Your Schools

This young teacher stayed with CMS. But it has never been easy.

Carly Deal and Kelsey LaBar have a lot in common.

Both followed their mothers into the teaching profession. Both came fresh out of college to teach second grade in a high-poverty Charlotte-Mecklenburg school. And both felt battered by their first year.

You might remember Deal from a recent column I wrote about her decision to leave Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. That sparked a lot of discussion about what CMS should do to support promising new teachers and whether it’s appropriate to send them into the most challenging schools.

A few readers said they sympathized but wanted to hear about someone who stuck with it.

Enter LaBar. After a tearful first year when she felt like a failure, she returned to Ashley Park PreK-8 School in west Charlotte, where most children live in poverty and test scores are persistently low.

By her third year she was seen as a rising star. By her fourth she was coaching other teachers.

LaBar, now 27, says taking the job at Ashley Park was the best thing that ever happened to her, even though it meant moving 500 miles from home to a city she’d never seen.

That doesn’t mean life got easy after her rookie year. Some of her biggest strides have been followed by devastating setbacks.

“Every day is hard,” LaBar says. She pauses to think about why she never gave up.

“It would be harder not to do it,” she concludes.

From Philly to Charlotte

LaBar, who grew up in Philadelphia, majored in elementary education at Penn State University. She did her student teaching at a public school in inner-city Philly.

From the outside, she had always heard about failing urban schools. Every year low test scores would spark debates over closing them.

From the inside, she saw a place where children felt safe, the neighborhood came together and teachers cared deeply about their work.

LaBar had found her passion. She wanted to come back after graduation, but with a hiring freeze in place she decided her best hope was to sign up with Teach For America, a program that generally recruits teachers from less traditional college majors for hard-to-staff schools.

TFA lets recruits list three cities where they’d like to land, and LaBar decided it might be fun to live somewhere new. She ended up in Charlotte, a city she’d never seen. She had a hard time imagining urban poverty even existed here.

It does. The poverty level at Ashley Park tops 90 percent. A former elementary school in west Charlotte, it had just absorbed older students after CMS closed three low-performing middle schools.

A group of philanthropists looking to tackle the most persistently troubled schools had just designated Ashley Park and eight other schools to be part of Project LIFT, which debuted as LaBar arrived in 2012.

That meant there would be extra money and support. It also meant an intense focus on tracking data and raising test scores.

And it brought an unprecedented level of public scrutiny. Although LaBar and I didn’t meet, I made regular visits to Ashley Park during her first year to write about the eighth-graders who would eventually become Project LIFT’s Class of 2017.

Tears and challenges

Most second-grade teachers have one class all day, with a couple dozen students. Ashley Park was experimenting with an approach similar to middle school, where teachers specialized and younger kids changed classes.

LaBar was assigned to teach math, which meant she’d have three classes totaling more than 60 students.

She had support from TFA and from a math facilitator at Ashley Park. She took to the idea of analyzing data on her students’ skills and progress, even if it meant creating tests for her kids every six weeks. Like Deal, she worked 12-hour days and went home thinking about her students and her lesson plans.

And like Deal, she found herself on the phone to her mother, sobbing about how she wasn’t ready.

“I’m not a crier. I never cry,” LaBar said. “I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not good enough.’ ”

But her administrators saw potential. Ashley Park’s current principal, Meaghan Loftus, recalls meetings with the school’s administrators and hearing them say LaBar was moving out of survival mode and doing well. LaBar has a folder stuffed with encouraging notes from the former principal and assistant principal.

With no family or friends nearby, Ashley Park became her family – not just her colleagues but her students.

“I fell in love with those kids really hard,” she recalls. “They were my people.”

So she came back for a second year. Ashley Park had shifted to a coaching system, but now that LaBar had one year’s experience they were assigned to newer teachers.

