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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Turning around a 'failing' school -- and not turning back

Now a "turnaround school," Charles E. Brown Elementary School was ranked in the bottom 6 percent of schools in Alabama in 2019. Getting off the"failing schools" list is easy, Principal Janice Drake told Jemma Stephenson of the Alabama Reflector. “It’s harder to stay off.”

Pamela Winn uses a science experiment to teach reading to second graders at Birmingham's Brown Elementary School. Photo: Andi Rice/Alabama Reflector

The state's low-performing schools mostly enroll students from low-income families, Stephenson writes. Success can be fragile. In 2004, Alabama rebuilt five of the lowest-performing schools in Mobile, Stephenson writes. The schools got new principals and teachers. Everyone got both signing and performance bonuses. Extra funding paid for an achievement specialist, an academic coach, social workers and counselors and each school. "Nurses were hired to make mental health plans."

George Hall Elementary reached nearly 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2009, going from one of the lowest to one of the highest performing elementary schools in the state. Alabama named George Hall a Torchbearer School. "The U.S. Department of Education sent a crew to document the work at George Hall, and twice named it a Blue Ribbon school."

But school budgets were cut during the Great Recession. The staff that led the turnaround retired or moved on. George Hall did not return to the failing schools list, which includes the lowest 6 percent in the state. But scores are down: "About 13% of George Hall students were proficient in English language arts in the 2021-2022 school year. About 8% were proficient in math." Turnarounds are hard work, said State Superintendent Eric G. Mackey in an interview. “What they proved was if you reconstitute a school in a very, very poor place, and you throw unbelievable resources at them, 20% of the time, it will make a difference for a while,” he said. People get "burned out." Brown's turnaround status comes with extra funding, which Drake hopes to spend hiring teachers, a social workers and other support staff. She worries about teacher burnout.

Students test at 30 percent proficiency in English Language and Arts, 25 percent in science but only 3 percent in math. That's good enough for a "C" on the state report card. Drake is shooting for an "A."

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Richard Rider
Richard Rider

The NATURAL tendency of public schools over time is to slack off. Parents have no control. Accountability is not encouraged in such school monopolies. But give all parents school vouchers, and everything changes. Suddenly the PARENTS are in control rather than job-secure government employees. Use the recently passed Florida voucher plan as a model.

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