TOPICS > Education

Turnaround Specialist

December 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JOHN MERROW: When we first met Principal Parker Land he’d just set out to rebuild a struggling school in Richmond, Virginia.

PARKER LAND (talking to students): Do you all need some help?

PARKER LAND: I truly believe – I take this serious — I truly believe that if we don’t solve the problems of inner-city schools, our democracy is going to suffer.

SPOKESMAN: Are you ready?

PARKER LAND: I’d better be.

JOHN MERROW: Everything Land knows about education he learned as a principal in high-performing suburban schools. His new school, Boushall Middle School, is different.

TEACHER: Let’s turn to Page 2.

JOHN MERROW: Last year, its reading scores were among the lowest in the state.

MADIETH MALONE: He’s walking into a school that, for one thing, is not fully accredited.

JOHN MERROW: English teacher Madieth Malone has taught at Boushall for 20 years.

MADIETH MALONE: He’s walking into a school is that that is predominantly black. He’s walking into a situation that, unfortunately, has — is surrounded by very low income. He’s walking into, I guess you would say, a typical inner-city school.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Parker Land is at the front of the one of the newest, hottest ideas in education. He’s part of a rapid response teams of veteran principals, assembled, trained, and then sent by the state of Virginia to take over schools stuck at the bottom. Virginia calls these principals “turnaround specialists.”

PARKER LAND: It’s not a huge mystery as to how to turn schools around.

PARKER LAND (talking to class): Keep at it.

PARKER LAND: It’s leadership, establishing a basic understanding of respect among all parties, and that includes students. And somebody had to do it. I mean, it’s really — I don’t want to say — one of the things I really don’t want to sound like is a missionary. I do not want to sound like a missionary. But I have a mission.

JOHN MERROW: But only a few weeks into the school year, it appeared that land’s mission had gone awry.

SHOUTING IN HALLWAY: Wait a minute! Wait a minute!

PARKER LAND: I can’t stand failure. And it feels like failure is what it feels like. But, I realize we didn’t get this way overnight.

JOHN MERROW: Boushall opened exactly 20 years ago. Back then, things were different.

MADIETH MALONE: Everybody wanted to enroll their child at the new school. We had very high-performing kids, those who were performing high academically; even though the classes were large, the kids were on task.

JOHN MERROW: But as the surrounding neighborhood declined, so did Boushall.

MADIETH MALONE: The biggest problem I have in my classes is the students do not know how to respect an adult.

LOIS SMITH: You’re not respecting me. You know the right thing to do.

JOHN MERROW: At the start of this school year, teachers struggled for control.

LOIS SMITH: I have had enough.


JOHN MERROW: On this day, Lois Smith tried to teach math to a group of seventh graders.

LOIS SMITH: Excuse me! You’re talking on my time!

LOIS SMITH: Right now, these children don’t have respect for themselves, so they’re not going to have respect for me, and they’re not going to have respect for their other classmates.

LOIS SMITH: Excuse me! Thirty seconds, young lady.

JOHN MERROW: In this 90-minute period, only about 15 minutes of actual instruction took place.

LOIS SMITH (talking to students): You know this not what I expect in my classroom.

LOIS SMITH: It’s going to take the next two or three weeks for them to really understand how my class, we operate.

LOIS SMITH (talking to students): You leave, you will be written up.

LOIS SMITH: They’re not going to run me out of the classroom.

STUDENT: You said 30 seconds.

LOIS SMITH: You can go.

PARKER LAND (talking to student): We’ve got to teach you how to do better in those situations.

JOHN MERROW: Land was aware of the problems and thought he knew the cause.

PARKER LAND: So much of misbehavior is a result of teachers just being poorly planned.

JOHN MERROW: Do you really believe that, bad behavior is a consequence of bad teaching? What are you saying?

PARKER LAND: You can preclude a lot of student misbehavior with a good lesson plan.

LOIS SMITH: I have a lesson plan, but some of their behavior is beyond my control. Until we get their behaviors straightened out in the classroom, no teaching can be done.

PARKER LAND: Excuse me, please, come on up front, if you can.

JOHN MERROW: But Land still saw better instruction as the right remedy.


