the cloak of denial.”

A school administrator counters that if Robeson were judged on how far its students advance while in the school and not by where they end up, the school would be seen as performing better than most. “Can’t we be judged on how far we take them, versus where they don’t end up?” he asks.

Foster again remains steadfast. “Let’s look at it this way,” he says. “You had to have less than 15 percent [of your students] at the national norm to get on reconstitution. You have to get 20 percent to get off it. That’s only one in five kids—only one in five meeting national norms. If you really think about it, that’s a pretty low expectation.”

With five minutes left in the 45-minute meeting, Principal James Breashears starts to wrap things up. He thanks Foster for his visit and requests input and involvement from teachers on the upcoming activities that will commemorate the 100th birthday of the late Paul Robeson.

“Ugh. …” Loud sighs of resistance escape from the audience.

“I know it’s just one more thing you have to do along with everything else, but it’s important,” Breashears insists.

The rattle of car keys being pulled from purses, wallets and back pockets resounds through the auditorium; Breashears urges the teachers to please wait until he’s finished talking and assures them he appreciates their time.

Many teachers exit the auditorium promptly, but several form a line to sign up for the committees that will plan the yearlong celebration, which is expected to include student-oriented projects and visits in April from local dignitaries.

Motivation needed

“We’ve still got to get everybody together,” says Carolyn Omar, the local school council chair, commenting on the general atmosphere of the school. “To me, it’s more a motivation issue. I’d like to see motivation in teachers, parents and students. We all need to motivate each other.”

Omar worries that “quite a few students” are continuing to fail courses. “I don’t know whether that has to do with truancy or what. But you’d think if reconstitution was going to impact on test scores, it would impact on learning.”

Tim Colburn, the school’s technology coordinator, confirms that the school’s failure rate has remained about the same.

“You have to understand that with reconstitution, we’re operating in a fish bowl,” he says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to do all we’re expected to do and answer so many requests for information, from the board and from the media.”

He also notes the school is adjusting to a change in the class schedule. Previously, double-period classes allowed students to finish a subject in one semester; now students take all subjects yearlong.

Meanwhile, a new school practice involving reading— in all classes, students read a particular passage each week and then answer questions about it—drew favorable marks from students responding to a school survey; 83 percent said they believed the practice was helping them read better. (A third of the school’s 1,086 students responded to the survey.)

The teacher view was different, though. Approximately 62 percent said they believed the practice was helping students to read better.

“You can see a difference between what the teachers think and what the students think,” notes Michele Jackson, Robeson’s reading coordinator. “The students actually think they’re doing better than they really are, but this [confidence] is good. It may help them perform better on the actual tests in the long run.”

However, about 48 percent of the students said the activity did not help them apply test-taking and reading strategies more effectively in their classes.

The survey turned up divergent opinions on how much help students are getting in class with reading. According to the students, 56 percent of teachers go over answers on reading passage quizzes; all but 1 of the 34 teachers who responded said they provided explanations of the answers.

“We may need to monitor this more closely,” says Larry Pinsky, Robeson’s special projects director. “When half of the kids say they’re not getting the strategies from teachers, they can’t all be lying. It’s not to say our teachers are doing poorly either, but this is definitely something we need to look into.”

The two surveys also asked teachers and students whether they would be willing to participate in after-school and Saturday English and math classes offered for credit. Both groups expressed interest in an after-school program but were less willing to come to school on Saturdays.

Staff shortage persists

Staffing problems, which left the school 12 teachers short during the first grading period, have not yet been solved. Seven new teachers were hired, but two others left. One was dismissed following a highly controversial incident involving two students who allegedly attacked each other with box cutters; the other was found to have insufficient experience for a job relating to computers.

Breashears acknowledges that he’s being choosy. Teachers who apply to Robeson must make it through two interviews, one of which is aimed at determining attitudes. “We use this to ferret out teachers with attitudes and persuasions that don’t work with our students,” he explains. “We only take teachers who score on the high end for the second interview.”

Breashears says he prefers being short-staffed to hiring the wrong people. “Once we select these people, they’re ours,” he notes. “We’re not going to get another chance. It’s critical for us to be particular with selections.”

Robeson still needs teachers for music, social studies, math, science and English. Science and music “are hard to cover because a lot of people might not have the richness of background I would like to see in class,” he says. He adds that a music teacher at an elementary school wants to transfer to Robeson but that his current principal won’t let him go until the end of the year.

Foster acknowledges that the seven schools undergoing reconstitution have become vulnerable to recruitment from other schools in need of teachers. “There’s so much concern among teachers over the consequences of what will happen if they don’t make it [out of reconstitution], this is becoming a problem throughout the system. This creates voids that need to be filled in relation to steady, certified teachers.”

He adds: “We’re taking steps to stem the flight, mainly by encouraging teachers to belly up to the table to ensure they do what is necessary to make those strides in reading and math.”

Elsewhere, there are signs of progress.

While enrollment is down, attendance is up about 2.5 percentage points.

The school’s external partner, University of Illinois at Chicago, continues to work with teachers to divide the school into eight small academies. Three academies already exist: Graphics Communications Academy, ROTC Academy and Praise Academy. Others scheduled to open this fall include: the School of the Humanities, School of Allied Health, School of Communications, School of Human Resources and School of Civics and Government.

Parent involvement is improving, according to Breashears. At a recent assembly for 70 students who made the honor roll or achieved perfect attendance, 16 parents showed up, and many brought flowers and balloons.

Omar notes the school has a long way to go. “I would see students picking up books and starting to read because they liked it—not just being forced to read. I would like to see teachers planning, and see where teachers and parents participate in class with students. I really think if we had parents demanding it, we would have a better school.”