The school was failing, but the kids had done extraordinary things. This was the paradox at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring. If test scores are awful but the children have walked through deserts, waded across rivers and learned new languages, the question becomes not so much "Why are the children failing?" as "What's wrong with this school?"
At Broad Acres eight years ago, test scores were so low that the state threatened to take the place over. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast and Principal Jody Leleck decided to remake the school. They negotiated with the teachers union to add extra hours to the workweek for extra pay. Teachers would offer no more excuses about poor kids from dysfunctional families; expectations would soar. About a third of the faculty left; Leleck hired 27 veteran teachers that first summer.
"We were doing the children of Broad Acres a disservice, and that's criminal," says Leleck, now the system's chief academic officer.
Criminal is the word D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has used to describe the failure of many city schools. But whereas Montgomery has had striking success in turning around low-income student performance, the District is still at the starting gate, locked in a fierce battle over how to purge lousy teachers.
Rhee's faceoff with the Washington Teachers' Union creates a dynamic different from the cooperation between Weast and Montgomery County Education Association President Bonnie Cullison. She said she hears Rhee telling teachers, " 'You're not doing the job,' as opposed to 'Let's work together.' You cannot make it happen in a district where you set up conflict."
Or can you? Rhee has turned D.C. politics on its head and become a national figure because she did what no previous schools chief had done: She blasted through decades of resistance to change. The question now is, what good is it doing?
Weast won't criticize his D.C. counterpart, but he will say that narrowing the achievement gap is about expecting all children to work hard and love learning. "You can do it anyplace if you treat people like you want to be treated," he says.
To see what can be done to boost achievement among kids like those in the D.C. schools, I visited Broad Acres, where 88 percent of students qualify for meal subsidies and three-quarters come from homes where English is not spoken. Two-thirds are Latino, 22 percent are black and the rest are Asian. Kids move in and out at a breathtaking rate; only 30 percent of fifth-graders have been there since first grade.
"Thirty apartments in the complex next door are scheduled for evictions in January," says Principal Michael Bayewitz. "That's several dozen kids we'll lose. One-third of our families have no working phone numbers. The families are in survival mode, just like in D.C."
All of this is by way of description, not excuse. Bayewitz and his faculty work to turn Broad Acres into the center of its community. There's a health clinic in the building. Teachers make home visits. A sign on Bayewitz's office wall says, "Student achievement will not be predictable by race."
"Yes, our kids have been through trauma -- unbelievable stories," he says. "We recognize that and we sympathize, but it's no excuse for not learning."
He hands me a stack of essays that students wrote about their journeys to America. They tell of being chased across the border, of encounters with coyotes both human and animal. Whatever your beliefs about illegal immigration, these are children who were ordered onto trucks to travel to a place they could not imagine, for reasons they could not comprehend.