How to Fix Coolidge High

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007; 6:08 AM

In November, Washington Post readers encountered two of the most disheartening stories we have ever published about inner-city education. Staff writer Lonnae O'Neal Parker went deep into the life of Jonathan Lewis, a senior at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in the District. In depressing detail, Parker explained why Jonathan, despite being healthy and bright, was coming so close to not graduating. (The Coolidge High series continued in Sunday's front page article "Lessons in Reality.")

Nothing at that school seemed to be working right. Students were more focused on settling scores with students from rival neighborhoods than paying attention in class. Some teachers did not know which students were supposed to be in their classes. Other teachers had little idea how to motivate students. Few teachers demanded much work. Parents believed their children when they said they were going to class, and no one at the school told them otherwise. The principal was trying to make changes, including getting rid of his worst teachers, but he had little support.

I asked readers how to fix Coolidge High. They quickly filled my e-mail basket with suggestions. Interestingly, this varied group of people agreed on so many points I can summarize their recipe for turning around Coolidge -- and schools like it -- in just seven steps:

1. Train teachers better. Greg Prudich, president of the Mercer County (W.Va.) Board of Education, said training must be "intense, disciplined, research-based, and result-directed. Require it, and a lot of it. We do a lot of teacher training, and it does benefit everyone." But it has to fit with whatever the individual school is doing, and include follow-up sessions by the trainer and the principal. Too many school districts schedule big training sessions that are little more than the fad of the month, delivered by a high-priced speaker. Susan Sandler, president of the Justice Matters Institute in San Francisco, notes her group and others have just produced a study, "High Schools for Equity," focusing on five urban public high schools that are having success. The study was conducted by Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford University and recommends more investment in teacher preparation and development.

2. Let principals hire and fire staff. One math teacher at another D.C. high school said, "Principals need the ability to clean house and hire teachers that will continually strive for progress and not give up hope on our children." Barry Fitzpatrick, principal of Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore, said, "It seems to me this would allow for the creation of a motivated core of teachers." I have examined closely some charter high schools that are raising student achievement in low-income neighborhoods. Their ability to recruit the best teachers they can find, and dismiss those who are not productive, is among their greatest advantages over schools like Coolidge.

3. Remove disruptive students. This seems obvious to many readers. One reader who favors giving good, serious students their own classes acknowledged the idea has a significant flaw. This reader, with 34 years of experience in urban public education, said: "The most common argument against my proposal was always, 'Would YOU want to work in the place where the OTHER students were grouped?' " The reader said: "I would be willing to work in both. Both groups of students are important and valuable, but they cannot be approached in the same manner." A Montgomery County teacher who specializes in helping disruptive and at-risk youth had three practical solutions for dealing with such students: Get them into more extracurricular activities, upgrade cafeteria food and require school uniforms. Several readers said that was fine, but if troubled students interfered with the learning of conscientious kids, they had to be put somewhere else.

4. Make high schools smaller. This is the most popular approach to fixing high schools at the moment, led by millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many new, small schools, both regular and charter, are being opened. Larger traditional high schools are breaking themselves into what are called small learning communities. "Only when students are attended to in ways similar to independent schools will the necessary positive relationships between students and teachers be established," said Art Scott, who was raised in the District and is now a private school educator in Arizona. Regular D.C. public schools have yet to do this in any serious way, but D.C. charter schools are benefiting from the preference of some students and parents for small size.

5. Get parents more involved. Joseph Gauld, founder of the Hyde Schools, including one charter high school in the District, said, "Ninety-six percent of our parents last year attended at least one seminar in our program to address parental growth and family issues." Reader Mary Lyford said in schools like Coolidge, "it seems there is very little discussion of what should be happening in the home." In Parker's articles, Jonathan's mother was very supportive of the school's efforts to get her son to class once she knew what was going on. More communication is essential, which is one more reason why many educators prefer smaller schools, where principal, teachers, students and parents find it easier to get to know each other.

6. Make the building look nice. This is not a proposal that I often see in scholarly reports and blue ribbon commission recommendations for fixing high schools, but it makes sense. Joy Hogg, a parent and veteran teacher from Michigan, said: "Schools which are kept neat and clean and painted, with the bathrooms in good shape, send a message. The student is valued and education is valued. It feels good to be in a nice building." Reader Andrew Leyden said he was disturbed by Parker's descriptions of "a school without working clocks, a hallway without light bulbs." He said, "I'd be more than willing to go to Home Depot and buy a few contractor packs of light bulbs and deliver them to the school."

7. Involve the community. Veronica Nolan, executive director of the Urban Alliance Foundation, said her group works with seniors like Jonathan. "We engage and motivate the students by providing them year-round, paid internships at our city's most prestigious corporations," she said. Julie Gordon, a 1978 Coolidge graduate, said she would like to have community experts "come into the school on a regular basis to discuss the nuts and bolts of life in expensive Washington, D.C., about different career paths, and what has to be done to achieve their goals." Many D.C. schools have partnerships with community groups, but communication is often difficult because educators are busy with students most of the day. Only the best-organized schools seem to have good access to community resources.

* Some of these ideas are more controversial and difficult than others, but they are all worth exploring. There is nothing more important in American education at the moment than the effort to revive the D.C. schools. The old rules are being discarded. The potential for doing some of the things readers suggest is great. I will be revisiting this issue soon, after a short break. The next column will appear Jan. 8.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company