Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning is on a mission to transform North Carolina’s schools, and during his years overseeing education litigation he’s proven that he’s willing to hold people accountable.
Manning is overseeing North Carolina's Leandro case, which led to a landmark state Supreme Court ruling that every child has the right to a “sound basic education.” The judge is charged with ensuring compliance with that standard at the state and district level.
Durham Public Schools had its turn in the spotlight last spring, when Manning hauled DPS officials into his courtroom for answers on how they planned to turn around a number of perennially low-performing schools.
Prior to that appearance, DPS rolled out its Design for Accelerated Progress, a program that — while in some areas reinforcing existing district policy — still promised renewed energy in meeting the goals.
Manning’s still watching. And so is Durham’s school board, which heard an update in committee last week on how the district’s implementing its much-vaunted turnaround program.
Under the Design for Accelerated Progress, Durham administrators promised to identify “chronically low-achieving schools that are not likely to achieve drastic improvements without transformative change”; set “clear, rigorous standards” for administrators, principals and teachers; provide “district support, management and technical assistance”; and empower principals and teachers “to play an active role in the turnaround and/or transformation and ongoing support of their school.” All this, of course, was meant to bolster student achievement.
Further, the plan split the schools into four tiers (originally just three) based on their students’ academic performance. Schools in the bottom tier were to receive the most resources, training and oversight. Lack of improvement by students would lead to the dismissal of principals and teachers and, if all else failed, the closure or relaunch of a school.
School board member Heidi Carter shared supportive words for the program during the meeting at which the Design for Accelerated Progress was introduced, according to The Herald-Sun.
The judge, who isn’t shy about speaking his mind, raised no objections when the plan was described to him. Its accountability components — that is, the potential removal of principals and teachers at failing schools — were among the elements geared to match his educational philosophy.
Not that Manning is the only motivating factor for improvement. There’s plenty of community pressure in Durham to see school performance improve, for instance.
And if you listen to the message coming from both DPS board chair Minnie Forte-Brown and Superintendent Eric Becoats, there’s internal pressure, too, with both leaders telling any who’ll listen that their role is to educate every child brought to the system, no matter their socioeconomic background.
Still, there’s likely no one in state government keeping an eye on school performance in the state like Manning — especially given the power he has to compel improvement, both directly (in his courtroom) and indirectly (by influencing state and local leaders mindful of his oversight).
North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction and Manning stepped in to provide intensive oversight the administration of Halifax County schools, for instance, after years of struggles in the district that initially birthed the Leandro case.
DPS’ hot seat isn’t that hot yet, and local school officials clearly want to keep it that way.
Manning will likely scrutinize the standardized test results that are due out this summer. And if he does not approve of those numbers and feels the district hasn’t done enough to prune ineffective principals and teachers, he could pressure Becoats and the Fuller Building crew for action.
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So how well is the Design for Accelerated Progress meeting DPS’ goals, now that it’s more than halfway through its first year of implementation?
That’s exactly what school board members got to hear at a meeting earlier this month. A presentation from administrators and principals showed how the system has been functioning for the 23 schools in the lowest levels, Tiers 1 and 2.
One component of the new regimen is a battery of math tests. These quizzes, diagnostic tools that have no bearing on grades, help teachers understand what specific concepts a student has had trouble grasping and how to improve understanding, district officials told the school board.
“This is much more specific than the information received last year,” Stacey Wilson-Norman, one of the district’s two elementary school “area superintendents,” told the board.
The new math tests, which require less time to administer than the internally generated assessments the district used last year, are supplied by the Scantron testing company. The program is expected to expand to more schools and subject areas in coming years.
The district has also put a greater emphasis on walk-throughs — classroom visits by in-building and central office administrators — at Tier 1 and 2 schools this year, said Debbie Pittman, the other elementary school area superintendent. These reviews supplement a variety of training and coaching.
“There’s a lot of feedback coming to teachers about how to improve their craft and impact instruction,” Pittman said.
Chris Bennett, the high school area superintendent, said that the reorganization under Superintendent Eric Becoats has enabled administrators to make many extra site visits.
“Because of the area model, we are in the schools more than we’ve ever been,” Bennett said.
Previously, Wilson-Norman was responsible for all elementary schools and Bennett was in charge of all middle and high schools. Their portfolios were halved under the new system.
When the administrators finished their part of the presentation, a series of principals from Tier 1 and 2 schools stepped up to share their view of the Design for Accelerated Progress.
And while questions of in-class testing continue to stir debate among some DPS parents — though district officials say that in the wake of federal No Child Left Behind policies, testing is here to stay — the principals lined up by DPS leaders at last week's board meeting were supportive of the new DPS approach. That included its focus on testing data.
