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D.C. School a Test Of Teachers' Grit -- And Rhee's Tactics

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, January 11, 2009

There's a knock on the door, and a parent whose child is causing trouble at Truesdell Educational Center warily opens up. Six Truesdell employees, loaded with pizza for dinner and plans to change the child's direction, trundle into the apartment -- the boy's teacher, two social workers, a psychologist, a behavior specialist, and the principal, Brearn Wright.

Unannounced home visits are part of the recipe for change at Truesdell, a D.C. public school where test scores were so miserable for so long the school was declared "failing" under No Child Left Behind rules and the faculty was replaced almost entirely last summer.

Truesdell, an overheated, underenrolled behemoth of a building just off Georgia Avenue NW in Petworth, is a crucible in Chancellor Michelle Rhee's hurried campaign to transform the city's schools. Its population -- blacks and Hispanics, nearly all from families poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals -- is demographically similar to that at Montgomery County's Broad Acres Elementary, which has moved from failure to remarkable achievement, as I reported in my last column.

Could a similar turnaround happen in a D.C. school -- and does Rhee's more confrontational approach make that kind of change more or less likely?

Five of Truesdell's 35 teachers have been placed on 90-day improvement plans, Rhee's tactic for ridding the system of lousy teachers. Despite teachers' fears and the chancellor's face-off with the teachers union, Wright says he tells his staff that the moves are "not designed to fire you, but to give you the support you need to succeed. They're still going to be upset -- they saw Chancellor Rhee on the cover of Time with the broom and that was scary -- but I told them it means cleaning up, not necessarily throwing out."

Truesdell opened this fall remade. An elementary school where half of the black children and two-thirds of the Hispanics scored below proficient on reading and math tests had been converted into a pre-kindergarten-through-seventh-grade school. Some parents loathed putting tough middle-schoolers in the same building as little kids, but by September, Wright was defusing doubts. "What I want No. 1 is a school I can send my own child to," says the principal, 36, who doesn't yet have kids of his own.

His new faculty -- including veterans from across the city, kids straight out of college via Teach for America, and imports from the suburbs such as himself (he worked in Montgomery County) -- survived rigorous interviews designed to weed out those who weren't up for lots of extra work and an unprecedented series of summer training sessions.

Wright is sending teachers to successful charter schools to see what they do better. (Teachers came back from E.L. Haynes impressed by a program that assigns a team of adults to work intensively for six weeks with three flailing kids at a time; Truesdell immediately copied the tactic.)

Wright is determined to assert control over the dozen or so students who manage to disrupt a school of almost 400. The home visits help: "It's been mind-blowing for most parents to have five or six people come to your house and they all want to talk about your child," he says.

Suspending troublemakers wasn't accomplishing anything except making the misbehaving kids' day (suspensions are a school's dumbest weapon, a gift to kids who realize that, wow, if I act out, I don't have to go!) So Wright instituted Saturday school, combining community service and academic remediation.

"Any Saturday, we're here," says Jackie Hines, a kindergarten teacher and the union representative. "We signed up for longer hours. We own these children. Our attitude is not what can't they do, but instead, they come here with so much stuff from home, so what can we do for them?"

Wright has adapted portions of Broad Acres' model. Children work in small groups with several teachers in the room. Art, music and PE have been restored. Teachers meet regularly to share tips and discuss individual students.

As at Broad Acres, Wright believes half the battle is persuading teachers that kids from dysfunctional backgrounds must be held to high standards. He screened inspirational scenes from the movie "Miracle," about the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team. But when Wright asked teachers to mark down what percentage of Truesdell kids should be making the proficient grade in reading, only a few dared to write 100. Most wrote numbers such as 55, 65, 68 or 69.

In the classrooms, in stark contrast to many D.C. schools, students seem engaged and eager to progress. The atmosphere is still colder and more militaristic than in more successful schools; a teacher wins quiet by announcing, "Work harder," to which the children respond, in Pavlovian fashion, "Get smarter."

But there are creative projects in nearly every room. In the third-floor hallway, two fifth-grade boys take notes on a clipboard; they are finding fractions -- a door half-open, a coffee cup four-fifths empty, and so on.

Patrick Connor, 23, in his second year in Teach for America, moved to Truesdell from a school in Southeast because Wright was committed to higher expectations. "It's so hard to teach this population," he says, "but some kids have made huge turnarounds." In a system where many schools have no parent organization, Connor has spoken to every parent in his classes and he's now getting calls at home, "even at 11 p.m., and that doesn't bother me at all. That is exactly what has to happen."

Connor, like many younger teachers, is a huge Rhee fan. "If I were 55, I might feel I worked all these years for tenure, but as a kid, I'm like, 'If they can't do the job, get 'em out.' "

Hines, who has taught in city schools for 16 years, doesn't share the enthusiasm. "A lot of us older folks started out excited, but as time went on and we heard daily about how we don't know what we're doing, now I'm a little wary." But she says teachers are nonetheless united in seeking new ways to reach kids.

Whether it's from fear of being sacked or desire to boost achievement, teachers are turning to math and reading coaches as never before.

Test scores aren't in yet, and no one expects miracles. "We're not there," Wright says, "but we're getting there. Kids are learning." At Truesdell, in part because of the chancellor's confrontational ways and in part in spite of them, it feels like a revolution is brewing.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

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