Few failure mills and dropout factories have ever been transformed into cultures of genius. And small corps of men and women who have had success in doing so rarely keep their jobs. As this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on school leadership points out, abysmal school leaders in central offices — including, in many cases, the superintendents themselves — are far too unwilling to challenge mindsets of failure. Reform-minded superintendents rarely lack the political constituencies needed (and almost never stay around long enough) to support their change-agent principals. National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals, uninterested in losing influence or bodies regardless of their performance, will push hard against any turnaround. And the poisonous cultures fostered by laggards tends to all but ensure that failure persists.
Yet, as longtime school principal Jeffery White can attest, the work is worth doing for the futures as our children. In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, White — who found himself battling both teachers’ and superintendents (including the notorious Eugene White) during his tenures overhauling John Marshall Middle School in Indianapolis and East Chicago High School in the Hoosier State’s northern areas near Chicago — White explains the challenges of reforming failure factories, especially in our nation’s big cities, and why it must be done. Read, consider, and think about what you can do to spur much-needed school reform.
As a father, husband, and educator I have experienced on several occasions the tests of family, faith, and my willingness to continue being an urban school reformer. My reasons for writing this article are to provide aspiring urban school reformers examples of lived experiences on the road to urban school reform. Moreover, after reading this article I would like to know are you willing to always do “what is in the best interest of students?”
As an urban school principal, I’m very proud of my immediate success at transforming John Marshall Middle School and East Chicago Central High School into schools that are safe, orderly, and conducive to academic achievement. There is an array of data and news stories to illustrate my creation of student centered schools fostered an increase in academic achievement, faculty/student attendance, and a decrease in disruptive behavior. The instantaneous success at each school evolves from providing an open line of communication for students, parents, faculty members, and community partners.
Consequently, during my tenure as Principal of two urban schools, I’ve never had any student protests, gang fights, or community boycotts because of the open line of communication. My experiences as a successful Director of Curriculum and School Partnerships encompassed implementing standards based instruction, recruiting and hiring highly qualified teachers, grant writing, creating community partnerships, and instilling high expectations improve academic achievement. Without arrogance, I’m proud of the numerous awards I’ve received for “doing what is in the best interest of students.”
As the father of two beautiful daughters who attend Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry, I’m very pleased with the safe, caring, and nurturing learning environment my children love attending. As a disclaimer, my wife Samantha Adair-White is a very vocal member of the Indianapolis Public Schools Board of Commissioners and drives by at least three public, charter, and private schools to take our daughters to and from school. Consequently, my daughters have benefited academically and socially from school choice and having two VERY outspoken parents who do “what is in the best interest of students.
Just as I pronounce the good days of being actively involved in urban school reform, there have been voluminous bad days. There has been countless times of which my family has faced the reality of the bread winner being either reprimanded, demoted, or terminated for doing “what is in the best interest of students.”
For example, in 2007, I received a verbal reprimand from IPS Superintendent Dr. Eugene White for criticizing community and faith-based leaders for not being actively involved in the police investigation of a fourteen year old girl who was raped, sodomized, beaten, and made run through the public streets naked screaming for help. A later, in 2008, year I received a three day PAID suspension for questioning the proposed removal of more than half my school’s teachers and staff members. They were the same faculty and staff members who just celebrated increasing the state standardized test scores the highest John Marshall Middle School had obtained in over a decade. They also faithfully assisted students and parents who were left homeless and hungry after a violent tornado destroyed over 100 homes within the John Marshall Community. In other words, the faculty and staff members demonstrated their intestinal fortitude to do what was “in the best interest of students.”
Then in 2009, I faced additional sanctions for allegedly failing to follow the directives of my supervisor when I proudly suspended several unruly students for disrupting the learning environment, theft, and assaulting faculty members. I experienced anger and sadness when a math teacher, who was hired by another IPS principal, but was assigned to John Marshall Community High School, sexually assaulted two of my students. The former math teacher is currently serving a fifty-five year prison sentence. It’s important to illuminate I tried to fire the teacher but the school district and the teachers union supported the teacher. Another example of archaic policies and employment practices I perceive as not being “in the best interest of students.”
Last year, I tested my faith and family by accepting the position of Principal of East Chicago Central High School. East Chicago Central High School is a two hour drive from Indianapolis, has one of the strongest teacher unions in the state of Indiana, and I was going to be the sixth principal in five years. Furthermore, if Central High School failed to meet the 2010-2011 state proposed academic benchmarks, the Indiana Department of Education would take over the daily operations of the high school. Two prominent state politicians gave me marching orders to fix the school and fast.
“In the best interest of students,” we implemented standard based bell-to-bell instruction, a strict dress code policy, credit recovery, hall sweeps, a community supported strategic action plan, and required all teachers to complete Academic Failure Prevention Plans for all students who were failing at least one subject. I received an abundance of resistance from union officials, ineffective veteran teachers, and supporters of the status quo. However, with the assistance of several caring teachers, concerned parents, and academically talented students, our unconditional commitment to do what is “in the best interest of students” saved the high school. The end results were improved academic outcomes which deterred the Indiana Department of Education from taking over the only high school in East Chicago. A big victory for a small community.
Nevertheless, I was told by the superintendent hit the road for not having a cozy relationship with supporters of the status quo. Again, another example of my faith, family, and commitment to urban school reform being tested for doing what is “in the best interest of students.”
In conclusion, it is not a secret there is a shortage of urban school reformers who are willing to pass a “test of fire” from superintendents, school board members, parents, community members, faculty members, and the students. While many urban school reformers, including myself, value the extent to which we are able to influence educational policies and practices through our positions, we are aware of the greater breadth and power that reside in the superintendent’s chair.
My lived experiences lead me to believe the real test of one’s unconditional commitment to urban school reform involves answering the question “ as an urban school reformer, are you willing to question the policies and practices that impede academic achievement knowing the superintendent holds the power and the support of the school board to remove you?” While it feels good earning a salary by improving high school graduation rates, decreasing expulsion rates of at-risk students, and receiving notes from former students thanking you for believing in their abilities; it only takes a recommendation from the superintendent and a majority vote from the school board to take you from a bread winner to a crumb snatcher.
Before emailing me your replies, questions, and answers, think long and hard about your willingness to do “what is in the best interest of students?”