J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County is drawing attention because of an effort to change its name, which is in honor of a Confederate general. But that is not the most important event at the sprawling campus these days.
Stuart, which had been in decline after being celebrated for academic excellence a decade ago, is making a comeback. It also is revealing what actually makes schools better, which is often different from what politicians tell us has to be done to save education.
The crisis at the school of nearly 2,000 students, most of them low-income, has been acute in recent years. In 2005, President George W. Bush hailed Stuart’s success in raising achievement. Principal Mel Riddile was named the 2006 National High School Principal of the year. But school district officials canceled what had been successful, if unconventional, math programs, and test scores dropped.
Last year, just 25 percent of school staff said school leaders were effective, according to a working conditions survey. The principal was replaced in the middle of year. Good teachers were leaving, and parents were complaining.
Yet the school still had a very strong faculty, including many who were responsible for its previous good years. With encouragement from three instructional coaches, Stuart has had a turnaround, almost entirely the work of teachers, students and parents who knew the only way to improve was to spend more time learning.
The school’s passing rates on the 2015 state Standards of Learning math tests were among the highest one-year increases in the district, from 49 percent to 61 percent in Algebra 1, from 65 percent to 76 percent in Algebra 2 and from 59 percent to 66 percent in Geometry. Stuart’s average SAT math score went from 502 last year to 519 this year.
What political leaders say about how to fix schools usually concerns Common Core standards, federal vs. local control and assessing teachers with test results. Little of that is relevant to Stuart’s turnabout, although one hot educational topic is involved.
The efforts of Assistant Principal Shawn DeRose and instructional coaches Breanne Wyman, Charles Hom, and Megan Smith were invaluable, several Stuart educators said.
Teachers were staying late after school and working on Saturdays to help students who were furthest behind. One teacher ignored doctors’ advice that he take two or three weeks to recover from an operation and was back at work in three days, said veteran Stuart math teacher Bill Horkan.
As the SOL tests approached, “teachers gave up all their planning time, meeting time and just time in general to help out students,” Horkan said.
Parents encouraged their children to stay late and attend Saturday classes. The students took on math topics that American teenagers find more confusing and frustrating than any other course.
“Many of the students had not passed an SOL math test, not just last year but in their entire school careers,” Horkan said. “The students took the fight to the test. Many of them passed, but even those who didn’t realized they could study and fight and succeed in a math class.”
And former math department co-chair Susan Moore said that Math Honor Society students helped tutor other students.
Stuart also demonstrated the value of reducing the number and improving the quality of tests, a big national issue. Moore said the school cut the number of tests used to see whether students were learning and introduced a test “that was more like the SOL test and allowed us to know what the students didn’t know.”
Principal Penny Gros told parents, “Our staff and students have worked incredibly hard together” to raise achievement in all subjects.
A united school community almost always makes a difference, but that takes educators who are willing to make an extra effort, an element in educational transformation that rarely gets mentioned in speeches and commission reports.