When principal Terri Tomlinson took over the failing George Hall Elementary School in Mobile in 2004, she found a trashed building with no bulletin boards, 500 books that had never been taken out of boxes, and less than half the 540 students performing at grade level.
She also encountered hostility from a poor black community frustrated to see the entire school staff sent packing and a new team, led by a white principal, put in place. Because George Hall was one of the worst performing schools in Alabama, Tomlinson was able to remake the school from scratch, keeping only four of the staff, including two cafeteria workers.
The Mobile system offered teachers signing bonuses to move to George Hall. A longtime employee of the Mobile schools, Tomlinson knew the system’s best teachers and pursued them.
She had one rule: “If they mentioned that they really wanted that sign-up bonus, there were struck off the list immediately. This was not a job about the money; this was about a passion for children. They had to share the vision that all children would learn and at high levels.”
Tomlinson told her staff, “Whatever your expectations are for these kids, triple them today. They’re not high enough.”
Her teachers agreed to five weeks of professional development over the summer. They studied books about how to most effectively teach poor children. Tomlinson built in collaborative planning time and treated her teachers as a brain trust to problem-solve. And there were plenty of problems that first year.
To win over the wary community, Tomlinson and her assistant principal made 356 home visits in the first year. She learned that her students, all of whom walked home, threw rocks and stole from neighborhood stores on the way.
“Now, we walk every child every afternoon from the school to the housing project where they live,” she says.
She brought in a group and an individual therapist weekly to work with her students, 11 percent of whom were homeless. She opened the library to parents as part of an adult literacy push.
Six years later, George Hall is one of Alabama’s highest performing schools, earning recognition as a turnaround success by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan who has visited the school.
Today, more than 95 percent of students are meeting standards in reading and math. The school has managed to engage parents, some of whom are in high school, all of whom are poor.
The 99 percent African-American school now enrolls 1 percent white students, the children of teachers who want their kids at George Hall, a sign of just how far the school has progressed, says Tomlinson.
At a national conference in Washington sponsored by the Education Trust, Tomlinson was one of several educators Thursday sharing their success strategies for closing the achievement gap.
Whether the school was in Alabama or New Mexico, whether the children were African-American or Latino, the stories were remarkably similar: The transformation began with strong leaders able to assemble their own teams.
“One of the reasons these poor schools are so low performing is that they have been serving as dumping grounds for teachers no one else wanted,” says Daria Hall, director of k-12 policy development for the Education Trust.
Once good leaders had their teams assembled, the central offices gave them autonomy and support.
“The high school curriculum in the district may be wonderful but if a principal is looking at a ninth grade class reading on a fourth grade level, they have to do something different,” says Hall. “Give them the challenge but give them the ability to meet it.”
And perhaps the most important commonality among schools defying the odds, everyone in the building shares the belief that the children can succeed.
“When people tell us that we can’t tell fix public schools until we fix poverty, we should tell them that they have it backwards,” says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. “We cannot fix poverty until we fix our public schools.”
A thread throughout this conference is that schools and teachers will not succeed if they waste time blaming the underperformance of poor students on factors beyond their control, hapless parents, dangerous neighborhoods, chaotic living situations.
Haycock quoted a Washington, D.C., principal, Adelaide Flamer, who recently told the Washington Post that there are two kinds of educators – those who look out the window and those who look in the mirror.
The principals and teachers who change lives are the ones who look in the mirror for direction and solutions.