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Frustrating Lessons

Teachers, Principal Pointing Fingers

June 12, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Two years into her effort to turn around Hartford's Milner School - one of the state's most troubled elementary schools - ask Principal Jacqueline E. Mann how it's going and the depth of her frustration resounds.

"Teachers are saying, `Miss Mann, what else can we do?'" she says.

The federal government is demanding an answer to that question. By September, the school is likely to face the most serious sanctions dictated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Nerves are frayed at all levels at Milner as people wait to learn its fate. A consultant hired to study the school and recommend changes has postponed the release of the findings twice, to the relief and chagrin of those who work there.

Help has poured into the school the past two years, to little avail. An extra two hours of instruction have been added four days a week. A social worker from the state Department of Children and Families is based in the school to work with families, and a "turn-around" specialist and a master principal provide guidance.

Just recently, the school added a "critical-thinking" teacher and a "dean of discipline" to help students learn how to behave. The stream of students sent for discipline from their classrooms is relentless.

But many of the school's teachers are young and inexperienced, and they need mentors in their classrooms to demonstrate how to keep control and engage students, teachers' union President Cathy Carpino said. The school has designated mentors, but they are teachers who have their own classrooms. The turn-around specialists give teachers advice, Carpino said, "but we don't want people in there telling us what to do - we want people in there showing us what to do."

The bottom line is disappointing: This year, 73 percent of the school's fourth-graders scored below the basic reading level on the Connecticut Mastery Test, meaning they can't read anywhere near their grade level. That percentage is a slight improvement since Mann became principal, but few students hit the state goals on the test.

"Right now," Mann said, "we're working hard, but we're not getting the results we want."

Carpino said the district should consider whether Mann is getting the job done.

So Many Struggles

Two years ago, Mann was full of optimism that she could right the school in the city's Upper Albany neighborhood. A Juilliard-trained opera singer, Mann puts a premium on comportment and discipline. That, combined with her years of teaching and her strength as an instructional leader, seemed the right recipe to draw the best from Milner's teachers and students.

She is not out of ideas - she's researching alternative school models around the nation - but Mann can't hide her frustration.

She alternately lauds her staff - "They're doing it," she said of her teachers' response to many special directives - and rues their reluctance to do more planning or to change their book selections to include more with African themes and characters.

Mann, who is black, is worried that her staff, which is mostly white, is not culturally in tune with her mostly black students. Although she gives teachers credit for "trying to understand," she said the cultural chasm can impede student learning when teachers don't realize that their students are not understanding the way teachers pose some of their questions and directions.

For example, Mann said, many of her students won't understand such directions as "give me your analysis of ... " or "determine ...," but "they know `figure out' and need to be told that `figure out' and `determine' mean the same thing."

What Mann found most disturbing, she said, was that when she tried to provide teachers with books that feature black characters, they resisted. "They said, `Why can't we use these books?'" Mann said she told teachers they could keep the current books, but should supplement them with the books that have more black characters.

Carpino, the union president, defended the teachers' practice of using more sophisticated words. "Teachers use words like `give me an analysis of' and `determine' because they want to develop higher-order thinking."

She also said that, at a recent meeting, teachers complained about not having enough textbooks or literature. "I frankly doubt that a teacher would turn down any book, regardless of its content," she said.

Mann said she knows the challenges her teachers face, and she alternates between sympathy and disappointment. "They're so tired. They're not winning. We still struggle," she said at one moment. Then, later: "I don't want to say the people in this school are deliberately engaging in educational malpractice, but in many cases, that's what's happening. There's some bad practice."

She cited the reluctance to develop more specific lesson plans as an example of bad practice. "When they feel they're planning sufficiently but not getting results, we need to do things more deliberately," Mann said. "Where's our quality control?

Carpino said that Milner's teachers do extensive planning, but that know-how, rather than planning, is lacking at the school. "Anybody can write specific, lengthy, beautiful-looking lesson plans and not know how to implement them," she said.

The many young teachers at Milner need more support, Carpino said. "If they are not getting the support they need - which they are not getting - then you cannot turn around and say they're not doing this right and they're not doing that right."

She pointed the finger back at Mann, saying: "Two years ago, they changed the administration because test scores were low. Test scores are still low, so why don't they look at the administrator? I want to know where the quality control is."

Milner, like many other schools in the city, struggles with low student attendance. But Mann said some teachers used sick time liberally, to the detriment of the students and to the teachers who covered for absent colleagues when officials could not find substitutes. Mann said that substitutes often decline jobs in her school because they're afraid of the neighborhood. When she can't find coverage, she said, she disperses students among other classes.

"In our school, when we have substitute after substitute, it really impacts the culture and the climate," Mann said. "It impacts student morale. It impacts staff morale."

