Turnaround dream turns to nightmare

When Jill Saia was hired to turn around a low-performing Baton Rouge elementary school, she was promised autonomy in decision-making and School Improvement Grant funding to pay for extra staff and a longer school day. Her turnaround dream became a nightmare, she writes on Teacher in a Strange Land.

Two months into the first school year, the new district administration dismantled the “dream team” that had planned the transformation of Delmont Elementary and moved two teachers and an aide to another school. Saia was cited for insubordination for insisting SIG entitled the school to extra staff.

Still, Delmont started to improve. While there was little progress on test scores in the first year, “we did change the culture and climate of the school, increase enrollment, and foster a high level of parental involvement,” Saia writes.

In the second year, she got funding for the extended day program.

We began to turn the corner – more children were reading, asking questions, and flourishing. Fewer behavior problems, more time on task. Children were communicating with each other, with teachers, with staff. They understood what the parameters were for being a student at Delmont, and they rose to our challenges. We planted our vegetable garden, had choir concerts, and participated in the Kennedy Center for the Arts program to integrate arts into the curriculum. We partnered with the local hospital’s health program to host the “Big Blue Bus” every week, which provided medical and mental health care to children and families. We were awarded a sizable grant from a local foundation to adopt a parenting program, and worked with a local university to design a new playground.

But, in November, the superintendent told her Delmont would close after two years of its three-year turnaround plan. Then the board decided to turn it into a K-2 school, then a pre-K center and finally a preK and K school. The final decision was announced in the middle of state testing week.

Students were assigned to a school three miles away, which has an F rating.

. . . because I stood up for my school and tried to keep it open, I was given another letter of insubordination. I was also rated “ineffective” at midyear because of my refusal to change my ratings of teachers to match their pre-identified quota in the value-added system. Their assumption was that if test scores were low, then the teachers must be ineffective.

. . . I was placed on an Intensive Assistance plan. Two months later, I turned in four binders full of data, observations, meeting notes, mentor reviews, etc. My mentor was a local award-winning principal who was part of the original “Dream School” team. Needless to say, she loved Delmont and what we were doing there. . . . After looking at all of my documentation, the director said that it “looked complete,” but then a week later told me that I was still ineffective and would have to wait for his final evaluation.

Saia began looking for a new job, but found “no public school district in this area would hire me because of my track record in a ‘failed’ school.”  After 29 ½ years in the state retirement system, she retired with less-than-full benefits to become dean of instruction at a public charter school about ½ mile from Delmont. Many former Delmont parents have enrolled their children.

Test scores from Delmont’s second turnaround year were “outstanding,” Saia adds. Delmont would no longer be a “failing” school — if it had remained open.

About Joanne