By the end of the second year, LaBar asked for a new challenge: She wanted to teach students who would face a state exam. For her third year she taught fourth-grade math, reunited with the class she had fallen in love with two years before.

A rising star

By then Loftus – who is only two years older than LaBar – was assistant principal. Ashley Park expanded its coaching program and Loftus worked with LaBar, visiting her class regularly, suggesting strategies and videotaping her work for review.

LaBar vividly recalls seeing a video of herself trying to get two boys to pay attention. She called their names over and over but never followed up.

Dismayed, she talked with Loftus about how to improve. She ended up having the two boys watch the video with her, and talked about how she was going to get tough about delivering consequences. Then she told the class the same, explaining that she hadn’t done enough to protect their learning environment.

“It got worse before it got better,” she recalls, but it did get better. Best of all, she says, was watching her students start to feel confident as they mastered math.

LaBar and Loftus would rehearse lessons and discipline strategies after hours. LaBar continued to crunch data on the tests devised to gauge progress toward End of Grade exams.

The results looked strong. Word was spreading throughout Project LIFT: This was a teacher to get excited about.

In spring of 2015, Ashley Park administrators encouraged LaBar to apply for an Opportunity Culture job that would let her coach other math teachers. The jobs, which come with hefty raises, are designed for teachers with proven results. Even though LaBar’s kids hadn’t taken exams yet, she was hired. No one doubted she’d qualify.

The kids took the tests. Loftus and then-Principal Jeanette Reber got the preliminary scores.

They were gobsmacked. Scores were dismal in every grade and every subject.

“It was so confusing,” Loftus recalls. “We got false positives all year.”

She collected herself, then sent LaBar a text: 14 percent of your students passed.

How to fix it

LaBar was getting a manicure. She read the text and ran sobbing from the salon.

At school the next morning, the children were eager to hear their scores. LaBar told them she didn’t have the results – a white lie because the scores weren’t official and she couldn’t bear to dash their spirits.

Loftus fought past her own sorrow and wrote LaBar a long letter, acknowledging LaBar’s grief and apologizing for letting her down as a coach. But she urged LaBar to rally for the next year, when the whole team would figure out what went wrong and do better.

“In the meantime,” Loftus wrote, “please know that you have moved your children immeasurably. There is no one they, or I, would choose over you.”

So they started planning. Project LIFT paid for better tests to gauge progress. Moving into her coaching job, LaBar helped prepare carefully scripted lessons. Teachers acted them out in advance, including what could go wrong and how they’d react if kids didn’t get it.

Loftus, meanwhile, was named principal as the school year began.

The kids took their tests in May, but because the results haven’t been certified by the state, Loftus says she can’t release specifics. But most of the math classes LaBar coached saw significant gains, she says.

Putting down roots

LaBar and Loftus both plan to be back in August. LaBar will be coaching again, expanding her roster of teachers. She’s working on plans for teachers to give a couple of math problems during each class, scan the results while students work and loop back that very day to work on weaknesses.

She also found another love in Charlotte. She and Joe Black, who works for MetLife, married in April. She’s still figuring out how to handle the switch from Ms. LaBar to Mrs. Black at school.

LaBar’s mom, Becky LaBar, fretted through those early tearful calls. A teacher in a suburban church nursery school, she had no experience that compared with her daughter’s. “My heart was breaking with her,” she says.

When it became clear their daughter was putting down roots in Charlotte, Becky and Rich LaBar decided they were tired of Philadelphia winters. They moved south, and Becky LaBar is now a regular volunteer at Ashley Park.

So what’s the key to surviving and thriving? Kelsey LaBar can’t speak for all new teachers, any more than Carly Deal could.

But she credits the school administrators who pushed her hard while giving constant encouragement and concrete guidance. The work will always be hard, she says, but “we need to give our teachers the support they need so it’s less hard.”

I think her mom is onto something, too.

“She is one tough cookie,” Becky LaBar says. “I’ll be honest: I didn’t know she had it in her.”