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
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
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
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
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
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.
"Everything is at stake," Mann
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
"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
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
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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