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Correction to This Article
·In some editions, a photo caption with the about the academic progress at Sousa Middle School in the District misidentified the school official pictured. He is Assistant Principal Michael Revell, not Principal Dwan Jordon.

D.C. principal's hands-on tack transforms Sousa Middle but also ruffles feathers

Sousa, one of a few middle schools in Washington to substantially improve students' test scores, used to have some of the lowest results in the city. Now, it's a model for others.

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It was 8 a.m., and 21 teachers had gathered in the library of Sousa Middle School for the meeting that Principal Dwan Jordon has convened nearly every morning for two years, part of his crusade to improve one of the District's worst public schools.

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They pulled out laptops, set down their coffee and, in the language of education reform, began assessing where the quest stood:

"Reading was 61, 62 and 65, and we did it with Test B and C," began Ronda Robinson, an instructional coach, reciting preliminary test scores. The numbers looked promising. Should the pattern hold when the final test results are released this month, Sousa's changes will qualify as the kind of startling turnaround reformers are seeking in troubled schools across the country. But it was still May, and Jordon needed to keep raising a very low bar.

He told them that it would be harder next year, as they shift from helping students catch up to competing with the best schools in the city. "This is a first step," he said.

In the world of education reform, middle schools are a vexing problem. They are the limbo where the basic skills of fragile adolescents are lost or developed, the last chance to catch troubled students before the wilderness of high school. And in that regard, Sousa has for years exemplified failure.

Privately, one faculty member at another school called it a "dumping ground" for burned-out teachers, a place toxic with low expectations, where students roamed the halls and fought. Eighty percent of the Southeast school's students are from low-income families, 99 percent are African American, and most come from neighborhoods where violence, drugs and other uncertainties invade childhoods. When D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee appointed Jordon to take over the freshly renovated school two years ago, only 23 percent of its students were proficient in reading, 17 percent in math.

Described by a former colleague as "very, very, very, very, I-can't-say-enough-verys competitive," Jordon fired most of the staff and pushed through other changes his first year. The union fought him. Some parents asked for his dismissal. Then the test results came in: Reading proficiency rose to 39 percent, math to 42 percent. Although those lag behind some D.C. public charter schools', Sousa's gains were the biggest of any public middle school in the city last year, and they have drawn attention.

In recent months, principals, teachers and education consultants have descended on the red-brick school off Minnesota Avenue SE. They have asked to see Jordon's master schedule, his code of student conduct and the acronym his teachers developed to help kids with reading tests, seeking a distillation of a process that might be replicated.

"Everyone wants to know the secret," Jordon said, leaving the morning meeting. It was about 9, and he coolly began issuing commands into the walkie-talkie that seemed affixed to his hand.

"Okay, let's go to sixth grade," he radioed to Tyrone Pittman, his dean of students, who began ushering kids to class. "Pittman, do we have all sixth?"

"Revell. Revell. Do we have all sixth?" he called to Michael Revell, one of two assistant principals who are part of a school team that includes two instructional coaches, a psychologist, two counselors and two social workers, 56 adults for 230 students.

Jordon began checking the progress on three monitors in his office. They flashed black-and-white images of kids in uniform khaki vanishing into classrooms, of empty sidewalks, an empty alley, a stoop -- not empty. A student was lingering on a shaded street of plain brick apartments where some steps were sprayed with graffiti. "RIP Mello," one read, and "RIP I-Roc."


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