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Principal Works to Improve Failing Inner-city School

October 11, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JOHN MERROW, Special Correspondent for Education: One year ago, Park Land became the new principal at Boushall Middle School in Richmond, Virginia.

He came here through Virginia’s turnaround specialist program. The latest, hottest idea in education, it recruits successful principals from high-achieving schools and reassigns themselves to schools stuck at the bottom. Because of its poor academic record, Boushall was on Virginia’s warning list of failing schools.

PARKER LAND, Principal: You’re my first group of students that I get to give a chance to ask me some questions, if you have any questions.

JOHN MERROW: Boushall students had already heard that their new principal had a special title.

STUDENT: What is a turnover teacher?

PARKER LAND: She said, “What’s a turnover teacher?” Actually, my title is a turnaround specialist, but all I am is a principal.

STUDENT: What kind of training did you have to go through to become a turnaround specialist?

PARKER LAND: I had to go to about two weeks of classes on all kinds of different things, like how to set goals and objectives for staff, how to work through problems, those kinds of things. Yes?

STUDENT: How long do you plan on working as a principal?

PARKER LAND: I plan on working as a principal for at least three more years, and I hope to be longer than that.

My commitment is three years. I tell everybody that.

JOHN MERROW: But by the beginning of this school year, Park Land was no longer Boushall’s principal.

PARKER LAND: You know, there’s just this pervasive sadness about leaving.

JOHN MERROW: He’d been reassigned to this Richmond high school.

PARKER LAND: It was out of the blue. I never, never thought that that would happen. I really did expect to be here for three years.

Vision to improve school

Parker Land
Principal (August 2005)
I see a school that sparkles. I see student work everywhere, everywhere. I see smiles. I hear joy. I guess that's what I see.

JOHN MERROW: Land's year at Boushall had begun with a vision.

PARKER LAND: Hi, everybody, just checking.

JOHN MERROW: He saw the school passing the state test for the first time. And by the end of the year, he predicted, Boushall itself would be transformed.

PARKER LAND: I see a school that sparkles. I see student work everywhere, everywhere. I see smiles. I hear joy. I guess that's what I see.

FIGHTING STUDENTS: Wait a minute! Wait a minute!

JOHN MERROW: But quickly, Land was in trouble.

PARKER LAND: Whoa, whoa, whoa.

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

You folks are in charge of their behavior.

JOHN MERROW: He also had trouble with teachers when he asked them to keep disruptive students after school.

PARKER LAND: In fact, I need a commitment. What do you all think? I need to know. What's the commitment? OK.

JOHN MERROW: But most teachers did volunteer to monitor hallways during the day, and by midyear it was paying off.

PARKER LAND: We've reduced the fighting, not to the point where anybody feels that we're successful. The tendencies are there.

JOHN MERROW: Land looked for ways to encourage better behavior.

PARKER LAND: We're going to stroke our kids who do their homework, who don't cut class, who show respect, and I'm hoping that you're going to see a reduction of referrals.

Testing the students, teachers

Madieth Malone
Teacher
The goal for all of our schools ... is to pass standardized tests, but the goal of educators is to prepare children to become responsible, contributing adults.

TEACHER: We need to roll with this, guys...

JOHN MERROW: By early spring, Boushall appeared to have calmed down, but state testing was coming up fast.

TEACHER: Is everybody clear? Yes.

JOHN MERROW: Pressure was mounting for Boushall to finally pass.

DR. DEBORAH JEWELL-SHERMAN, Superintendent, Richmond Public Schools: Can we do it?

STUDENTS: Yes!

DR. DEBORAH JEWELL-SHERMAN: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: Richmond's public schools had already made impressive strides under Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman.

DR. DEBORAH JEWELL-SHERMAN: Failure is not an option.

Being at five schools that were fully accredited out of all in the district, and last year we had 39 out of 51, and we expect to have more this year.

JOHN MERROW: At the top of her list was Boushall.

DR. DEBORAH JEWELL-SHERMAN: I have serious "come to the woodshed" conversations about my expectations. I want that school fully accredited.

JOHN MERROW: The key to accreditation? Raise test scores.

MADIETH MALONE, Teacher: This comes from the district every year at this time. Now we need to focus on testing.

JOHN MERROW: Madieth Malone teaches English.

MADIETH MALONE: A lot of time is being spent on how to take tests, what kinds of questions are on tests, how to read test questions, the facts that are needed to answer questions on a test.

We usually spend time reading novels. I would love to do that, but now I need to spend my time focused on the bare necessities, those absolute things that I know will be tested.

The next couple of days, we will be doing the diagnostic tests for the entire SOL...

JOHN MERROW: Test prep had also taken over Lois Smith's math class.

LOIS SMITH, Teacher: The goal is that they've got to pass the test. Some of the kids aren't going to learn all the concepts, but if they have some of the strategies, they still can pass.

