How To Turn Around A Failing School…Maybe

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For those at Wingfield High School, changing a school has to mean changing people's minds. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

JACKSON, Miss. - Struggling schools often develop a chronic condition of failure. At Wingfield High School in Jackson, Mississippi, year after year, students dropout or graduate without the ability to do college level work. That’s where the government steps in. Come up with a strong plan to change things, they say, and we’ll pay for it.  Federal School Improvement Grants are trickling down to some of Mississippi’s worst schools, but the investment has yet to prove effective.

Wingfield High School looks like most struggling schools in Mississippi. Most of the students are poor and most are Black. But today something unusual is happening – a pep rally for state tests. The school is fighting to achieve a turnaround and has been building-up the importance of these tests all year. Student Akeem Thomas wrote this rap to help motivate his peers, partially in jest, but also because the movement to improve the school is magnetic.

“Goes something like this, man,” says Thomas. “They say we are everything the others ain’t and doing what the others can’t. Move from regressive and crazy up to another rank. Wings are illiterate, you know we stupid fly…”

The extra effort and enthusiasm is important. This year’s test scores will help determine how effective the turnaround efforts have been since the process began a little over a year ago.  Jackson Public Schools submitted a plan that would replace the principal, pay independent education consultants to come in, build a reading program, and more. Their proposal was awarded 5.2 million dollars of stimulus funds under from the federal School Improvement Grant, or SIG, program.  And that’s when changes began.

Will Smith is in charge of that change. For starters, he removed half the staff. Their replacements came in along with more support staff – reading, science and math coaches, a graduation counselor, a technology coordinator, a social worker, and a school safety officer.

“Remember I told you, it’s not the programs, it’s the people,” says Smith. “You can have a million dollar program in a school and if you don’t have the people that are willing to use the technology, use the accelerated math and accelerated reading program. If the people are not using it, you just have a program.”

He says you’ve got to turn around the whole culture. The new team will have brand new technology centers to aid in teaching, and teachers receive ongoing professional development. Everyone is working a longer day. A half hour of school-wide silent reading was added, and teachers get paid for the extended day. Students expectations are changing too. For example, each teen is required to have a library book.

Tony Wiggins says he wasn’t always big on books, but since he’s required to do extracurricular reading, he’s found some cool books from the new library. Wiggins just finished a colorful hardback with a picture of a rapper on the front.

“I read it,” says Wiggins. “It’s mostly about how he got started in his career and what kind different genres other rappers and how it’s unique. I don’t read that much. I read a couple books, but not a lot.”

School Improvement Principal Will Smith says getting the students to buy into Wingfield’s new expectations is one of the hardest challenges. In part because standards have been so low for so long, by now upperclassman expect to be able to coast.  On top of that, Smith is also working within a chronically under-performing school system, so there is a lot of catch up to do.

“It’s kind of shocking if you get kids in, and some of them can’t read,” says Smith. “And to kind of see how they get to the 9th grade. For example, I had a kid who was fourteen. He was in the right grade, but he could not read. I kind of look at it as the system failed him.”

It will take years to show whether the turnaround is sustainable. But Jason Snyder of the US Department of Education says the initial data is coming in.

“We are seeing gains in both reading and math,” says Snyder. “Right now in our preliminary data we are seeing promising results.”

And while improving, most of the schools’ reading and math scores didn’t increase more than 10%.  The funding boost for most of these schools will wind down next year and then they are their own to keep performance up.

But Wingfield may be different than most of eight hundred schools that received a school improvement grant nationwide. Their plan is one of the most aggressive: few schools sought to trade out such large portions of personnel.  Principal Smith says that wasn’t the plan from the beginning.  But when turnaround staff started planning, they saw the changes that needed to take place and moved decisively ahead.

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