Turned around

Turning around a failing school is very difficult. But Keiller Leadership Academy, once one of San Diego’s lowest scoring middle schools, has been transformed since it became a charter school in 2005. On the state’s Academic Performance Index, Keiller scores a 5 out of 10 compared to all middle schools, a perfect 10 compared to schools with similar demographics. Voice of San Diego reports:

Hiring, once limited by school district seniority, has been thrown open to any interested teacher. Uniforms blot out gang colors on the campus. Cutting spending on custodians helped beautify the once-barren campus. And a new schedule features fewer, longer classes and a school-wide focus on vocabulary, scrutinized by university professors who help teachers tailor their lessons and improve.

“It’s so easy to blame the parents, or the community” for low achievement, Executive Director Patricia Ladd said. “All those things we can’t control. We have to take things as they are and stop the blame game.”

Teachers are hired only if they are committed to Keiller’s mission. University of San Diego professors review videotapes of teachers’ lessons to analyze what’s effective. Teachers use data to improve.

Teachers compare their classes’ scores, measured and publicized periodically over the year, to gauge which methods work. . . . every teacher sets personal performance goals that Ladd uses to evaluate their work.

. . . teachers devote more time to planning and data, and review university-run studies that track their students’ progress over time.

Ladd adopted block scheduling, hired more counselors and paid for more lunchtime supervisors to keep order. The school also pays teachers a bit more than they’d get at district-run schools. Unwanted services were cut to cover the costs.

Keiller replaced district custodians with a less expensive contractor, and spent the estimated $18,000 savings on landscaping to transform the barren, weedy campus, now splashed with flowers and patches of grass, Ladd said.

Keiller also scaled back spending on professional security, once an essential for the rowdy campus, as the new school culture changed behavior.

Some thought Ladd wouldn’t understand Keiller’s nearly all minority, mostly low-income students since she’s a “white lady from Point Loma” who specialized in teaching gifted students in middle-class areas. She understood Keiller needed to change.

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  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    Good for Keiller Academy. Bad for those of us who’d like to see their success replicated, because once again the key is one hardworking charismatic leader, in this case Ladd.

  2. Success is most welcome. Common sense leads me to to join with Cardinal Fang in giving credit to Patricia Ladd. But I would like to know a whole lot more. Just what changes, among the many mentioned, really made the difference. School uniforms? Tight discipline? block scheduling? Beautifying the campus? Involving university professors? I can only speak from ignorance. All I know is what I read in the blogs. I can only make some hypotheses. But I think we ought to be asking questions and making hypotheses.

    Involving university professors would seem to me about the last thing that would be helpful. Block scheduling, I have always thought, is probably irrevelent at best in actually improving learning.

    What about becoming a charter school? Is that important? If so, how? Or is it irrelevant? Could Ladd have done the same without it being a charter school?

    What about the hiring? Is that crucial to success? I would think probably so, but I don’t know how. Are the teachers super good at what they do? Or or they just normally good teachers put in a situation which brings out their best? If this is the case, then once again one would think we would have to credit Ladd for producing this situation. But how did she do it?

    What about tight discipline? Again I would expect that is crucial to success. But how was it accomplished? I have had, many years ago, a bit of experience with administrators who didn’t know much more than I did about how to maintain discipline, and therefore tended to sweep it under the rug. Many teachers and administrators, in my humble opinion, are too invested with unrealistic ideals to take the sometimes painful steps needed.

    Does Ladd micromanage? We know that can sometimes be counterproductive. But lack of attention to details can be just as bad. Personal attention can be a powerful motivator, to students, to teachers, and to parents. Or is that micromanaging again?

    Is Ladd a supersalesman? Good salesmanship, I think, often consists of simply finding ways to fit people and circumstances together, and then persuasively communicating that fit. Or is this leadership? Again, we may cedrtainly credit Ladd with good leadership, but I want to know just what that means, and how it was done in this particular situation.

    In both politics and education (and perhaps many other things) people often simply want “change”, or “reform”, with no idea at all of what change or what reform. We need to be specific. What changes made the difference at Keiller?

  3. the hardworking charismatic leader is important for stage of building the airplane … showing that a new model can work. subsequent execution can be much more distributed — although evidence does suggest that a strong leader of some sort is needed.

    think of the difference between the wright brothers and the many pilots … vs the many larger numbers intoning that man was not meant to fly (or applying this metaphor that some kids were not meant to learn)

  4. SuperSub says:

    Brian –
    Regarding your dismissive comment about professors… while I don’t know the exact details of the school’s relationship with the college, I don’t see how having an extra viewpoint to analyze your practice and results would necessarily be harmful.

    As for the charter school necessity comment, it seems that many, if not most, of the changes would not have been possible under a standard public school administration.

    As for your general tone that the story might be slightly overblown and that much more needs to be known to come to a safe assumption, I agree. That being said, hope itself is an important commodity.

  5. Supersub, I hadn’t realized I was being dismissive of college professors. But a little reflection leads me to conclude that yes, indeed I was dismissive of college professors as being an ingredient in the success of this school. And a little more reflection leads me to believe that yes, indeed I should be dismissive of college professors in this context. The context is very important here. The context is college professors watching video tapes of teachers teaching in their regular classrooms, and attempting to be helpful. What professors are we talking about here? Two possibilities come to mind.

    The first possibility would be that they are subject matter professors, math professors watching math teachers for example. If this leads to a conversation among equals I’m all for it. But if the professors believe they are the experts and that the teachers should look to them for guidance, that does not sound promising. This is not to say anything against professors. They just have a different job to do than high school or elementary teachers. There is little in the job of teaching college students, in my opinion, that would make one an expert in teaching at a lower level. I think it would work more the other way, probably much more.

    The second possibility would be that we are talking about professors or education. Call me a grinch but I have been saying all my life that professors of education have not been helpful to practicing teachers. I am not alone in that opinion. It is seen often enough in the comments to the ed blogs. I have noticed at times, however, that people will have that opinion but, trying to be polite, will remain silent. I’m all in favor of politeness, but I decided long ago that some things need to be said even at the risk of offending some people. My conclusion that the teachings of ed school are not helpful is not an opinion formed hastily or lightly. It is based on my own personal experience, on what others have said over many years, and on a lot of thought and reflection about teaching and learning over many years. I do not express this opinion gratuitously. But there are times when to keep silent is to give assent to something I definitely do not want to give assent to. Similarly I will not give opinions on religion and politics in many situations, but once in a while something comes up that one should not let pass. Silence has its place. I use it all the time, often in the interests of politeness. Indeed, I am used to being a minority of one and letting a lot that I disagree with pass.

    But at the moment the context is a discussion of what did, or did not, contribute to an important educational success. A lifetime of experience and reflection lead me to think it highly unlikely that professors of education critiquing competent and experienced teachers on the job would be helpful. In this context I believe the most helpful thing for me to do (helpful in the long run) is to say so, to express my doubts in no uncertain terms. So I do. I stand by my words. And just to be thorough, here’s what I said, “Involving university professors would seem to me about the last thing that would be helpful.” Others may have quite different opinions, and that is fine.

    If anyone is interested in a more detailed statement of my thoughts on the helpfulness of ed school, I’ve already written it out at length and put it on my website. My main point is that the educational establishment has allowed an ideology to become its foundational basis, and that does not work. Here’s a link.


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