This week, the Southern Education Desk is taking a focused look at “turnaround schools” – failing schools who have managed to turn things around and succeed. We wanted to find out what goes into successfully turning around failing schools. Why do some schools make it and others don’t? The first report in our series comes from Georgia. Three years ago, a group of the lowest-performing schools in the state began receiving millions of dollars in federal money to fund an ambitious attempt to improve dramatically. As those schools enter their final school year receiving that money, we check in on one school’s progress.
AUGUSTA, Ga. – T.W. Josey High School has not always been known for its high expectations for its students. Here’s how Kalaya Staples, a senior, describes the school’s environment her freshman year.
“When I first came into the school, the discipline was…it was awful,” Staples says. “The behavior of the students, the disrespect, the not coming to class, to not wanting to do nothing. It was bringing us down as a whole on the school.”
Today, Staples says things at Josey are different. Students want to be there. Josey’s truancy rates are down, and the school is one of seven of the state’s lowest-performing schools that has boosted its graduation rate above 80 percent.
Students, staff and state officials say the change is due to two things: principal Ronald Wiggins and how he has used a multi-million influx of federal money known as a School Improvement Grant.
When Wiggins arrived at the school in 2009, he came with a charge to turn the school around. And he says that made some teachers at the school nervous.
“They were afraid of me,” Wiggins says. “Everybody was told that I was sent here to fire people. So everybody was afraid to talk to me, they were afraid to show me their weak spots.”
So, Wiggins says, he spent the next few years building trust, one teacher, student and parent at a time. He started by sprucing up the building and changing the school’s approach to community outreach. As trust grew, he says that allowed him to introduce bigger changes to things like instruction.
Those changes were are on display in Shannon Moore’s chemistry class, where students are learning how to calculate the density of an object.
“We’re doing it two different ways,” Moore says. “We’re doing word problems to make sure they can solve with three different variables, and then they’ll do a mini-lab where they do water displacement.”
This is actually the second time these students have worked through these concepts. After the first time Moore taught the lesson, a quick assessment revealed that only half the students had mastered it. So she’s teaching it again.
This is the type of data-based teaching – focused on figuring out exactly what students don’t know yet and making sure they learn it – that Wiggins has brought to every classroom. Wiggins says he spends nearly two hours each day dropping in and out of classes – frequently jumping right into the discussion.
History teacher Philippe O’Keefe says that adjusting to new, standards-based instruction that Wiggins introduced was difficult. Old habits are hard to change. But, he says, teachers adapt.
“We are learning all of this stuff at once, and that is one of the challenges,” he says. “But I would say that today, if you walk from class to class, you will see the same thing in every class.”
Sylvia Hooker, who heads the state’s school improvement efforts, says that it will take more than three years for the school’s work to fully pay off.
“It’s not about three years!” Hooker says. “I keep telling folks, yes, you can make some gains, it can look different. But to have a legacy and sustained achievement, it’s going to take some time for that to happen.”
But three years is the length of the grant, and so Wiggins is trying to figure out how to continue the school’s progress without millions of extra dollars.
“It will be very easy for people to start thinking, okay, sustainability is just a word,” Wiggins says. “We can start going back to some other things and business as usual.”
If they can avoid the backsliding into old habits, Wiggins says, then he’s confident the school can continue to improve even without millions of extra dollars.