Shrugging off minor aches and pains and going to work "is an ethic that is out there in the business world that is not always the ethic of education. There are too many people who because they can [call in sick], do," Mann said. Some teachers, she added, haven't missed a day of work, adding: "The people who do come to work, work hard."

It's up to Gail Johnson, executive director of human resources for the district, to track teacher attendance, but over a period of three weeks, Johnson did not produce up-to-date statistics on absenteeism at Milner. But in 2002-03, Milner staff members missed an average of 16.3 days, compared with a state average of 8.3.

Carpino said she believes that some teacher absences for approved training sessions are being recorded incorrectly as sick days. Weeks ago, she said, she asked the human resources department to investigate. She said she hasn't heard back from them.

Julie Langdeau, the school's union representative, declined to talk about the school or the teachers' experiences, saying her colleagues advised her not to talk.

In Mann's view, many parents let their kids down, too, by failing to advocate for them even when substitutes churn through their children's classes for up to a month at a time. When Mann was unable to get a single long-term substitute to take over for one sixth-grade class whose teacher was absent for a month, she said, she sent a letter to parents telling them of the situation and asking them to call her. Few called.

When Mann sent a letter home to all the parents in the school warning them that the school faced drastic restructuring - even closure because of the federal education reform act - and asked them to join her in a meeting at the school, three parents attended. So Mann sent another letter with the same warning and the same invitation to another meeting. Again, she said, three parents showed up.

`Restructuring' Looms

"Everything is at stake," Mann said.

At the end of the month, the state will release the calculations showing which schools made the federally mandated adequate yearly progress, based on mastery test results. It's unlikely that Milner will make the grade; that means it will have to "restructure" by September.

The form of that restructuring is still unclear. Nancy Stark, education manager for school improvement and literacy with the state Department of Education, said Milner could close and reopen as a charter school; replace all or most of its teachers and administrators; or hire a private firm to run the school. The federal government allows states to take control of schools at this stage, but Stark said her department won't do that.

"We would encourage them to do the least intrusive and least disruptive intervention that would help the children," Stark said.

But with that big question looming, teachers are bailing out. Of 27 teachers in the building, two are retiring, three are resigning and four requested transfers to other schools, although just one transfer was approved, Johnson said.

The concern now is replacing those teachers with experienced staff, Johnson said. To do that, she said, she is negotiating incentives with the teachers' union that could include cash bonuses or help that would make teachers' jobs easier, such as providing them with classroom aides.

Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry said he is focusing on finding the right leadership. Mann is a strong instructional leader, he said. But Mann herself concedes that organization is not one of her greatest strengths. "How we complement her is going to be key," Henry said.

Next year, the district will disband the Reach program that Milner administrators have long complained is one of their biggest obstacles to creating an atmosphere of respect and orderliness. The program gathers emotionally disturbed children with learning disabilities from around the district and concentrates them in their own classrooms in certain elementary schools. Milner has two of those classes. Mann, and administrators before her, complained that the children behaved poorly and set a bad example for other children.

Next year, the special education students will be incorporated into regular classrooms. When that happens, Carpino said, some class sizes will present additional difficulties for teachers and students.

The Bright Spots

Glimmers of improvement at Milner are evident. Students walk quietly in lines under the watchful eyes of their teachers and in classrooms. Many students follow directions from their teachers, although those who don't are persistent about it. Substitutes are treated to a special hazing, featuring defiance, screaming and students fighting with each other. Classroom teachers send students to the office for such offenses.

Many volunteers from the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Travelers Life & Annuity, the Avon Rotary Club and South Windsor High School students tutor at the school and have donated books to Milner. Travelers Life & Annuity has also donated computers and money.

There are bright spots among the parents, too. Glenda Thomas, the family resource aide, said some of them attend parenting workshops, in mild weather, for topics that interest them, such as how they can help their kids with math and reading. Thomas also has found that parents come out in greater numbers during the day because they are afraid to walk to school at night.

She said she is also grateful that parents take her calls now. In the past, she said, many parents wouldn't answer the phone when they saw her number on their caller ID.

And half a dozen parents have begun volunteering at Milner, monitoring hallways and the cafeteria. Melvina Keaton, one of those volunteers, said she has developed tremendous respect for the teachers and administrators.

Parental participation is paramount, Keaton said. "When children see us involved in school, then they will be involved," she said.

Student behavior is the school's biggest challenge, according to Keaton. "Some of the kids can be fresh," she said. "Kids get unruly with adults. They kick, they hit, they yell. That reflects on our neighborhood. That reflects on who we are as parents. That reflects on our community."

With the right combination of incentives and guidance, Keaton said, the children find the strength to control themselves and concentrate. Youngsters are behaving better in the cafeteria, she said, since Mann began allowing them to earn time on the playground during lunch period or earn cards they can cash in for games if they behave well.

"One day last week I almost cried - the cafeteria was quiet," she said. "The kids were just eating. They were listening to us. It brought tears to my eyes."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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