Working together a plus for school

Effort made to lift scores by raising teacher morale

Trying to avoid state takeover

Remaking Woodlawn Middle

April 07, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

English and reading department chairwoman Wendy Prioleau sat in the Woodlawn Middle School library after the building had emptied of pupils recently and underlined a handout on the virtues of teamwork.

Prioleau was joined by more than a dozen colleagues who have also become accustomed to the after-school coursework in group decision-making and togetherness.

These weekly sessions are part of Woodlawn Middle's efforts at school improvement, which Principal Jerilyn C. Roberts has instituted to revive a school that is on the brink of a state takeover after years of low test scores and pupil violence. In February last year, it became the first school in Baltimore County - one of 107 in Maryland - warned of a takeover if test scores and attendance rates didn't rise.

Through big gestures and small, Roberts is working to raise the morale of her 170 faculty and staff.

The principal says she wants them to enjoy working with each other, feel invested in the school and relish coming to the classroom every day, because then they'll work harder on improving the achievement of its 937 pupils.

"It's much better than a dictatorship," Roberts said. "I mean, c'mon, would you like to do things if I just barked orders? We like to give teachers ownership."

Who would have thought that putting hairspray in the women's faculty bathroom could also help improve a school's poor performance?

But that's far from a radical approach. Researchers have found that successful schools share more than order in the hallways, interesting schoolwork and community involvement. They also have supportive work environments.

"If you're going to move a school ahead, you need to have people working together," said Elaine Allensworth of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which studies school improvement.

Especially in a struggling school, Allensworth said, teachers must trust their principal, work well with colleagues and feel comfortable taking the innovative steps needed to turn around low achievement.

"Schools that improve have a sense of trust and professional culture," said Kent Peterson, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin.

"In places that are positive and supportive and focused on student learning, people are willing to try new instructional techniques and, if it's not working out, to ask a colleague or principal for help."

That's why principals' associations and school systems around the country like St. Paul, Minn., and Philadelphia sponsor "leadership academies" giving principals training in creating supportive school cultures so reform can take place.

If there is a school that needs a new culture, it is Woodlawn Middle, Baltimore County's only school eligible for a state takeover.

Two years ago, teachers would leave in the middle of the day, asking friends and fellow teachers to cover their remaining classes. Teachers often called in sick. And so many quit that faculty had a pool on who would leave next, teachers said. "We don't have that this year," said Sandra Morfe, an eighth-grade language arts teacher who came to Woodlawn Middle 2 1/2 years ago to replace a teacher who left midyear. "We have a different atmosphere this year."

Principal Roberts makes regular opportunities for administrators, teachers and other staff to work together - and to laugh together, too.

For example, a pair of teachers shares responsibility for each homeroom. There are weekly study groups, where faculty members are encouraged to make suggestions for improving the school.

In the library recently, Roberts led a group of department chairs, school administrators and teacher mentors.

She talked with them about encouraging teachers to observe each other's lessons and offer constructive criticism, so they will write the engaging lessons that captivate pupils.

"We're not easily open for critique. So, we have to develop an atmosphere so it's safe for that kind of critique to take place," Roberts said.

To emphasize the point, Roberts handed out an article discussing heart doctors in Maine whose success rate improved after they watched each other's surgeries and then shared insights and techniques.

A veteran educator who is in her second year at Woodlawn Middle, Prioleau was the first recipient of another attempt to make the school a positive place to work: the monthly "Apple Award" that teachers pass around for outstanding effort.

"That's what is helping us move ahead," Prioleau said. "People are making efforts to help each other, build respect and act professionally, and the students see that, and it helps them behave accordingly."

A March 25 state audit said Woodlawn Middle must make more progress on engaging pupils in what they are learning. And it said teachers must learn to vary their instruction with the different learning styles of their pupils.

The report was overwhelmingly positive, chronicling gains in pupil learning, classwork and teacher performance.

"In looking back, there are definitely marked areas of improvement," said Linda Boyd, director of school improvement initiatives at the Maryland State Department of Education, which monitors and helps Woodlawn Middle.

There are other signs that the efforts are paying off.

Last school year, as many as a dozen teachers a day called in sick; this year, the average is four to five.

Last school year, 22 teachers sought to transfer from the school. This school year, the number was down to 12.

Kimberly Magginson, math department chairwoman, said the school adopted a number of her suggestions, including incorporating math into extracurricular activities.

"It makes me feel needed," Magginson said. "It makes me feel like I have a lot to offer to help students achieve."

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