Tag Archives: turnaround

Notes from a Turnaround

As a reminder, my school has been designated a turnaround school and is undergoing the Expanding Great Options process. That has meant some major changes around the school, including a new principal, new leadership, and about 50% new teaching staff. It has meant meetings and more meetings. And it has meant a lot of trying out new ideas and building systems from the ground up. Which causes twelve- and fourteen-hour days!

On the brighter side, being a turnaround means some positive changes too.

Our new principal is an inspiring leader. He moved from Cleveland to Baltimore this summer, having been a principal there. His goal, and ours, is to do what it takes to make our school one of the Top 500 in the nation. This will not happen in just one year, but it is where we are trying to go.

The faculty has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, though this has been on the wane since the early days of August (as is true any school year). Though I pointed out the long days as a drawback, at least I know when I leave after 7:00pm many days, others are staying crazily late too. This comes out of a dedication to our work and our students. Related to this point also, there seems to be more school spirit than before, both among students and teachers.

This year, we have done some things never done before in my tenure at my school. For example, full-school assemblies. Never once happened in my five years prior; has already occurred several times this year. We had a homecoming dance, which was also new. Back in September, we hosted a fantastic community fair together with our annual Back-to-School night, where parents, students, families, teachers, and many members of our local community got together to celebrate our partnership in educating our kids.

Being a turnaround with new leadership has also meant the chance for teachers to step into roles that go beyond their own classrooms and work for the good of the school. While this extra responsibility can lead to burnout from overwork, it can also lead to greater involvement and investment in the school, and the ability to make changes with effects you can see. So although some of the excitement has lessened since August, I hope that our enthusiasm, dedication, and extra-involvement help carry us through the school year to an improved school and a better education for our students.

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All the running you can do

This year, my school is a “turnaround school”. We are undergoing what BCPSS calls the Expanding Great Options process. What that meant for us is that they brought in a new principal, and replaced half of the teachers. And that’s about it: they seem to be relying on the enthusiasm of the new faculty to bring about the desired changes. While I am not privy to everything going on in my school, I can say that I personally haven’t seen much support from North Avenue being provided to us to help the school turn around.

While said enthusiasm and our in-house efforts have produced some good results (e.g. an amazing Community Fair at our Back-to-School Night; I’ll talk about the positive changes in another post), often it’s like we’re running in place.

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Sometimes it feels as if I’m running as fast as I can, working as hard as I can, but we’re still in the same place. Because the institutional support isn’t there. We’re trying three dozen good new ideas, but they overlap and conflict and leave us feeling overwhelmed. Moreover, each new idea is being built from scratch, instead of being part of an organized system, and so takes five times the effort that it would take if it were a routine part of a well-functioning school or district.

Take, for example, the flyer advertising our school’s recruitment fairs and open houses. At a planning meeting for our CTE recruitment team, I volunteered to be the one to create a flyer. Now I have no expertise nor any real experience in making flyers. But I volunteered to do my part. First we designed postcards, since their mailing needed to happen most urgently. A few days later, I opened Microsoft Publisher and tried to throw together the information into a visually-appealing flyer. I took it to some other people for advice. Then I brought it to administration for approval. Printing it took the longest (nearly a week), due to a variety of other issues I won’t go into here. Then I brought it to a colleague who had agreed to help distribute it to teachers. The idea being that teachers and/or students could bring it to local gathering places (convenience store, recreation center, etc.) and ask to hang it on their bulletin boards.

The result: It got distributed only 2-3 days before our recruitment fair today. Not enough time for a parent to be able to look at the flyer and make plans to visit. Now as far as I know there was no prior flyer in existence that could just have been adapted and handed out to teachers the same day (if there was, it may have been lost to our institutional memory with the staff cuts). So I created it from scratch. And the time it took to create, to revise, to print, and to distribute, was probably ten times longer than it would have been if the school were doing a routine flyer distribution for their open house that they did every year. Not to mention that the audience reached could have been much higher if the district were to pay for a radio or TV ad as part of our turnaround strategy (wishful thinking there, but still, we received no district support with this).

I’ve seen this problem reflected scores of times, with what I do and with what some of the other dedicated faculty are doing. Everything we try is well-intentioned, and some of it is effective, but much is hectic and last-minute. And it feels like we’re scrambling: because there is no pre-built ladder to support us, we are having to crawl up the face of the wall finding footholds as we go.

Some of this has always been there, working in a dysfunctional school system. But with the new staff, and with our wanting to do whatever it takes to improve our school, this year it can at times feel even more fruitless. All the running we can do, to keep in the same place.

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Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Just about every teacher I know has been feeling overwhelmed recently. Come into work at 7:30 in the morning, leave at 7:30 at night with lots of tasks still not finished, laid out on the desk for the next day. The twelve hour days are killing us, but even more time than that is needed to accomplish all the things we are asked to do and/or need to do to be good teachers. Where does all the time go?

Last spring, I drew up a little concept map of what I do and how my time is spent. Bubbles are not proportional in size to time spent on them. But do notice that teaching, which should be the number one thing I do, is only one of many bubbles. [Click the picture to go to the full, zoomable map at bubbl.us.]