Kathy Kirkpatrick of Lowe’s Grove Middle School discussed the Performance Management Oversight Committee that she and other Tier 1 and 2 principals meet with every few weeks.
The committee includes Lewis Ferebee, the district’s chief of staff, along with strategist Le Boler and Hugh Osteen and Jackie Ellis, respectively the assistant superintendents for operations and personnel. The relevant area superintendent also attends the gatherings. Their purpose, Kirkpatrick said, is to allow issues to be addressed efficiently.
“It’s just a really good way to keep us on track and keep the district informed as to how we’re doing on our school improvement plan and meeting our goals and are we on track to meet our goals, and if not, why not, how can it help us get back on track,” Kirkpatrick told the school board.
Kenneth Barnes, the principal of Southern High School, announced that he expects scores to rise, and with that, his school to attract more interest from talented prospective teachers. He also praised the administration for how it has provided aid.
“I will admit that for the first time in three years that Dr. Ferebee and Dr. Becoats have given me every resource that we’ve needed, teacher-wise, to help us make that change possible,” Barnes said.
Danny Gilfort, the principal of the Performance Learning Center, told the school board that the district’s new structure makes it easier for principals to get resources.
“We Tier 1, Tier 2 [high] schools have Chris Bennett as our Walmart/SuperTarget,” Gilfort said, to laughter. “He provides us with everything that we need.”
Barbara Parker of Spring Valley Elementary School said that students who are struggling the most in reading are assessed every two weeks, while others who are behind the curve get checked every month. The school's mClass assessments can determine which students are having the same problems and therefore can profitably receive small-group instruction together. They are also tied to letters that can be sent to parents telling them in just which areas their children need help.
Tonya Williams of Eno Valley Elementary School said that Scantron’s software informs her just how often her teachers are checking the data banks. Those who do so infrequently likely need help adjusting to the new system, she noted.
Officials conceded that parts of the Design for Accelerated Progress need work. The district had hoped to have a system in place across the county for monitoring school improvement plans, but that proved too much to implement in every building, Pittman said.
Terri Mozingo, the area superintendent for middle schools, said officials are working on “vertical alignment.” That means making sure that what is taught in fifth grade ties into middle school classwork and that what eighth graders learn provides stepping stones to freshman courses in high school.
And John Colclough, the Northern High School principal who will head the new Sandy Ridge Elementary School arts magnet, said that his teenaged students need more counseling assistance than one part-time social worker can provide.
School board members generally received the presentation positively, although some probing questions were asked about the availability of assistant principals, teacher assistants and social workers; they also asked about the use of in-school suspensions.
When the two-hour report ended, panelists Heidi Carter and Leigh Bordley stood to lead a round of applause.
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For Durham Public Schools, the bigger question is whether this “transformative” teaching model will attract applause from parents, too — and from Judge Manning.
No teachers spoke at the meeting, only principals; however, a few days later, the head of the Durham Association of Educators also gave the Design for Accelerated Progress a positive review.
“As of now, we think that the plan is going well,” said Kristy Moore, the association president. “The additional support going into schools is always a great thing.”
District officials in the first year under Becoats, Moore indicated, have been more flexible about getting extra resources to help struggling youngsters.
“If a school needs something to make sure that the students are learning, the schools are getting what they need,” Moore said, calling this the biggest difference between the Design for Accelerated Progress and a similar system that was in place previously.
Classroom instructors have had some concerns with the scheme, most notably the added scrutiny they got in the form of the extra walk-throughs. But once the association put those concerns to administrators and got a clearer explanation of what was happening, teacher fears were allayed, Moore said.
There have also been some complaints about specific schools in which teachers felt they weren’t getting enough support from building leaders. Those issues seem to have been resolved once they were called to the attention of the central office, Moore said.
Most teachers, she said, don’t want to speak publicly about the plan or other matters. That’s because of anxiety about layoffs that expected 2011-12 budget cuts are expected to force.
Of course, ongoing data-driven assessment isn't just about student performance — it covers teachers and the administration, too, as noted in recent DPS discussions about so-called “value-added growth” models. That's something that the district's new leadership signaled last year it might someday use to link teacher performance assessment to the relative gains made by their students in test scores.
To date, DPS officials have focused on working with teachers whose performance is seen to be underwhelming in order to improve their teaching strategies, though if the district eventually follows the model of other reform-oriented districts, teacher terminations could someday follow principal leadership changes under school transformation efforts.
And then, there’s always the question of Manning.
As Moore’s constituents and other education advocates are all too aware, budget cuts could radically alter the Design for Accelerated Progress implementation in 2011-12. Manning, however, will likely still be watching.
And if he doesn’t like what he sees, whether this year or next, Durham educators should plan on being called back to Manning’s courtroom.