MADIETH MALONE: I can't go along with that, no. I can't support that. The goal for all of our schools -- and I guess it's the goal for schools across the country -- is to pass standardized tests, but the goal of educators is to prepare children to become responsible, contributing adults.

PARKER LAND: My vision is that there's so much more. We can be -- you know, there's so much more to these kids that needs to be developed. But, you know, the educational world is one that says, "Show me academic test scores." That's life now. So that's the way it's going to be.

RALLY ANNOUNCER: Boushall make some noise!

You all ready for the SOL?

JOHN MERROW: Before testing started, Boushall held a pep rally.

RALLY ANNOUNCER: Give it up for the principal, you all.

PARKER LAND: I told our kids you're just as bright as any students I've ever worked with. There's no question about that, your ability, none. My gut tells me that we'll probably cross the hurdles.

TEACHER: OK, let's get started.

Leaving a legacy

Dr. Deborah Jewell-Sharman
Superintendent
He's not their father; he's their principal. His successor will be out there greeting them every day. Park is not leaving Boushall's community.

JOHN MERROW: Then, in June, it was time to take the state tests. Passing scores would get Boushall off Virginia's warning list and earn Park Land an $8,000 turnaround bonus.

LOIS SMITH: The testing went extremely well. They stated that the test was easy.

TEACHER: Well, all my students told me that the test was easy. Now, that could be good; that could be bad.

PARKER LAND: Easy would be a good sign. It would be a sign. So I think it's going to be right down to it, but I think that we're going to do it.

JOHN MERROW: Results wouldn't be known until September. But on the last day of school in June...

PARKER LAND: Hello, everybody.

JOHN MERROW: ... Land had some surprising news for his staff.

PARKER LAND: I just -- I'm going to be real brief. I want to thank everybody for this year. It's been a challenging year. I am not generally a sad person, but I really feel quite sad that I'm leaving. And it's because of the bonding...

They were disheartened; they made no bones about it.

This school is going to be as great as you want it to be. I just think that...

Next year, I'll be going to Georgewood High School (ph). The principal there is moving to North Carolina. I had to think about it.

This is a real special staff.

I think everybody's expectation was that I'd spend three years here.

DR. DEBORAH JEWELL-SHERMAN: Change is a challenge, but change is life. Why would he go? There is a vacancy at a high school that Boushall feeds into. Park's the best man for the job. I think that he has rallied his staff. He shared with them a vision of what that school can be, and they're not going to give up on that.

MADIETH MALONE: A lot of people are feeling abandoned, and this is not the first time that this has happened to our staff. But I also think a lot of our kids are disappointed. Many of them have very inconsistent environments.

The school is one place that they can come and be assured that things will be consistent. Instability, once again, is being created in a school where our kids are so fragile they don't need that instability.

DR. DEBORAH JEWELL-SHERMAN: I think that our students are a lot more resilient than you're giving them credit for. He's not their father; he's their principal. His successor will be out there greeting them every day. Park is not leaving Boushall's community. I'm proud of the job he's done, and that will take them to full accreditation.

PARKER LAND: I think we're right there on the doorstep, and I hope that when we get our scores back, you invite me back to celebrate, because it's going to be a nice celebration. It's going to be a really special, sweet celebration when we make those federal standards and those state standards.

STUDENTS: Bye!

Test results

Parker Land
Principal
I've learned an awful lot. I've learned that our kids, a significant number of those kids are in crisis. And there's a level of support that's needed that we just haven't realized yet.

JOHN MERROW: All summer long, Land and Boushall waited for the results, but there would be no celebration. The scores dropped, to a 55 percent pass rate in English and a 46 percent pass rate in math. No bonus for Land. And for Boushall, another year on the warning list.

DR. DEBORAH JEWELL-SHERMAN: We'll analyze it and move from there. That's part of public education in these United States. But did he have a plan when a problem emerged? Absolutely. He and that team did all that they could.

MADIETH MALONE: The bottom line, that's what everybody looks at. They don't see the small successes; that's what I look at. I have to look at kids who were not coming to school who are coming, kids who were not working who are working. Kids who are smiling more, who are enjoying school more.

I think the school year has improved. I'm not going to say I've seen a big change, a drastic change, 180-degree turnaround, you know, but I have seen improvement.

JOHN MERROW: Have you failed?

PARKER LAND: I wouldn't feel personally that I've failed. I've learned an awful lot. I've learned that our kids, a significant number of those kids are in crisis. And there's a level of support that's needed that we just haven't realized yet.

But I think, if you ever reach that point where you feel like, you know, "I'm not going to make a difference here," you can always come back to focus on the kids. Stand out there and shake their hands, and it all comes rushing back.

JOHN MERROW: Park Land wasn't the only turnaround specialist to struggle. Fourteen of the program's 21 principals failed to meet federal standards for improvement this year. The turnaround specialists made three-year commitments, but already more than half have either changed schools or left the program.