JOHN MERROW: He put that idea into effect at a staff meeting at the beginning of the year, starting with new roles for his two assistant principals.

PARKER LAND: A critical change, a very significant change, all discipline now will go to Jean and Janet. I have got to be about instruction and curriculum, and I have got to be about in the classroom, assisting teachers with improving their skills. To do, that there is no way that I can be a disciplinarian as well.

JOHN MERROW: Do you have any doubts about whether you’re doing the right thing here?

PARKER LAND: None, no doubt. If you’re going to raise the building, you have to push, push, push on those teachers who are dragging their feet.

PARKER LAND (talking to students): Good morning.

JOHN MERROW: By the first week of October, some students were learning.

TEACHER: You are telling me that’s 2 percent?

STUDENT: That’s 20 percent.

TEACHER: Thank you, you’re scaring me.

JOHN MERROW: Many others, it seemed, were not. Discipline reports filed by teachers describe students who throw books and do nothing but disrupt and sleep. One student laid on the floor and talked for the first five minutes of class. “I cannot control her,” this teacher wrote.

JANET YOUNG-TRENT: I don’t remember having as many problems as I’ve had this year.


STUDENT: He was chasing me down the hall!

JOHN MERROW: Janet Young-Trent, an assistant principal, now in charge of discipline at Boushall, quickly had her hands full.

JANET YOUNG-TRENT: He’s disrespecting not only me. He’s disrespected three teachers already.

JANET YOUNG-TRENT: Let’s just take today, for instance. I would say that I met with six students.

JANET YOUNG-TRENT (talking to student): Okay, you ran from me twice, was caught by security being disrespectful and defiant. You were really having a tough day that day, weren’t you?

STUDENT: How many times do I have to say it?!

ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL: You don’t have to use that tone with me.


JOHN MERROW: Jane Shifflette is another assistant principal.

STUDENT: You’re a bunch of liars!

JANE SHIFFLETTE: Don’t play those games with me.

STUDENT: Man, whatever.

JANE SHIFFLETTE: I am not a man. My name is Mrs. Shifflette.

STUDENT: Man, whatever.

JANE SHIFFLETTE: No. I’m not a man.

STUDENT: You look like one.

JANE SHIFFLETTE: Excuse me! Now you’re being insulting.

STUDENT: I don’t care!

JANE SHIFFLETTE: …We need someone to pick him up.

SPOKESPERSON: Come on, baby, let’s walk.

JOHN MERROW: The toughest time of the day was right after lunch. That’s when Rodney Butler, a parent, came by for a visit.

RODNEY BUTLER: I’m walking by some classes, I’m hearing a lot of screaming, and everybody is jumping up.

SHOUTING: Everybody sit down! Sit down!

JOHN MERROW: Butler waited to speak to his son’s teacher.

TEACHER: Excuse me. Sit down!

RODNEY BUTLER: I think the teachers were trying their best to do their jobs. Kids were, like, taking over. They got to make it easier for some of these teachers, you know. I’m quite sure that many teachers around here keep a lot of aspirins in their desks.

LOIS SMITH: You have performed awful this afternoon!

JOHN MERROW: Six weeks into the school year, things hadn’t gone quite the way Lois Smith had expected.

LOIS SMITH: I mean, I could say, that oh, everything’s wonderful, but I don’t — I don’t feel wonderful.

JOHN MERROW: Land offered guidance to Smith and other, confident that his approach would solve their discipline problems.

PARKER LAND: I see the bigger picture. I’m working on discipline. You cannot separate classroom management, behavior management and good instruction.

LOIS SMITH: To me, that is — that is the utopia-type situation you want to have, but come on. We need some reality here.

PARKER LAND: Whoa, whoa, whoa!

JOHN MERROW: Then Boushall went from bad to worse.

STUDENT: Let go of my shirt!

PARKER LAND: Whoa, whoa, whoa.

PARKER LAND: We had fights breaking out a lot. We had three fights within 15 minutes.

PARKER LAND (talking to student): Hold it. I’m going to get your money for you. Sit down.

PARKER LAND: One I had to actually break up myself – yeah — with a security guard. This was on the floor, trying to get kids apart, and it was pretty — pretty ugly.