I realize I left some of you in suspense over the summer with regard to my teaching assignment. I did not find out what I would be teaching until returning in August, of course, so I was in suspense for part of the time too! I am still teaching both math and engineering (yay!). Though the issues discussed in that earlier post have not really been resolved, just postponed a year. Also, this fall I was asked to coordinate my school’s Academy of Engineering efforts, so those bubbles above have become more prominent in terms of where my time is going.

As a turnaround school with declining enrollment, the recruitment and marketing piece of things has also become a more vital piece of what I and others at my school are doing. We’re creating brochures, flyers, and postcards; we’re updating our website; we’re tweeting; we’re issuing press releases to try to get the word out about the great things happening at our school; we’re working to get our partners and community more involved; we’re hosting recruitment fairs and open houses; and more that I’m forgetting at the moment.

Unfortunately, all of that takes time. That’s why I and many others are still in the school building after dark every day. And that’s where my time goes.

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Neighborhood Schools

A very interesting discussion about the need (or not) for neighborhood schools, including the tensions between short-term gain vs. long-term gain, and between community support vs. city-wide diversity, is going on. Started here, and jumped here. My comments can be found at the latter link.

PS – I always appreciate being challenged on my assumptions by reasonable people who are also invested in creating a good educational system. Thanks to those who have done so!

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The Numbers Game

The news has been filled recently with stories about Baltimore City Public Schools valuing numbers above true education. For example, this Baltimore Sun letter to the editor exposing pressure from North Avenue to graduate more students (sending back the number of students who had not met requirements as “too high”). This pressure, and the resulting adjustment of these numbers allows North Avenue (and the schools themselves) to claim a higher official graduation rate. More discussion here. Another example of number games is fussing over the words “dropout” vs. “withdrawal”, and the related more basic question of whether the number of dropouts or even the number of withdrawals is accurate (see comments here). Higher graduation rates and lower drop-out rates are two of Dr. Alonso’s mosttouted “successes” in his four years in Baltimore.

You may remember a few years back a similar big hullabaloo over whether North Ave’s statistics on reduced numbers of suspensions reflected reality. And you may also recall this scene from Baltimore’s own The Wire where Prez sees the connection between middle school teaching and his former job on the police force — “juking the stats”.

It may seem odd at first glance that I, a math teacher, should be against this over-reliance on numbers. But, of course numbers anywhere (except maybe in pure mathematics) have context, and everyone should be approach numbers with a healthy dose of skepticism: 1) that the numbers are accurate, and 2) that a true (not a misleading) context is presented.

So, why am I writing this now? Because of a recent encounter in which we were presented with a numbers game, where the numbers themselves seem to be given higher priority than the students’ education they represent.

This has been coming a long while. “Data-driven instruction” is the new buzzword we’re hearing from everywhere. Which in itself sounds like a decent thing, but not if you let the data overwhelm the reality.

Followers of this blog know that my school is undergoing a turnaround process. Part of this is a renewed focus on improving instruction for our large population of English Language Learners (we have the most ELL students of any school in Baltimore). Another part of this process is “selected staff replacement”, which translates as follows: Our principal (of thirteen years, a lifetime in high-turnover city schools) will not be our principal next year. Assistant principals and some teachers have to reapply for their jobs. Teachers are encouraged to find jobs elsewhere if their vision and time-commitment don’t align with the new direction the school is going.

Another part of this process, in theory, is a renewed commitment to the career and technology (CTE) pathways that have brought some level of success to our school. But what makes me doubt this commitment is the narrow focus on numbers. We have been told that if we do not have classes filled to at least 80% capacity next year, our program will be excised from the school.

Two issues with that.

First, the non-numbers problem. Especially with our school’s smallest-in-many-years number of ninth graders to recruit from, it fosters an unhealthy level of competition among CTE teachers. There is no way all 14 pathways can recruit 80+% capacity; that would be about 280 students, but we currently have just over 200 ninth graders. So, in order for some pathways to get their 80% or even 100% capacity, other pathways must get less than 80%. This creates a Hunger Games-esque scenario, to reference the book our whole school read this year, with CTE pathways fighting for students and resources at the expense of other pathways. When really we should be working together to improve education and opportunities for all students at the school.

Second, the ridiculous numbers game. If we say capacity is 25 students, then what happens if a pathway goes above and beyond and recruits 30 students? This shows the pathway is very popular, and in my mind should be rewarded for recruiting to 120% of capacity. But what must needs happen (since the capacity is also a class cap) is that those 30 students will be split into two sections of 15 students each, which will look like only 60% capacity. Instead of being rewarded, the pathway is penalized and removed from the school.

At least this is what has been communicated from North Avenue’s Learning to Work office and our school administration. I’m hoping someone will step forward and say this is a miscommunication, because I’m beginning to tire of teaching in a school system where numbers are all-important while the real facts of education (are students learning worthwhile content and skills that will prepare them for college and the workplace?) are ignored and covered up.

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