Davis (pictured arranging her students in a straight line before their singing performance leading her students through “Hero” by Mariah Carey Friday) is one of over a dozen teachers who were asked not to return to the Wexler/Grant in the fall, as it prepares to become what the district calls a “Tier III turnaround.”
“They need to change,” Davis said Friday. “There is no rancor in my heart [about leaving]. I’ll find something else.”
Wexler/Grant, a neighborhood school serving 400 kids in grades pre-K to 8 at 55 Foote St. in Dixwell, is in its fourth consecutive year on the federal “needs improvement” list. It’s one of two low-performing schools tapped as a “turnaround” this year, due to be restructured in the fall as part of a citywide school reform effort. The two come on the heels of Domus Academy, which was taken over by a charter group, and Brennan/Rogers, which was overhauled by district staff.
Wexler/Grant Principal Sabrina Breland is now following in the footsteps of Brennan/Rogers Principal Karen Lott, who got unprecedented autonomy last year to fire 60 percent of her staff, hand-pick their replacements, and establish more demanding work rules.
Like Lott, Breland was in her first year as principal when the school was tapped as a turnaround, so they were both permitted to stay to see through the changes. Teachers at turnaround schools are required to reapply for their jobs; they are guaranteed a job elsewhere in the district if they don’t get rehired or if they want to leave. The new work rules are part of a landmark teachers contract that paved the way for the reform effort.
Just over half of the teaching staff will return to Wexler/Grant next year, said Breland (pictured) in an interview Friday at the school. She said “13 to 15” teachers were not asked back; the rest were asked to stay and have accepted the challenge.
The school has 32 teachers as well as four library and coaching staff. Breland said all of them were interviewed by a five-member team of school leadership. Breland asked them to bring to the interviews a data binder showing test scores as well as student portfolios of a low-performing, a middle-range and a high-achieving kid. Teachers were asked to talk about what they were doing to move all the kids forward.
Breland said she and her fellow interviewers thought long and hard about each case: “Our decisions were not taken lightly.” In the end, they decided that some teachers were were better off somewhere else.
Breland said she explained the decision using a sports analogy: An athlete can be “a really good player, but they’re not a good fit for the team.”
All the teachers have been notified of their status for next year, the principal said.
Roseann Castiglione (pictured handing an award to first-grader Tykheim Long) is in her second year as Wexler/Grant’s library media specialist. She said Breland invited her to stay on through the “turnaround.”
Castiglione accepted. “I want to see it through,” she said.
Castiglione said she likes the new administration that joined the school this fall. And already she has seen kids’ reading scores going up.
With 15 years’ experience in the district, Castiglione is one of the most veteran teachers at the school. Two other longtime teachers have chosen to retire at the end of the year, said Breland.
Davis, who’s 59, is another veteran. Originally from Texas, she started working at Helene Grant 19 years ago, then stayed with the school through the merger that created Wexler/Grant.
“I was initially surprised” to learn “I wasn’t asked back,” she said, “because I’ve been here a long time.” But she said she has taken the news in stride.
Before launching her teaching career, Davis served in the Peace Corps in Liberia and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
“This is not the only change I’ll have in my life.”
Davis said parents have gotten wind of her departure. Recently, they’ve been approaching her to ask if it’s really true.
“Things happen. You can’t really blame anyone,” she tells the parents. She said she’s confident she’ll find another school where she’ll make a good fit.
Meanwhile, she said Wexler/Grant has a lot of work to do in improving communication between the school and parents, as well as within staff at the school.
Goals Set: Make AYP, Win Parents Over
Breland and her assistant principal, Nicole Sanders, are hard at work planning for next year.
Breland is on familiar turf: She started her career in the district in 1992 as a teacher at the school. She went on to become an assistant principal at Wexler/Grant, assistant principal at Career High, then principal of Urban Youth Middle for one year, before that school was taken over by the charter group Domus and became Domus Academy. She succeeded Kevin Muhammad as principal of Wexler/Grant.
Unlike at Brennan/Rogers, students will not face a longer school day. Teachers’ work day will be extended slightly: They’ll be required to be present at the beginning and end of the day when kids are getting off and on the bus. Beyond that, they’ll stay after for one hour per week for a staff meeting that focuses on professional development, Breland said.
One main goal next year is to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a standardized test benchmark set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school has not done so since 2004, according to Breland.
Test scores have been slipping for the past four years, according to Sanders.
To improve student learning, the school aims to “get some rigor in our instruction,” said Sanders.
They plan to fill out the teaching staff by the end of the year. Prospective staffers from Teach For America have already been in to do model lessons. More candidates will be interviewed at a career fair at the school on Wednesday from 4 to 8 p.m.
Sanders cited one requirement: “You need lots and lots of energy. This is a challenging school.”
The number of teachers hired will depend on how the school decides to restructure: Right now, all classrooms in grades K to 6 are self-contained, meaning teachers have to cover all academic subjects. Breland is considering changing the duties of 5th and 6th grade teachers so that they specialize in particular academic subjects instead. She’s also considering adding co-teachers for special education.
One major challenge will be to improve the school’s culture. On a school survey last year, only 22 percent of teachers and 42 percent of students said they felt safe in the school.
Only 4 percent of teachers and 48 percent of parents said they would recommend the school.
Like many other schools in the district, Wexler/Grant plans to introduce Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an initiative that focuses on rewarding positive behavior. With PBIS, students rack up merit points when they are “caught” being good, then cash them in for rewards.
Breland has already been introducing some elements of PBIS, with rewards issued at monthly “PRIDE” meetings, which aim to showcase student work and built school spirit.
The last PRIDE meeting took place Friday in the school’s auditorium. Students gave musical performances. Then they were given awards for good behavior, such as reading for 10 hours or bringing in empty cans and bottles to promote recycling.
Friday’s assembly drew one mom, Nina Silva, to the school. She said she got a phone call from a teacher to say that her son Isaiah (pictured) would be receiving an award.
Silva, who’s 45, has been a Wexler/Grant mom for six years and is now the PTO president. Isaiah is in fifth grade; her daughter Tania is in eighth. She said the new principal has made progress in getting kids’ behavior under control. Breland keeps her cool under fire and does a great job mediating disputes, Silva said.
Before Breland came in, Silva said, there were a lot more kids in the front office because they were booted from classrooms for misbehaving.
There’s more learning this year, she said.
She said likes the new rewards system: “It’s reinforcing the good instead of always the negative,” she said.
Time ran out Friday before her son could receive an award—that portion of the event was postponed—but Silva didn’t postpone her congratulatory hug.
Getting parents like Silva in the door is another focus for next year, said Breland: As at other non-magnet schools like Clemente and Hill Central, the school has a transient population. Three students from Achievement First schools transferred to Wexler/Grant in the past two weeks, and a new student joined on Friday, she said. The school held two informational meetings to let parents know about the turnaround, but the turnout was low.
If the turnaround is to succeed, Breland said, “we have to win over the parents first.”