That string of fights was more than just a bump in the road. We all kind of understood that — something really has to change.

PARKER LAND: It’s critical that we put this all out at once.

JOHN MERROW: Reluctantly Land dropped the strategy he’d announced to teachers at the beginning of the school year, that good instruction was “the” solution to bad behavior. Now he had a new plan.

PARKER LAND (talking to teachers): Solid rules, solid consequences, solid rewards. That’s a program.

JOHN MERROW: To some, it was about time.

LOIS SMITH: I’m not sure if he really knew what he was getting into. I don’t know if he realized what the inner city student was like.

PARKER LAND: I have lots of experience with kids who have real tough environments and abusive environments, and, you know, those emotional issues, and those kind of needs that prevent them from learning.

But it’s the sheer number that’s here; that was something I wasn’t prepared for.

PARKER LAND (talking to teachers): You folks are in charge of their behavior.

JOHN MERROW: Forced to confront behavior head on, Land asked his staff to get behind new, tougher penalties for student misconduct, including 90 minutes of after-school detention.

PARKER LAND (talking to teachers): In fact, I need a commitment to do the after-school detention program. What do you all thing? I need to know. What’s the commitment?

THADDEUS SMITH: They feel fine, as long as they can get paid.

JOHN MERROW: Boushall teachers liked Thaddeus Smith earn on average $11,000 a year less than teachers in the suburbs.

THADDEUS SMITH: You know, we have a lot of teachers that have other responsibilities, other jobs, and things like that, you know, and they felt we have to stay after school, can we get some funds for it? Unfortunately, we didn’t have that. You know, even though it’s for the benefit or the betterment of the school, money talks and everything else walks.

PARKER LAND: We’re going to have to take a step back.

JOHN MERROW: Meetings stretched on for weeks without consensus.

PARKER LAND: We don’t want to put you out of school, so that’s why this assembly is so important so you know what the rules are.

JOHN MERROW: Meanwhile, Land met with every grade.

PARKER LAND: What room are you coming from?

JOHN MERROW: He moved disruptive students to split up cliques, and suspended others, sending them to this nearby trailer called “Choices,” used by the school for years to keep troublemakers out of the way.

SPOKESPERSON: He’s not going to cooperate.

PARKER LAND: We’re going to have to go to the next step and tell him what it is.

JOHN MERROW: It was hard to tell whether any of it was working.

PARKER LAND: The kids are really reacting to the fact they’re going to have to stay in “Choices” for a longer period of time. I don’t know if this is a good sign or not.

JOHN MERROW: Eleven weeks into the school year, in mid-November, Land’s supervisors came to Boushall to hear his first progress report.

PARKER LAND: Good morning, everybody.

SUPERVISORS: Good morning.

PARKER LAND: And welcome to Boushall.

JOHN MERROW: He came to the meeting with some good news. Even though his plans for after-school detention had been rejected, the teachers had agreed to monitor hallways for three weeks, starting after Thanksgiving holiday.

PARKER LAND: What you’re seeing is the staff saying, “We have problems. We want it be a part of the solution.” And it’s very rewarding to me, as a principal, to see that.

JOHN MERROW: Since October, Land had been spending nearly all his time on discipline. Now his supervisors were telling him they’d expected something else.

SUPERVISOR: We’re going to need to look at your plan for remediation recovery because if you look at your writing scores, they were not good. We’re going to have to be on it, and we’re going to have to be very vigilant; we see things that are not going in the direction we want them to go.

PARKER LAND: There’s a whole lot that has to be done. A whole lot that has to be done. We’re still very far from where we want to be.

STUDENT: I didn’t do nothing wrong!

JOHN MERROW: That afternoon, things again seemed to fall apart.


JOHN MERROW: And Parker Land put a stop to our filming, saying he needed a respite to get things under control.

Whatever is going on in there, he doesn’t want our camera to see it.

PARKER LAND: I know that the changes will come and that Boushall will be a fantastic school in a matter of this year, next year — at some point, we are going to be where I want us to be.

JOHN MERROW: And we’ll continue to follow the story. Land promises to let our cameras back in soon.