When Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stepped through the doors of Humboldt High School Tuesday, Principal Mike Sodomka handed her a yellow folder. Inside were several pages of dry statistics detailing all the ways in which his school supposedly is a failure.
By the numbers, Humboldt is the worst of the five chronically underperforming St. Paul schools undergoing a federally mandated reorganization this year. Last year six of seven groups of students tested could not read at grade level. The year before, just one set was proficient in math. Fewer than half graduate by 12th grade.
This year’s revamping is the second “turnaround” Humboldt will undergo in the last three years. Weingarten was invited here by the union’s St. Paul local to learn about a novel teacher contract recently negotiated specifically for the school. Hopes are high it will make the current overhaul more successful than the last.
But Sodomka and his colleagues have a secondary, stealth agenda: To show Weingarten, who has the ear of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, why the policy behind the folder full of data actually works against Humboldt’s efforts to close the achievement gap.
Congress and the Obama administration are in the process of debating which parts of former President George W. Bush’s controversial education reform policy, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), should be scrapped. Sodomka wants Weingarten to return to Washington to advocate for schools like his.
25% receive special-ed services; 40+% just learning English
The first stop on Weingarten’s tour is Carrie Garcia’s language-arts class, where students are working on recognizing sight words, something that usually takes place in kindergarten and first grade. On top of learning disabilities and IQs of 70 or less, many speak little English.
Next door, in Deb Armstrong’s class, a dozen seventh-graders are taking first-year English as a second language. Down the hall, three teachers are meeting to plan a series of outings that will teach the school’s most impaired students, those with IQs under 50, to take the city bus.
One-fourth of Humboldt’s 894 students receive special-education services. More than 40 percent are just learning English, and speak one of 40 different languages at home. More than 90 percent are impoverished.
Under federal law, a few of the special-ed students with the most severe cognitive impairments can take alternative assessments. But most simply fail the test. As a result, every year Humboldt fails to make “adequate yearly progress” toward student proficiency. Fewer than half graduate by 12th grade.
93% graduation rate in 5-6 years
Hopeless? Hardly. Because they face so many challenges, some 75 percent of Humboldt’s special-ed and ELL students stay in school beyond the 12th grade, thanks to a longstanding federal law that entitles them to educational services until the age of 21. The school’s five- and six-year graduation rate is actually 93 percent — better than the district average of 88 percent.
The number of students taking advanced-placement classes has mushroomed, and the number who passed went up 10 percent last year. The number of students taking college-placement exams also grew 10 percent last year, and every single Humboldt grad left with a post-secondary education plan.
“We are demonstrating growth, but not the kind the state and the feds are demanding,” said Sodomka. “We have these challenges, but we’re doing so well.”
“It’s tortured gymnastics to get that success recognized,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, head of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
It’s a problem shared by schools throughout the country. When NCLB was passed in 2001, schools could give alternative tests to just 1 percent of special-needs students. The resulting low test scores have been a problem ever since. In 2003, lagging special-ed scores meant a third of Michigan schools failed to make adequate yearly progress.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education relaxed requirements to allow states to give the alternative exams to up to 3 percent of students, but problems persist.
Innovative new contract
Which is where Weingarten’s interest in the new, innovative teachers’ contract in place at Humboldt comes in.
Because NCLB requires the wholesale restructuring of schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress, two years ago Humboldt underwent a school “turnaround.” District administrators, then led by former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, retained Sodomka but replaced a large number of teachers.
During school turnarounds, teachers are often replaced whether they are successful or not. Sometimes the idea is to put a team in place that’s all on the same philosophical page — an approach that proved highly successful at St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff.
Other times administrators want a particular skill set. Ideally, teachers work at the school in question because they want to be there, not because of seniority.
During Humboldt’s first fresh start two years ago, teachers complained about a lack of transparency. No explanation was given for why someone was transferred in or out. Morale problems ensued, say union negotiators.
‘Election to work’ agreements
Last spring, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and district leaders reached agreement on the district’s first-ever “election to work” contracts. The agreements were modeled on a similar contract negotiated last year in New Haven, Conn.
Weingarten and Duncan both hailed the New Haven contract as progressive, and suggested the approach — separating traditional bread-and-butter provisions from reform measures — could serve as a national template.
Under St. Paul’s new contracts, teachers at Humboldt and the other high school being turned around, Arlington, can volunteer to work under different rules or elect to bid into another school.
Humboldt’s reorganization added an hour to the school day and two weeks of intensive training to teachers’ years. Some teachers arrive an hour late or leave early; others earn extra pay for working a longer day. The money will come from a federal turnaround grant.
The contract spells out how teachers are to be compensated for the time and ensures them a voice in decision-making at the school level. One of the two additional class periods created is used for additional instruction.
Frequent student assessments
The other is to be used by teams of teachers working in newly created professional learning communities. Teachers will assess student progress in each subject every three weeks and use this time to devise ways to address gaps in learning that are keeping individual students from performing at grade level.
“You’ve got to individualize your instruction to meet the needs of the learners,” said Valeria Silva, superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, who accompanied Weingarten on the tour.
Researchers know continual assessment and individualized instruction can be effective at helping struggling students “scaffold up.” Indeed, the approach has helped the most successful charter schools beat the odds.
Two common problems in mainline-schools application
Data-driven instruction often runs into two problems in mainline public schools, however. The first is time. The second: Working alone, teachers may be hard-pressed to see where their techniques falter.
“This sets the stage for our members to feel more and more comfortable sharing power and taking risks,” said Ricker.
After Tuesday’s tour of Humboldt, Superintendent Silva asked Weingarten directly to lobby the Obama administration to change the special-ed testing rules and to check back to hear whether the collaborative spirit exemplified by the new contracts is indeed making the school’s second turnaround more successful than the first.
Silva is confident it will: “There is a lot of buy-in from the people who are here,” she said.