Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Vare High School

This John Thompson post led me to the recently released Lessons From The Classroom Level: Federal and State Accountability in Rhode Island by the Center On Education Policy. It is a modest little set of case studies of six RI schools, including one Vare High School, which seems quite familiar to me, in fact, you could even say that had I participated with a team of local educators to design a high school from scratch, six years later the resulting school might look a lot like this one.

  • Vare High School in Jeanneau School District is an urban school. One-third of the students are Latino, and about half are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, but the school does not receive Title I funds. Vare made AYP based on 2006-07 testing, and at the time of our study, it was in year 7 of NCLB improvement. According to the state accountability system, the school was classified as making insufficient progress.

Here's one data point from the study that helps explain why I don't see firing more teachers, bringing in kids for two year stints, and throwing candidates at the wall and seeing which ones stick (a 'la Gladwell) as solutions to urban education's problems:

At Vare, a school administrator made the following comment about the school’s high rate of teacher turnover:

I think we do a pretty good job of moving [our students] forward, but the deficits are too large for us to totally overcome quite often. We’ve gotten better at what we do, at our teaching, and I think that we can still get better... I’ve had to deal with 40% turnover in staff each year for the last four consecutive years.

According to this administrator, staffing problems include the use of long-term substitutes and the hiring of staff who are not highly qualified in their subject area (the district handles teacher hiring). For example, when a position remained vacant at the beginning of the school year, “we had day-to-day subs, and finally in November we ended up with another math teacher,” the administrator explained. Students were directly affected by these staffing challenges, the administrator said:

I have one group that didn’t get math last year; I have another group that didn’t get math the year before. And so, when you talk about testing, you know I get a group of 30 kids from two years ago who will be tested next year, who essentially had a bad year of math or no real math. And this year my blue team, they have a year of bad math behind them... [W]hen we do the test prep, we had to have the science teacher do the math because the math teacher couldn’t do the math. He just couldn’t even control the kids to do the math.

Since this study was completed, new "Jeanneau" superintendent "Matt Cassel's" administrators have been putting a full court press on "Vare High School" to drop its "atypical, nontraditional curriculum" as part of an overall drive to align district curriculum. Given the overall weak position of the school due primarily to the aformentioned turnover and other structural problems (e.g., missed dropout targets due in part to 5 year graduates and transfers who never show up at the school), it looks like "Vare" is well on its way to regressing to the mean, notwithstanding a remaining core of excellent, if dispirited, teachers.

In other news:

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island and three other New England states are forming a regional education partnership and have received a $1-million grant to reengineer high schools, Governor Carcieri and education officials announced yesterday.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation has committed $1 million to the newly formed New England Secondary School Consortium, which consists of Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The “partnership” grant includes $500,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and $500,000 directly from Nellie Mae, which is based in Quincy, Mass.

The new consortium has ambitious goals, including boosting the graduation rate to 90 percent; increasing the percentage of students who attend two or four year colleges to 80 percent; and increasing the number who graduate from college.

What's the likelihood that this study will call for new schools like "Vare?" High, I'd say.

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