When Chris Stewart tweeted about George Hall Elementary — “99% black. 98% student poverty. All proficient.” — skeptics wondered if the “miracle” was real.
The turnaround school in Mobile was one of the highest-performing schools in Alabama in 2013, according to Education Trust, I noted.
Ed Trust’s Karin Chenoweth explains how George Hall went from one of the worst-performing schools in the state in 2004 to one of the best. No miracles were involved, she writes.
A new principal followed “what research indicates is important” and aligned “curricula, lessons, professional development, schedules, budgets, discipline — everything — . . . to support high-quality instruction.”
“Our children can’t help what they come from,” Terri Tomlinson told me when she was the principal. “It’s our job to teach them. And I think we do a pretty good job of it.”
At George Hall I have read student essays, heard students read, and talked with them about what they’re learning and what they hope to be when they grow up. The children at George Hall are not “miracle” children but children who have ambitions and — like all humans — are hardwired to learn.
I believe the faculty and staff would find deeply offensive the idea that the only way that their students can achieve at high levels is through divine intervention.
Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011) by Chenoweth and Christina Theokas profiles Tomlinson and other leaders of 24 high-performing, rapidly improving schools that serve disadvantaged students.
WBHM profiled George Hall in 2012 as part of a series on turnaround schools.
In 2004, the district transferred most of the teachers, hired Tomlinson and let her recruit a new set of teachers with “a strong work ethic and a belief that all kids can learn at a high level,” reports Dan Carsen. Teachers were offered $4,000 signing bonuses plus performance bonuses.
The community was angry about the changes, says Tomlinson. “We were a predominantly white staff and a white principal who came into a black school with a predominantly black staff and a black principal, and it was … it was hard for it not to be racial. And there were threats.”
The principal and teachers “leave nothing about teaching and learning to chance. They’re very strategic,” says Alabama Superintendent Tommy Bice. “They know where every child is. They have a plan ensure that they move from point A to point B. If they’re not moving along that trajectory, they have a plan to intervene.”
Teachers assess students very frequently, and principal Tomlinson analyzes the data every day. Faculty planning time is protected, and instructional time is guarded like treasure. Tomlinson says you practically need a letter from the Pope to get on the intercom, and teachers recently voted to lengthen the school day by 50 minutes.
Teachers use common lesson plans, and group planning sessions often span grade levels. Collaboration is key.
There are a few white students now, writes Carsen. They are the children of teachers.