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Chatanooga Elementary Schools Struggle to Improve Low Test Scores

June 20, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JOHN MERROW, NewsHour Special Correspondent: In large cities, like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, efforts to fix failing schools are ongoing with varying degrees of success. But failing schools are also an issue in small cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, population 310,000.

In 2000, a report came out listing the lowest-performing elementary schools in all of Tennessee. Nine of the bottom 20 were in inner-city Chattanooga.

Natalie Elder is the principal at one of these schools.

NATALIE ELDER, Principal: Out of 1,044 schools in the state of Tennessee, I was 1,044. That was the most depressing feeling in the world.

JOHN MERROW: The other eight were almost as bad: Reading scores were among the lowest in the state; behavior problems were rampant; and, in some, teachers often did not even show up; schools lacked basic resources; and the buildings were falling apart, according to Principal Rebecca Everett.

REBECCA EVERETT, Principal: I walked into a building that had no floors. I walked into a building that the restrooms were completely torn apart. There were snakes crawling around the rafters.

JOHN MERROW: We sat down with a group of teachers from several of these schools to find out what they thought.

BARBARA O’HARA, Teacher: We had principals coming in, principals leaving out. And each time you would get started on a focus, then you’d change, then another principal would have another type of focus.

SYLVIA GREENE, Consulting Teacher: The turnover in leadership, of course, led to a high teacher turnover.

LINDSAY STARNES, Teacher: At the beginning of the year, you know, before school started, a lot of the positions weren’t even filled.

JOHN MERROW: This was a problem Chattanooga could not ignore.

DAN CHALLENER, President, Public Education Foundation: We don’t want to have half of the lowest-performing schools. Memphis has four times as many poor children, and they had two or three schools. We had nine.

JOHN MERROW: Dan Challener is president of Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation, PEF.

DAN CHALLENER: It was just a moment where everybody said, “We have got to do something.”

The goals are crystal clear….

JOHN MERROW: PEF formed a partnership with the Benwood Foundation, also in Chattanooga. Corinne Allen is executive director of the Benwood Foundation.

CORINNE ALLEN, Exec. Dir., The Benwood Foundation: Our trustees said this is inexcusable, unacceptable. And for the first time in our history, we said we’re prepared to put $5 million over the course of five years.

DAN CHALLENER: This is about everybody saying, “We can do this. We know how to do this, but how can we help?”

JOHN MERROW: Together, the two organizations contributed $7.5 million over five years and persuaded other organizations to get involved in what became known as the Benwood Initiative, but only after getting the school system to promise to do whatever it would take to fix those schools.

Superintendent Jesse Register was aware of the problems.

JESSE REGISTER, Superintendent: People would get jobs in the district by agreeing to teach in the inner-city schools and they would stay just long enough to get a transfer out, move to another school, so there was a revolving door of new teachers. And then there was a group of people who collected who couldn’t be successful in other schools.

Teachers were shifted around

JOHN MERROW: What had happened over time was that the teachers no other schools wanted had been transferred to these low-performing schools. Principal Emily Baker remembers what it was like.

EMILY BAKER, Principal: There were lots of teachers in this building who really did not have the best interest of children at heart when they came to school every day.

JOHN MERROW: Out of, what, 30 teachers in this building?

EMILY BAKER: About 30. There were probably 20, 21, who really had stopped teaching a long time ago.

JOHN MERROW: As a first step, Superintendent Jesse Register replaced all the principals but one.

Is it essential to be able to move people around, clean house?

JESSE REGISTER: If you have a culture in a school that's not working right, you need to be able to change it. And you change that by changing some people, by changing leadership teams.

TEACHER: Now, find a number word.

"Weed out some of that poison"

JOHN MERROW: All the teachers in these schools had to reapply for their jobs and pass a test.

LYNDA LAND, Teacher: Initially, people that wanted to leave could apply, and they left. Then those of us who wanted to stay had to reapply for our jobs. And, you know, I had been in the system nearly 30 years at that point. And I thought, "You know, this is really a difficult thing for me to do."

RHONDA JOHNSON, Teacher: I have never been so upset, because I said, you know, they were just throwing questions at me left to right. I had to do a writing prompt. It was just awful.

JOHN MERROW: When the dust settled, the nine Benwood schools had about 100 teaching positions to fill.

JENNIFER SPATES, Teacher: I know a lot of people who were recruited to come in to Benwood schools who were not ready until after those reconstitutions took place. They were like, "Well, weed out some of that poison," because that's what some of those teachers were considered to be, the ones that, like you said, would not change. They did not embrace improvement.

JOHN MERROW: What to do with the 100 teachers who were leaving the Benwood schools was the next problem.

TEACHER: How are you doing, honey?

JOHN MERROW: Register asked principals in the district's suburban schools to absorb them.

