By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; A01
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.
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."
Jordon raised the walkie-talkie. "Pittman, you need to remove Kiara from the stoop."
"All students," came Jordon's voice over the school speakers. "You have three minutes. Move. Quickly."
He glanced at the clock, at the monitors. "Students, remember: Cellphones in the locker, and off.
"Students: Two minutes, 15 seconds.
"One minute, 30 seconds.
"Thirty seconds."'Prove everybody wrong'
Schools often take on the personalities of their leaders, and Jordon, 37, is methodical and relentless. He attributes these traits to a desire to "prove everybody wrong" in their assumptions about poor kids from the District, in part because he once was one.
Jordon was raised in the Takoma neighborhood of Northwest Washington by a single mother who worked as a hospital biller. He attended public schools and "might have ended up a statistic" were it not for neighbors who pushed him to go to college. He was the first in his family to do so, graduating with honors from Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.
His first job was in Prince George's County, substituting in a class that had driven off five teachers in a year. "The first day I went past the room, everybody was quiet," recalled Gail Golden, the principal of Hyattsville Middle School. "I thought, 'Okay, beginner's luck.' But it happened the next day, and the rest of the school year it went like that."
She hired Jordon to teach math and English, describing him as a "really, really tough" teacher whom students came to respect. His students' performance rose reliably enough that Golden named Jordon to be an assistant principal. Three years later, he was named to the same job at troubled Nicholas Orem Middle School. The school turned out the biggest reading and math gains in the county that year, at which point Rhee recruited Jordon to take over at Sousa.
Jordon's colleagues say they sometimes wonder whether he enjoys winning too much. Golden recalled having to tell him to "ease up" during a teacher-student basketball game, when he was badly outscoring seventh-graders. The basketball story Jordon prefers telling is about helping to coach the boys' team at Maryland's Northwestern High School. The team was winless when he started but won the state championship in his fifth year.
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.
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."
Jordon said teaching without data is like coaching basketball without knowing each player's stats. In his first year at Sousa, he said, most teachers knew a certain student was not reading well, for instance, but did not know that the specific problem was, say, metaphors. This year, Jordon said, his teachers have learned to "speak the data." They've spent hours in the war room sorting students into tiers based on proficiency and devising customized plans for moving each student through the tiers. The same process applies to behavior. When the two pieces are merged successfully, the result looks something like Nicholas Johnson.
The seventh-grader, 13, arrived at Sousa last fall, having spent much of the previous two years at other schools sitting in front of the principal's office or at home suspended.
"He was very smart," his mother, Nicole Johnson, said. "But he's playful, and I think he got written off as difficult."
During his first five weeks at Sousa, Nicholas talked back to teachers, distracted other students, and scored poorly in reading and math, Jordon recalled. He quickly became the subject of the weekly discussions in the war room, where teachers and the discipline team came up with a plan. They asked his mother to sit in his classes for a few days. They devised positive reinforcements based on small goals, such as sitting quietly through class. They agreed that they'd acknowledge Nicholas with a hello at the start of class, to set a tone of attention. They scrutinized his test results, changed his schedule to allow for extra tutoring, and after a few months, Nicholas began to excel.
"He seems like a totally different child," his mother said in a tone of amazement. "He likes school. I can't explain it."
At this point in the year, the charts in the war room are frayed, and many names -- Kiara, Destiny, Nicholas -- have been rewritten in orange and green. Students recite their preliminary test scores like batting averages.
"I was, like, two points away from advanced in math," said Sheala Richardson, 11, a sixth-grader. "And in reading, I was advanced."Feeling 'humiliated'
If students are improving at Sousa, teachers from Jordon's first year -- almost none of whom kept their jobs this year -- seem almost traumatized. One teacher accustomed to getting good evaluations said she felt "humiliated" by Jordon's constant scrutiny. Others said they'd come in at 5 a.m., trying to meet his demands, but still left school in tears. Another said that Jordon is probably "an instructional genius" but that the first-year teachers deserve some credit for the test score gains.
Jordon said there was serious resistance to his methods and attributes the gains mostly to micromanaging so thoroughly that some teachers were given scripts. He said he had a math teacher who did not know how to work the equations she was teaching. Another was investigated for digging her fingernails into two students she was trying to discipline. These days, using the word "can't" has become taboo.
"Children deserve the best, every day, now," he said. " 'Can't' shouldn't even exist in your dictionary. You have to find a way. That's why we're getting paid."
This year, Jordon handpicked an almost entirely new staff. Like Harper, the math teacher, a zealous recent college graduate for whom public school reform is a cause, almost all staffers are from outside the D.C. system.
"Our mission is student achievement, and you can't fake it," she said one afternoon, discussing the issue with a colleague, a veteran District teacher.
"If a teacher is sincere, I don't think everything needs to be stacked on the test scores," said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she wants to teach elsewhere. "Also, it depends on the children you get."
"But is that like saying that all students can't achieve?" Harper interjected.'What's wrong?'
By early afternoon, Jordon was on his fourth lap. This time, he noticed a boy who seemed downcast. "What's wrong?" he asked. This year, the question has revealed a boy staying up all night to look after his mom, a drug addict; a girl upset that her father had been imprisoned; a boy who needed glasses.
If improvement at Sousa results from a plan, it also comes from a thousand daily adjustments to that plan and perhaps Jordon's constant presence.
He walked into the lunchroom and a scene of contained chattering.
"Oooh! Mr. Jordon!" a boy said as the principal walked by. "It's my birthday!"
"Mr. Jordon!" said a girl, holding up an index finger with a Band-Aid. "I got cut!"
Jordon looked at her finger, studied it, really, with the same intensity he studies the walls of data in the war room. Then he held her hand for a moment, kept holding it as he scanned the faces, looking for signs of distress.