For Ashley Park teachers, the lesson is: Don’t give up

An occasional series

Every two weeks, as Ashley Park’s eighth-grade teachers gathered to review their students’ progress and problems, the same student kept coming up.

He refused to pay attention. He wandered around class and distracted students trying to work. All his teachers tried to engage him, and all failed.

Administrators tried to head off suspension by requiring his mother to come in for a conference. But three days passed with no sign of mother or son.

On the fourth morning, Meaghan Loftus, a 26-year-old academic facilitator, drove to their home. She found a mother trying to keep up with five children, ranging from twin toddlers to the towering eighth-grader. The mother wanted her son to shape up, but she didn’t have a ride to get to school. Loftus drove her in. The mother talked with her son’s teachers and signed a contract saying she’d help keep him on track.

For the teachers of Ashley Park, that’s the standard: They can’t give up on unmotivated students or blame troubled families. Along with the faculty at eight other Project LIFT schools, they agreed before school began to do whatever it takes to forge a path to success for their students, most of whom are living in poverty and many of whom are behind on academic skills.

Such vows have been made before, in Charlotte’s urban schools and others across the country. But this year the stakes rose.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools signed a groundbreaking partnership with foundations pledging $55 million to get results at Ashley Park and eight other westside schools. The big goal rides on the students who finish eighth grade this week: 90 percent graduation from West Charlotte High in 2017, compared with 56 percent last year.

Their prime investment is in building a team of teachers who can succeed where so many have foundered. Last spring, the private money covered recruitment bonuses of up to $13,000, while teachers who weren’t deemed likely to succeed in Project LIFT schools were forced to transfer.

The private money provides extra support, from classroom grants to software that helps teachers analyze students’ skills. But it also brings scrutiny, from the public, elected officials, the donor board and national experts. It’s a mix that can be thrilling and exhausting, the teachers of Ashley Park say.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said social studies teacher Matt Rankin, 28, one of the teachers recruited through Project LIFT. “Unless you’re in here you have no idea.”

Tapping talent

There’s no single Project LIFT formula for success. Strategies are evolving, and principals tailor plans for their own schools.

But recruiting and keeping the right teachers is essential.

Last spring, all LIFT principals rated their faculty. Some teachers were required to transfer to non-LIFT schools. Some were given bonuses to stay, and some were merely given the option. Recruitment and retention bonuses were based on previous results and interviews designed to gauge commitment to the no-excuses culture.

Tonya Kales, in her fourth year as principal of Ashley Park, seeks teachers who treat their students and colleagues like family, taking personal responsibility for everyone on the team. She hires from a blend of backgrounds, including traditional teachers and those recruited through such alternative programs as Teach For America and TEACH Charlotte.

Kales says her goal is to get talented, passionate people into her classrooms, even if they don’t see teaching as a lifelong career. She encourages those who aspire to bigger things, even if their efforts take them away from her school.

For the eighth-grade “family,” recruiting became a yearlong task. It started the first day of school, when the English teacher resigned to take a promotion at another school. The teacher reassigned to take his place went on medical leave after about a month.

Loftus, the facilitator, then stepped in to temporarily lead the class.

Michelle Haller, who had taught at CMS’ Sedgefield Middle School, reported for duty just after Thanksgiving. By then the students were openly rebellious.

She was trying to get them to focus on grammar and literary analysis, not an easy sell to adolescents in the best of circumstances. The students were sleeping, chatting and shouting across the room at each other.

“They’re not sure if I’m going to stay,” she said in January.

A challenging culture

The culture of Project LIFT and Ashley Park isn’t a fit for all teachers.

Kales recruited Stavon Brown, who had 13 years’ experience, from Eastway Middle, another high-poverty CMS school. She’d had good results there, and her early test scores with the Ashley Park eighth-graders were among the best in Project LIFT.

But Brown, 44, chafed at the demand to constantly ask what’s going on in students’ lives. Staff meetings were frequent, with an expectation that all teachers would study and adjust their techniques. In one session, for instance, each teacher had to try a new technique from the book “ Teach Like a Champion,” videotape themselves and show it to colleagues.

Brown said she was there to teach math, something she knew how to do. She admired what Project LIFT was trying to do, but by February she was skeptical about the tactics. Her students were smart, she said, but too many were immature and unmotivated.