JESSE REGISTER: What I said to them was, "I want each of you to consider being principal of one of these schools, and consider the fact that you might have 10 or 12 teachers that need a lot of help." One principal can't do that, but you can be effective with one teacher who needs help. I asked every one of the principals to take one and help them become better.

JOHN MERROW: All the principals agreed to take between one and three teachers, but some in the community were opposed to this.

RHONDA THURMAN, School Board: If the teachers were not good enough to teach in the inner-city schools, why were they good enough to teach out in the suburbs?

JOHN MERROW: School board member Rhonda Thurman was outraged.

RHONDA THURMAN: The principals, they had a problem with it because they were getting teachers that they didn't want, but yet, by the same token, they had to be responsible for their performance. And some of them were told they had to take these teachers, that these teachers were coming to this school if they wanted them or not.

JOHN MERROW: Why didn't you just fire them? Why spread them around?

JESSE REGISTER: We have tenure laws here, and it would have been a mistake to do that. A lot of those teachers have been reassigned and are very effective in other schools today.

Benwood offered teacher incentives

JOHN MERROW: To attract new teachers and retain the old ones, the Benwood Initiative offered incentives: help with the mortgage; bonuses for high performance; and a tuition-free master's degree.

TEACHER: Do kids send you a lot of non-verbal messages? Sure, they do.

JOHN MERROW: Teachers getting tuition for their graduate degree must promise to remain at the Benwood schools for at least four years. The Benwood Initiative also provided teachers with much-needed training in how to understand test scores.

SYLVIA GREENE: Pre-Benwood, we would review the test data. I didn't have a clue as to how to take that data and make changes the next year. We didn't have the professional development nor the collegiality, and so a lot of times you were intimidated to let someone else know that you were feeling insecure.

TEACHER: And, altogether, I have three sets of five.

JOHN MERROW: Every Benwood school was given funds to hire what they call a consulting teacher whose job it is to support and guide the other teachers at the school. Sylvia Greene has been doing this for the past few years.

TEACHER: How did you think that went? How did you think your lesson went?

TEACHER: Well, I think that they were enjoying the lesson.

LINDSAY STARNES: I could teach a writing lesson and come to Sylvia and say, "Sylvia, I don't think I'm getting it. I don't think the kids are understanding me. I'm not teaching the right way."

And Sylvia will come into my classroom and teach a writing lesson to my children, and I'm learning just like the children are learning, and we do that all the time.

TEACHER: Let's think about some great vacation spots.

JOHN MERROW: Before long, teachers in the Benwood schools were watching each other teach and spending their free time figuring out ways to improve.

LYNDA LAND: I think back to the days when we were just all on our own, because we never really knew, "Are we doing the right thing?" You know, and when somebody came in, and particularly a peer, you were very nervous about it, but not now. I mean, we're in and out of each other's classes constantly all day long.

STUDENT: Negative 20 plus 6.

Schools are teaching collaboration

JOHN MERROW: Now they're teaching their students to collaborate in much the same way. Five years later, disciplinary problems are down, attendance is up, and test scores have been moving in the right direction.

NATALIE ELDER: That was the biggest relief for use. It was a joy for the teachers, and now they feel the work was worth it. It's worth what we're doing, because now we can see our scores are starting to rise.

JOHN MERROW: The district reports that today nearly three-quarters of Benwood third-graders are reading at grade level. There's a long way to go, but these schools started at the bottom of the pile. The changed culture of these schools means that filling teacher vacancies is no longer a problem.

PRINCIPAL: This is the list of the people who are bidding on my school. And as you can see, there are quite a lot of names. And then, on top of that, I have all of these resumes of people who are interested in coming to Clifton Hill (ph).

JOHN MERROW: Another change: Principals from the Chattanooga suburbs, including Vivian Woods, now look to the Benwood schools for guidance.

VIVIAN WOODS, Principal: It's been like the whole boat had turned upside-down in about four years. And all of a sudden, we're getting information from them.

JOHN MERROW: The goal of the Benwood Initiative was to have every third-grader reading at grade level by this year. By that measure, they fell short.

TEACHER: We fought a good fight when you look at where we came from.

TEACHER: And we're still fighting.

TEACHER: We've not given up yet, but we have come -- the battle is not over.

TEACHER: We're still fighting. That's right.

JOHN MERROW: Superintendent Jesse Register is retiring this summer, which raises a question: Will the Benwood Initiative continue to thrive?

How fragile is the success of these schools?

JESSE REGISTER: I don't think that the people who work in those schools will allow them to change back.

RHONDA JOHNSON: We are here. We're here to stay. Where there's a will, there's a way.

JOHN MERROW: Can this work in other places?

JESSE REGISTER: It can work everywhere. And you have to look at each community, but basically we're talking about having good leadership teams, and good teachers, and good support systems for children, and that can work everywhere.

TEACHER: ... how do I write 30?

JOHN MERROW: The ongoing success of the Benwood schools hinges on continued private funding. The Benwood Foundation assured us it intends to continue its support.