Hiding the data

Principal Debbie Fortunato met with teacher leaders who received a stipend for providing input on an academic improvement plan for Rosemont High School (Improvement isn’t part of a teacher’s usual role in too many schools.) and shared the details of her data analysis regarding academic performance.

She discovered a steep decline in the number of honors students as students progressed through high school; a resulting low AP exam participation rate; weak test scores on Regents exams; and an artificially suppressed dropout rate.

“We have the superintendent’s support of academic reforms but no additional funding beyond what’s already being spent at the high school,” she told the teacher leaders. She also explained the superintendent’s expectation that the teacher leader/department chairs and Debbie leave school board communications to him. (See “Solving the wrong problem”)

“If you are contacted by a school board member,” she told them, “tell me immediately and I’ll tell the superintendent.”

The group — Debbie and the teacher leaders — planned to meet again in a week. In the meantime, everyone at the meeting was tasked with coming up with suggestions for how to improve the academic results at Rosemont High School while working within the school’s existing budget.

When they met the next week, some of the department chairs were ready to move forward and had some great ideas on how to fund the changes they needed. Others in the group were reluctant to make change.

The reluctant reformers saw the need and understood the best strategies but were fearful of the political repercussions with the school board, with Superintendent Galvin, with the teachers union and with the parents who had grown accustomed to doing things one way. 

Debbie was frustrated with the teacher leaders reticence when we met at Starbucks but she also described what I call a “happy accident.” 

While driving home from the gym one night, she had an epiphany. Why not make the changes at Rosemont with the eager departments and let the rest sit back and watch.

At their next meeting, Debbie assured her department chairs that she would not be hiding data. “If the dropout rate goes up because we finally start tracking it properly, we’ll have to deal with the negative public relations,” she said. “And I plan to present this data at faculty  and parent meetings.”

Maintaining the status quo

The academic improvement plan devised by Debbie and the math department chair was to mix the accelerated honors students into each of the regular math classes.

Honors would become a choice for all the students in the class whether they were in ninth or tenth grade. If you do the extra homework and special weekly math challenge assignments for honors and complete the honors questions on tests and quizzes, you’re designated honors on your report card and high school transcript.

Schools using this approach reported that many good math students who were overlooked when the decision of who to accelerate was made (usually in sixth grade or even earlier) take on the honors challenge and become great math students.

Even if they didn’t have time to take calculus as seniors at Rosemont, these late bloomers would be well prepared for calculus when they entered college.

In the end, the math and social studies departments decided to move forward with this honors change, while the other departments decided to wait and see how it played out.

Most educational improvement plans have financial costs and leaders frequently end up stymied because they can’t identify funding opportunities.

Debbie’s teacher leader group came up with a plan to hire two certified teacher assistants part time using savings made by turning three retirements — an economics teacher, a guidance secretary and a night time custodian — into part time jobs.  

Additional savings would come by moving high school special education students into Debbie’s new alternative high school that had a work-study component. With students out of school for a half day you save money and you give them a chance to work in the real world.

More savings would come by moving four tuition special education students back to the district and into the new alternative program in the high school. Those four students had been going to another school that charged $50,000 a year for each in tuition. Moving these students back into the district also saved one bus run and the salary and benefit costs for a bus driver and a school bus aide.

The savings also paid for two more certified teachers working as teaching assistants, a monitor to cover study halls previously covered by teachers and some tutoring time for academically struggling students.

At Rosemont, new subject-specific certified teachers who were hired as teaching assistants took on extra hourly tutoring assignments after school, at night and on weekends also paid for by the savings. The tutoring helped students who were struggling in Regents and honors courses.

I wasn’t surprised when Debbie told me the dropout rate for her school had been cut in half during the first year the program was in place and that dropouts for her school had been reduced to single digits during the second year of the program’s implementation. I had the same experience with similarly structured alternative high school programs in four different school districts.

At Averill Park High School where I was the high school principal the dropout rate for the five years prior to the alternative program’s implementation was 11.5 percent (23 dropouts per year average) and for the three years after the program’s implementation the dropout rate was 3 percent (six dropouts per year average).

And so it goes

While Fortunato was making great strides on the academic side, Superintendent Galvin and school board member Todd Morgan were becoming bitter enemies over the issue of football. Todd wanted to replace the football coach and Galvin just kept brushing him off.

The result: Todd did everything in his power to make the superintendent’s life miserable, including trying to make him look foolish at every public meeting of the school board with off-the-wall questions he wouldn’t reveal until the meeting was in public session.

He challenged the accuracy of the information supplied by the superintendent and made snide public comments that inevitably made it into the local newspaper.

Todd also convinced his longtime friend and assistant coach in Pop Warner football, Terry Marcus, to run for the school board in the next May election on a platform of replacing the football coach and hiring a new superintendent. Terry won the election with 280 votes, 20 more than the next best candidate.

Academics: An afterthought of school leadership. Click here