A District School's Big Test
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page B1
The stakes are enormous this school year for the 873 students at Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center in Southeast Washington, and obstacles to learning loom everywhere.
About half of the school's second-, third- and eighth-graders need to dramatically improve their performance on reading and math achievement tests in the spring to go on to the next grade. And unless scores on those tests increase schoolwide by 10 percent, rookie Principal Theodore Hinton and up to half his teachers who so far have received little training in preparing students for the tests likely will be replaced.
The importance of the April exams, part of a nationally acclaimed battery of tests called the Stanford 9, can be seen on the overhead projector in Joanne Turley's eighth-grade math class. Her neatly written word problems, with multiple-choice answers, mirror the style of the Stanford 9 so her students will get used to the format. At lunch and after school, when she is not on the clock, Turley tutors struggling youngsters one-on-one.
"It seems to help," she said.
In the carpeted common area of Carol Carter's second-grade class, there is a similar urgency. Tiny children, 11 out of 20 of whom scored too low on last year's reading test to be promoted if this year's stricter standards had been in effect, practice vocabulary words daily and discuss their reading comprehension in preparation.
Like all second-, third- and eighth-graders in D.C. public schools, students at P.R. Harris, as it is commonly called, must show minimal proficiency in reading and math this school year to be promoted. And because P.R. Harris, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through ninth grade, is one of 20 low-performing schools signaled out by school administrators in 1996 to receive special assistance, Hinton is charged with boosting schoolwide scores as well.
"If I am not on target by June ... they're going to come in and revamp like they did in Prince George's County," Hinton said, referring to the drastic restructuring last summer of six county schools. "You go home and you think about it. You're constantly thinking about what to do next."
Hinton is the most visible symbol of change so far at P.R. Harris, a sprawling dark brick building near Oxon Run Park that sits at the southernmost tip of the District. His school, like all 146 public schools in the city, is supposed to become a laboratory of educational improvement during the emergency overhaul of the 78,000-student system launched last November by the D.C. financial control board.
The control board's appointed school overseer, Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr., promoted Hinton from the job of assistant principal at another school to replace Linda McKay, one of nine principals Becton removed in August. Like other principals, he is charged with implementing a host of changes, many of which are still being designed by Becton's deputy, Chief Academic Officer Arlene Ackerman. He also must contend with chronic problems that have plagued D.C. schools for years: teacher shortages, no substitutes, funding delays.
When Hinton opened P.R. Harris this fall, he was short two teachers, leading to crowded first- and fifth-grade classes. He hired a first-grade teacher in early October, but she quit. A fifth-grade teacher who had signed on by then quickly was switched to the more crowded first grade. Assistant Principal Vaughn Kimbrow said he hopes to fill the remaining vacancy this month.
Until Tuesday, Hinton also was running his school without $34,000 in operating funds he should have received in October. Teachers spent their own money for supplies, and some programs were put on hold. The delay stemmed from P.R. Harris's status as one of the city's three combined elementary-junior high schools budget officials downtown didn't know how to classify the funds.
Hinton wrestles with such bureaucratic problems before and after school. When students are in the building, his focus is narrower. He patrols on foot, as many as four times a day, trying to end an era in which boisterous students and outsiders roamed the halls during class time, fighting each other and sometimes threatening teachers.
At lunch time, he is on the playground and in the cafeteria, brusquely enforcing the rules: No hats; no sweat pants; no swearing.
In October, Hinton walked into a classroom as two eighth-graders were exchanging blows. The fistfight grew out of a gym class argument, the teenager who threw the first punch said. He thought the other student was going to attack him. The rival wore a "Rest in Peace" T-shirt memorializing his cousin, who was shot to death in January, and he admitted that had he been in the first student's shoes, he would have tried a preemptive strike, too. They shook hands.
But Hinton still suspended each student for five days.
"I can't pat you on the back. But I'm not going to drop the bomb on you," he said. "I'm not tolerating any fights in this building. I'm gonna make sure this building is safe and secure."
Faculty and staff members say the new principal's strict approach has worked.
Teachers say they feel much safer than in years past. On the third floor, eighth-grade social studies teacher Jacqueline Branch says she has seen "a big change in atmosphere. ... We can teach some now."
The layout of P.R. Harris seems ripe for chaos. It is the District's biggest "open-space" school, a largely discredited design innovation of the 1970s. Each floor is a cavernous area separated into classrooms by portable dividers, and each class is easily visible from the empty central space that serves as a corridor. Noise from one classroom flows into the next. There are no windows.
The building opened in 1976 with 2,300 youngsters, overflow from nearby schools. Originally called Friendship Educational Center, it was renamed for Patricia Roberts Harris, the late D.C. mayoral candidate and Carter administration appointee who was the first black woman to be a Cabinet secretary and U.S. ambassador.
As Washington lost population in the 1980s and 1990s, so did P.R. Harris. Housing projects were abandoned or shut down. Youngsters from Bolling Air Force Base, across South Capitol Street, began attending a smaller elementary school and rode buses across town when it was time for junior high.
But the emptier classrooms didn't ensure calm. In 1993, when the number of students had shrunk to 1,200, a security guard who had just broken up a gang fight was shot in the stomach by a 14-year-old.
Carter, the second-grade teacher, notices improvements just since last year. At that time, she said, older students including some 17 or 18 who still had not made it past ninth grade regularly disrupted the cheerful learning atmosphere of the primary grades.
"We had fights. We had cops. We had everything," said Carter, who complained to her husband that she didn't feel safe. "This year, we don't have any of that."
Now, she is free to concentrate on the daunting task of bringing her second-graders at least up to "basic" grade level on the Stanford 9 reading and math tests, so they can move on to third grade.
Last May, slightly more than half of Carter's current students tested below basic in reading meaning they could not read by the end of first grade. She should find out this week how they fared on diagnostic tests given in late October, and she will use those results to help students prepare for the crucial April tests.
Her youngsters recently read "Amelia Bedelia," the story of a hapless maid who mixes up directions. They giggled, reading how Amelia Bedelia put dusting powder on the furniture instead of dusting it, and hardly stumbled over words such as "measure," "scissors" and "unusual."
Kimbrow, the assistant principal, has set up Saturday tutoring sessions for second- and third-graders who are at risk of being held back. Eight out of 60 such students showed up for the first meeting Nov. 15. Eighteen came the next week. There was no tutoring last weekend, because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
Carter's students also should benefit from a new citywide program to recruit volunteers to read with second-graders. But that program, headed by McKay, the former P.R. Harris principal, was announced only two weeks ago.
Hinton and his staff say they cannot separate their academic mission from the challenge of addressing the emotional, developmental and behavioral needs of their students, most of whom come from impoverished backgrounds.
Children, even the youngest ones, often take the problems they have at home out on their teachers and classmates. Few mothers and fathers of P.R. Harris students are involved with the school, and most parents have sent their children to kindergarten or first grade with little knowledge of numbers, colors, shapes or ABCs.
Hinton, dubbing these issues "society's ills," said he saw much less of that during his 11 years at Hine Junior High, a public school on Capitol Hill, where he was voted outstanding assistant principal in 1996.
Driving home at night, he said, he often thinks of a first-grader he recently met. The youngster was looking at a word, unable to recognize any letter but "e." Hinton wrote the child's name down, but again, he knew only the "e."
"He could not identify the letters in his name," Hinton said, still troubled days later. "And that's the child I have to bring up to level."