In 2004, I asked my superintendent’s permission to work at Brighton, a small K-8 school in a economically depressed community on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama. At the time, I told him I planned to stay for five years and then likely retire. My motive was simply to give something back after having two incredible years as a state and national teacher of the year. It was during my year of traveling across Alabama as state TOY that I became convinced our most able teachers must go to our most demanding schools. Brighton was the neediest school in my district and one of the neediest in my state. So that’s where I landed.
This August, I began my fifth year at Brighton. It is still the place I love being the most. The children remain my constant motivation. And, after four challenging years, I also find myself very connected to the teachers in the school.
As I think back on my first Brighton year, I recall how hesitant I was to wear my Brighton shirt due to the resentment of many faculty members concerning my presence. I’ve often been told I was referred to as "the great white hope" during those first years. Even this August when I invited the entire faculty and staff to my home for a Back to School Brunch, I wondered if anyone would come. Much to my surprise, almost everyone came and it was a wonderful gathering. Afterward, I asked myself why I had waited so long to invite my colleagues into my personal space.
In turn, a group of the teachers surprised me by setting up my trailer office, where I am currently housed while construction continues on our new school building. (Last May, I wrote about these trailers as symbols of the decision my district has made to keep Brighton a K-8 school, despite persistent pleas from myself, my principal and others to transfer our small contingent of middle schoolers and let us concentrate on the elementary grades.) The teachers’ effort to unpack my boxes and arrange my furniture in the temporary space was more meaningful to me than the day I was named National Teacher of the Year.
That first year at Brighton I had planned to teach second grade. But when my principal (a long-time colleague) came on board 10 days before school started, she asked me to serve as the Curriculum Coordinator. This job morphed into the school-based Improvement Specialist when my district was encouraged by the State Department of Ed to have someone with this title work with Brighton, which had been in the dreaded state School Improvement category for multiple years.
That has changed. This year marks Brighton’s third year in a row to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) after years of being labeled a failing school. I can honestly say I never thought this would happen in such a short time. However, as many readers understand, making AYP does not mean you have an outstanding school. AYP measures minimum standards.
Due to Brighton’s AYP success (ironically), I now have to divide my time between three other schools as my district’s School Improvement Specialist. My hope has been that what I was learning at Brighton could be shared and possibly replicated. But there is so much more to learn — so much more work to be done on the Brighton campus. So I find myself torn on the days I am not there. At the same time, I know that it is time for the Brighton teachers to take ownership and help build the capacity to sustain improvement.
And what of the other schools where I now work? I find that many of the same characteristics that plagued Brighton for so long are also present in these other schools — a lack of procedures, weak instruction in some classrooms, difficult working conditions, and needy populations. All three schools have someone on staff who serves in the same capacity I did at Brighton. I was fortunate to have a resident peer from the state SDE from who I learned so much. My colleagues in these three schools don’t have that, and it’s my job to share what I have gleaned from my wise SDE peer and what I have learned personally about the climate of a failing school.
I wish Brighton was at the point it could be a model school for improvement, but we are just not there yet. Improving class room instruction remains a great need and as I drilled down into our last year’s test data, I could see that our scores dipped and in some areas dropped significantly. Even so, we have new reason for hope . . . .
Partnering with NBPTS
In effort to continue to make improvement, Brighton has been accepted as a THNI (Targeted High Need Initiative) site by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I’m pleased that 90% of the faculty has agreed to attempt TAKE ONE. In the TAKE ONE program, "teachers prepare and submit one pre-selected video portfolio entry from any of the current certificate areas of National Board Certification. A teacher can later transfer the score if he or she pursues National Board candidacy."
Among the goals for the THNI program is "Building a professional learning community focused on NBPTS Standards and the assessment process by encouraging cohorts of teachers to pursue National Board Certification." The program includes support from cooperating institutions and provides trained NBCT mentors "who promote deep, reflective thinking about teaching decisions and methods." As an NBCT who has served on the NBPTS board of directors, I think this effort is an important next step for us.
Brighton’s kick–off for this effort took place on a recent Monday in October. Wil Parker from National Board attended, along with the Alabama NBCT Network President, and the Director of Jefferson County’s Stellar Program which supports the NBPTS process in our area. All of these organizations have given tremendous support for this truly bold step forward. Brighton’s corporate sponsor, Vulcan Materials, is paying half of the fee and the Stellar Program and the Network the other half.
I continue to be amazed at the many people who want to see Brighton become the school our children deserve. At a time when a lot of conversation about hope and change is in the air, I’m feeling a new sense of energy and potential myself. In future posts, I’ll let you know how our THNI initiative is going.
A personal reflection
Being at Brighton has been the greatest challenge and learning experience of my career. Even though I have not been a classroom teacher at Brighton as I first imagined — and so desired — I believe I have been able to make a difference. I know I am a better teacher today that when I was named Teacher of the Year. I have grown in so many ways in my knowledge and depth of understanding as I have worked side by side with the Brighton teachers. I have also had to look deep inside myself and ask "Do I really have what it takes to survive in a school labeled failing?" After four years, I would say yes, but it is hard work and takes much more patience than I ever dreamed.
My greatest disappointment the last four years has been my inability to convince my district that Brighton should be a K-5 school. We are grateful for the new facilities now arising on our campus. But when I look at the faces of the 8th grade students who were at one time our top scoring elementary group, I wonder how many will be high school drop-outs.
Last year, Brighton sent a group of 8th grade students to high school with a 22% mastery of math skills. This year we have added an alternating block schedule so that all 7th and 8th grade students will have an extra math and reading class. I am hopeful this will help close the learning gap as measured by our state content standards.
I have long said Brighton produces drop-outs. Now, after four years together, these potential drop-outs have faces and stories I know. I can hardly look them in the eye for how Brighton has failed them. Our assistant principal often uses the quote, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." I now have seen this happen. But I have not given up. I remain hopeful this year will be the turning point. And if not this year, maybe next, because I just cannot leave yet. Five years is not long enough.