“If the kids don’t buy into it,” she said, “I don’t think it’s effective.”

In the spring, Brown resigned to care for her mother, who lives out of state. (Project LIFT requires that teachers return recruitment bonuses if they don’t stay the full year.) Loftus stepped in to teach her class.

Kales said she’s not shocked when teachers opt out of Ashley Park: “It’s very difficult to do this work.” But she said the turnover in her eighth-grade team – the middle-school science teacher also left midyear – isn’t typical. Of 21 classroom teachers at the pre-K-8 school, she lost four this year.

Dealing with trouble

Discipline was a regular theme at eighth-grade faculty meetings. For most of the year, classroom disruptions were the biggest issue.

It was always a balancing act: The teen who’s merely acting like a fool in class might spend suspension in a neighborhood where gangs and other troubles lurk. But the faculty also had to keep order. The student whose mother signed a behavior contract, for instance, didn’t change his ways. He spent most of the spring on suspension.

In April, behavior took a darker turn. As the students left school one Monday, a seventh-grader stabbed an eighth-grader with scissors, leaving cuts along his hairline.

The faculty tightened rules. Students had to be escorted if they left class. Restroom breaks would be taken as a group.

Less than two weeks later, the eighth-grade teachers were in a planning meeting when the music teacher overheard a student talking about a gun. All the seventh- and eighth-graders were searched, and an unloaded gun turned up in an eighth-grader’s book bag.

The student, says Kales, was a high achiever with no serious history of discipline problems. He told officials he was afraid of a confrontation walking home from school.

After that, book bags had to be stashed in closets.

The following week, a student found a bullet on the floor of the middle-school boys’ restroom. Another lockdown and search ensued, but no gun turned up.

Crunching data

The testing anxiety that permeates most schools was intensified this year by the prospect of new state exams, designed to reflect more rigorous national academic standards known as the Common Core.

Project LIFT tried to provide an edge, with diagnostic tests and software designed to pinpoint which skills students had mastered. Every two weeks, Ashley Park eighth-graders who came up short were assigned to intervention classes, essentially an extra hour in their weakest subject.

They’d retest on those skills at the end of the two weeks, often with big gains.

In January, Ashley Park started giving tests designed by Discovery Education to simulate the anticipated new exams.

In Haller’s English class, the early results were bleak.

“They bombed it,” she said after the first test.

One question asked students to read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Ashes of Life,” then explain the theme, using images from each stanza.

Haller picked up the top test from a stack on her desk. That student’s answer, in its entirety: “The poem is dull.”

Haller started teaching them Greek and Latin roots to build vocabulary. They worked on identifying imagery, tone and mood. Many started looking better on follow-up tests.

Math looked rough, too. In mid-April, the Discovery Education tests indicated fewer than half were likely to pass. But there were signs of hope. A bulletin board showed the percent passing tests of various math skills. The first time the class took the functions test, 46.4 percent passed. By the end of April there was a new number: 92.5 percent.

At a late April team meeting, Loftus happily noted that two of the eighth-grade boys were “in a battle to the death” over who could get the highest scores.

“I love their energy toward that instead of how crazy they can make us,” she said.

Many unknowns

When students took the state tests the third week in May, it was an anticlimax.

Normally the faculty and students know right away how they did.

This year the students’ answer sheets have been sent off to the state, which must calculate the cutoff for passing. No one will know until October how they fared.

Now the focus is on high school. Haller’s English students, for instance, are reading “The Pact,” a book by three African-American doctors who helped each other overcome obstacles growing up on the streets of Newark, N.J. It’s summer reading for West Charlotte High, where most of the students will go.

The teachers have high hopes. But they also worry. Their students will move from the Ashley Park family to big schools where they’ll join hundreds of freshmen. Can they make it without the intensive support they got here?

“It’s like giving them training wheels on their bike instead of letting them ride and fall,” says Chris Mark, a science teacher who arrived in December. “They’re going to fall. The question is, are they going to get back up?”

Loftus acknowledges the fear. She has talked to last year’s students. Some are struggling with academics and discipline.

But change, she says, must be won one year at a time.

The teachers of Ashley Park have done their best with the Class of 2017.

Now, she hopes West Charlotte and Project LIFT can get them to graduation.

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