Inside a ‘low-performing’ school

Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong, writes Kristina Rizga in Mother Jones after spending 18 months “embedded” at San Francisco’s Mission High. Rizga followed a Salvadoran girl who’d joined her mother in the U.S. after the rape, torture and murder of her beloved aunt.

At a San Francisco middle school, Maria learned almost no English in a special class for immigrants and then in a mainstream class.

At Mission High, the struggling school she’d chosen against the advice of her friends and relatives, Maria earned high grades in math and some days caught herself speaking English even with her Spanish-speaking teachers. By 11th grade, she wrote long papers on complex topics like desegregation and the war in Iraq. She became addicted to winning debates in class, despite her shyness and heavy accent. In her junior year, she became the go-to translator and advocate for her mother, her aunts, and for other Latino kids at school. In March, Maria and her teachers were celebrating acceptance letters to five colleges and two prestigious scholarships, including one from Dave Eggers’ writing center, 826 Valencia.

But Maria, who’s still learning English vocabulary, scores poorly on state exams.  Despite a rising graduation and college-going rate, Mission High scores among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country.

The article — go ahead, read the whole thing — reminded me of The New Kids, a book on a small New York City high school for recent immigrants. The school pushes all students –who come from Tibet, Africa, Haiti, China, you name it — to college.  But they’re way, way behind in reading, writing and math. Some have missed years of schooling. Or they just haven’t had enough time to learn English. Can they really make it in college without the mentoring their high school provides? If the problem is just weak English skills, the super-motivated probably can. But what makes sense for the rest?

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  1. One major problem at low-performing systems is that they don’t put enough emphasis on hiring EARLY enough. Too many systems fear they will have too many people on board, and states are often slow to let them know what their budget will be for the next year.

    One way to deal with that is to hire at the troubled schools earlier – post by January, collect resumes, make sure that ALL paperwork is on file for all serious candidates BEFORE you interview them, and provide a solid guarantee of a job. Don’t even bother with the other schools in the system until the difficult ones are fully staffed with certified, experienced teachers and administrators – and make sure principals of those other school know they won’t have their vacancies filled until after that point. Nothing like some pressure to have EVERYBODY work to get those inner-city vacancies filled.

    Also, have people from the hiring system actually go out to see the potential candidates in action, if they are currently teaching. Or, ask them to video a lesson, and have volunteers watch. That way, you can weed out the hopeless, as well as schedule the best for early interviews.

    The thing is, the best systems start their next year’s hiring by Easter – there may be some added later, but the bulk of the hiring is early.

    The systems that wait until they’ve got “all their ducks in a row” are often stuck with candidates that other systems didn’t want. Occasionally, a good teacher will be looking later, but they can’t count on that.

    For the last 3 years, hiring has been slower, with MANY qualified candidates for very few jobs, particularly elementary. I would expect that to change over the next 5 years, with every year having MANY more vacancies, as teachers retire. So, it’s even more critical that troubled systems get their act together NOW.