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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.
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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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At Sousa, Jordon has created a machine whose every moving part was blueprinted during weeks of eight-hour meetings with his leadership team before his first school year began. They mapped out what would be taught in every grade, every subject, every day, down to how the blackboard should look: daily objective in the top left corner, homework in the bottom left, date in the top right. They planned how students would come and go, from how they are sent to class -- grade by grade, through separate stairwells -- to the way they retrieve their lunch trays.

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If it is a rigid structure, it seems to isolate potential problems, such as Kiara on the stoop.

"People always ask me, 'How do you teach a kid who's behaving badly?' But the question is wrong," said Robinson, the instructional coach. Pervasive bad behavior is a sign of an adult's failure to create structure, she said. "You take care of discipline first, then teach."

'It's beautiful'

The renovation gave Sousa a light, airy feel. The bars were taken off the windows and the walls painted with rays of bright orange and yellow, changes that parents say provide a dignity that the school had lacked. Jordon spends most of his time walking the shiny halls over and over in a process he calls "getting a feel for the day."

On a mid-morning lap, he confirmed that his secretary had printed a list, a good sign. He passed Pittman, who was comforting a crying girl, a good sign. He ducked into a class of students who straightened up and said, "Shhhh," always a good sign. Then he leaned in the doorway of a seventh-grade math class.

Students were working in threes and fours, heads down, and the teacher, Hillary Harper, was moving from group to group.

"If you look here, every kid is engaged," Jordon said. "It's beautiful."

He called a student over. "What are you doing in there?" he asked, a question he would pose many more times on this day.

"Housing, what rent costs, what the car costs, and you figure out how much you need to live," the girl said, explaining that this involves multiplication, division and percentages and that she wants to live in Miami.

"Me, too," Jordon said before heading back into the hall, where a poster showed preliminary proficiency scores for Harper's students trending up. One class was at 86 percent.

Jordon said the secret to this sharp improvement is no secret: It's the data.

To be data-driven -- which is to rely on an array of standardized tests to inform instruction -- is in vogue among reformers across the country, but some of Jordon's colleagues say he is consumed with it. In a room around the corner from his office, Jordon has plastered the walls with rows and columns of tiny handwriting: test scores broken down by grade, by teacher, by student, each name in green for advanced, orange for proficient or red for basic. Jordon calls it "the war room."


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