Her principal is hoping that enticements like roller-coaster rides, combined with dramatic changes in the classroom, will bring a greater reward—turning around one of the district’s lowest-performing schools.
Bouknight, a sixth-grader (at left in photo), was reaching for a reward at a recent ceremony honoring kids who behaved well at the Katherine Brennan School.
Karen Lott is the principal of the Brennan/Rogers School, which includes Katherine Brennan (grades 3-8) and Clarence Rogers (K-2). The two sit across the street from each other on Wilmot Road in the West Rock neighborhood.
Brennan/Rogers was designated as one of two “failing” New Haven public schools in March, when the district graded schools as part of an ambitious new citywide reform drive aimed closing a gaping achievement gap. The other one was Urban Youth. The so-called “turnaround schools” will be closed at the end of this year and reconstituted in time for the fall.
How they seek to “turn around” will differ dramatically at each campus—and offer some early answers to the national quest about how to revolutionize public education.
Urban Youth will be reopened under new management by a charter school group called Domus. Brennan will continue to be run by the public school system. Unlike at Urban Youth, the Brennan/Rogers principal will stay at the helm through the turnaround process.
Lott (pictured), who just started her job last August, has the task of coming up with a new way to boost her students’ attendance, engagement, and test scores.
Plans are shaping up quickly. Lott is scurrying to hire new teachers before a June 30 deadline.
Under the terms of a landmark teachers contract approved last year, teachers who want to work at Brennan/Rogers have to waive standard union work rules.
New work rules call for the school day to be lengthened to eight hours for students, and eight and a half hours for teachers. Teachers will receive 10 days of professional development before the school year begins, two extra days during the year, and and two days of “reflection” at the end.
Current teachers at Brennan/Rogers weren’t guaranteed their jobs for next year. They had to reapply, or else get transferred to another school within the district.
Of the 35 teachers, only 18 reapplied to keep teaching at the school. Of those, 13 were offered spots, Lott said.
Lott said she hopes she can add 10 new teachers and coaches to her staff. So she’s looking to fill a total of 45 positions.
Amid a national shortage of teaching jobs, and excitement surrounding the reforms, applications have flooded in, Lott said. She got 300 applicants for 32 open positions. At the first open house, 125 people descended on the school looking for jobs. Another 105 were expected at a second open house this past Saturday.
Lott aims to use a couple of teachers to add two classes of students next year, bringing the enrollment from 400 to 444. The rest, she hopes, will be used to drive down the student-teacher ratio in the middle grades.
The average class size at Brennan/Rogers is 23 students. Paraprofessionals help out in kindergarten and first grade. Grades six and up get split into academic subjects, driving their ratio down to about one teacher for every 14 kids.
That leaves teachers in grades two to five with the largest number of kids to manage, alone.
Lott proposes to send some relief by hiring two “co-teachers” for classrooms in grades two, three, and four. Each would be a full-fledged, qualified teacher; they would share a class of about 23 students.
With such a large pool of applicants, Lott is setting a high bar for the new round of teachers. At an interview, she asks them to bring three things: One “rigorous” piece of student work; one piece of data they used in the classroom; and one idea for how they’d like to take a leadership role in the school.
So far, most applicants have pitched ideas for boosting parental involvement, Lott said. She said she won’t hire any teachers without seeing them teach a model lesson as well.
Other plans include overhauling the math curriculum, and adding more classes to fill the longer school day, such as photography and arts.
On the side, coincidental to the reform drive, Lott has applied to the federal government for Brennan/Rogers to become a magnet school for media and communications.
To that end, Lott said she’s hoping to get more technology put in the school, so kids can start video-conferencing and making short movies. Rebuilt 10 years ago in the early stages of the school construction program, Brennan/Rogers lags behind some newer schools in its technological offerings, she said.
Order In The Halls
Lott came to the West Rock school after a career in her native Springfield, Mass., where she was principal of a K-8 and a high school. At Brennan/Rogers, at the foot of boarded-up and torn-down housing projects, she found herself in an isolated area hit hard by neglect.
Katherine Brennan has been a “pillar of the West Rock community” since 1956, Lott said. Two generations ago, it was the site of an ambitious experiment of a different era: the launching in the 1960s of “community schools” that stay open into the night for kids and their parents to use.
In recent years, the neighborhood has changed around it. Two of the three West Rock housing projects were leveled to the ground; they sat abandoned for years as the housing authority cobbled together money to replace them. Construction began in February on the new new Brookside and Rockview housing complex. Neighbors are due to return when that complex opens in the fall of 2011, but as of now, only 50 students come from West Rock, Lott said.
The community, on the outskirts of New Haven, remains isolated, Lott observed. “People feel kind of forgotten and disenfranchised.” She said when she started work in August, she noticed that some of that feeling had spilled over into the school.
“Even the staff felt like they had been forgotten out here,” she said. Phone lines didn’t work. Curriculum materials were missing. There was a lack of “presence from central office,” she said. She went about restoring a sense of order to a school that had seen many changes in leadership.
Her most pressing task was to get kids’ behavior in line, she said. With two different principals last academic year, discipline had been inconsistent. Kids didn’t have clear expectations for how to behave. When kids sat down to take the Connecticut Mastery Tests, for example, some would get frustrated and throw their books on the ground.
Lott brought in a new behavioral management system called Positive Behavior Support (PBS), which is based on positive feedback. (Click here to read about how the method is working at the Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School.)
Lott said the key is using consistent language and expectations. Kids are taught to respect themselves, others and the school.
Every two weeks, teachers pick kids who follow these rules and honor them at a ceremony in front of the entire school.
Last Friday was the last ceremony of the year. Students filed into the school gymnasium and sat quietly in folding chairs. They listened when teachers called on their peers for outstanding behavior, and academic work. Kids were honored for asking great questions in science class, singing on pitch, meeting a math goal, and “having a great attitude.”
Between awards, kids sang along to snippets of hip hop tunes played by a school deejay. Students from grades three to eight listened, high-fived, cheered and sometimes gloated as they got certificates. Only a couple were too embarrassed to go up to the front and grab their recognition.
For most of the school year, all the kids got at the ceremony were certificates announcing “Way To Go.” Friday, Lott rolled out a new component—a raffle with giveaways such as bouncing balls, sidewalk chalk, UNO cards, and the tickets to Six Flags. She also gave everyone popsicles to mark a year of hard work.
Asked if they wanted tickets to the amusement park, kids thrust their hands into the air. While only one lucky winner walked away with the tickets, Lott said she’s offering a trip this month to sixth and seventh graders as a reward for doing well in school.
Lott has sprinkled these trips throughout the school year as enticements for working hard. It’s part of the positive behavior model. Next year, she plans to beef up the rewards program so it’s more like the one at Betsy Ross, where kids earn points throughout the day, then redeem tickets for swag at the school store, or to enter a schoolwide raffle.
As Lott walked through the halls after Friday’s ceremony, the positive energy buzzed.
“Congratulations!” said one third-grader. Lott, and several teachers, had received certificates from their students, too.
“You’re special,” one young girl told Lott.
“No, you’re special,” Lott replied with a smile.
Another leaned into her ear and asked a question: “What can I do to get a Six Flags ticket?”
“You never know,” the principal replied. “I have more.”