IF YOU want to know the secret behind a successful urban school, you might start by looking in the plastic boxes where teacher Susan Labieniec keeps her second-graders' work.
That's what James Thompson Jr does.
Once a month, Thompson, principal of Simpson-Waverly School in Hartford, Connecticut, assembles an academic review team and calls in his teachers, one by one, to gauge each classroom's progress. No detail is too small.
“What about Jessica?'' he asks Labieniec at one session. Flanked by half a dozen curriculum specialists, Thompson scans a list of test scores like a CEO studying the latest sales figures.
“Jordan?'' he continues, pointing to the score next to a name on the chart. “Is that consistent with what you're seeing in the classroom? He goes down the list: “Francisco ... Jonathan ... Natalie.''
After 34 years in Hartford schools, Thompson knows all the pitfalls that can make urban education so difficult – crime, poverty, drug abuse, broken homes.
But here in Hartford's hardscrabble North End, the veteran principal has no time for excuses. He expects his high-powered staff of experienced teachers to produce students who achieve at a level far above that of similar schools.
And they do. For the second year in a row, students at Simpson-Waverly posted scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test that made it the top-performing school in the city, based on an overall index of marks on the test of reading, writing and mathematics.
Believe and commit
Simpson-Waverly's test results are not only consistently among the best in the city, they approach or exceed state-wide averages and overcome much of the long-standing achievement lag that afflicts low-income and minority children across the United States.
The success is so striking that the school is being touted as a potential model for America's No Child Left Behind education reforms. Compared with other urban schools across the state, Simpson-Waverly stands virtually alone.
“You'd be hard-pressed to find one where the contrast is as stark,'' says Dudley Williams, a state Department of Education official who studies exceptional schools.
At Simpson-Waverly, nearly everyone – from teachers to secretaries to custodians – has a role in proving that these children, regardless of obstacles, can succeed.
“You really have to believe it,'' says Thompson, the school's principal for 16 years, “and you have to commit it to a plan.''
In his view, if scores were to improve, the approach to teaching would have to change. Aside from charting the test closely to see where the biggest gaps occurred, Thompson brought in reading, mathematics and writing consultants every month to review student performance in every class.
The reviews are freewheeling affairs. Which methods work best? Will special education classes help this student? Does that teacher need new materials? Would a teacher training workshop help?
Behind Thompson's friendly, soft-spoken manner lies an intense drive to help children succeed. “The data is really important,'' he says. “It tells you where you need to be going with these kids.''
In Room 4, teacher Jeanne Kelliher, who spent years in parochial schools before coming to Hartford, calls her second-graders to the front of the room for a Maths lesson in counting by fives, using a tally sheet.
“Veronica, you need to pay attention,'' Kelliher says. “You're going to do this on that (mastery) test next year.''
At Simpson-Waverly, the mastery test influences what teachers do every day. Just how much does it matter?
“Oh, oh, oh my God,'' Kelliher says. “He has printouts. He studies them with a fine-toothed comb.'' When children don't do well, Thompson wants to know why, she says.
Experience is the hallmark of Simpson-Waverly's staff. First-grade teacher Doris Price has 22 years of experience; Kelliher has 25; Lou Oliver 29; Labieniec 30; Lorraine Zelenski 34; and Martha Bernabeo 35.
“Without a doubt, (experience) plays a big part,'' says Lois Luddy, a 28-year veteran and Hartford's Teacher of the Year. “You get the experience of knowing the children of Hartford, the North End children – what works, what doesn't work.''
In most US urban schools, the situation is just the opposite. “Poor and urban schools have far more inexperienced teachers. They have this revolving door,'' says Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has done research on the issue.
On an auditorium stage, 11-year-old Jerome Morrison fields questions without hesitation. “Twelve times 11 is 132,'' he blurts out. As other contestants drop out, Jerome confidently snaps off the answers: “9 times 8 equals 72 ... 12 times 5 equals 60 ... 13 times 9 is 117.''
Jerome takes third place in a contest of the top fifth-grade Maths students and later credits two people with helping him become a Maths whiz: Andrea Allen and Joseph Baker. Allen is a special education resource teacher. Baker is a custodian.
“He's a good kid,'' Baker says. “I tutored him whenever he had time. ... We'd sit in the cafeteria after school.''
Simpson-Waverly enlists anyone who is willing to help – custodian, parent, outside consultant or volunteer, such as 82-year-old retired library worker Gertrude Blanks in Kelliher's classroom.
In 1996, though he couldn't offer them more money, Thompson asked his teachers to volunteer at least an hour a week to work with students on basic skills at the end of the school day. Nearly every teacher agreed to help.
“We don't ask, 'Is this union-oriented?' '' says third-grade teacher Marie Crump. “When I saw the needs in my class, I felt I needed to be here.''
The Simpson-Waverly volunteers met after school for three years before school superintendent Anthony Amato arrived with his own paid version of after-school classes known as Power Hour.
For several years, teachers worked with trainers from the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut until money ran out for that project.
Now, Allen, the special education resource teacher who became a certified consultant for the writing project, coaches other teachers. Thompson also invites experts from local colleges and universities to give lectures or provide help.
Success and reward
Simpson-Waverly's success has not gone unnoticed. State officials have nominated the school for the US Government's No Child Left Behind – Blue Ribbon Schools award. Thompson is a finalist for state elementary School Principal of the Year.
Eddie Davis, a former Hartford superintendent of schools, says: “It's not about James Thompson poking out his chest. It's about the goal of getting the work done.''`
Now 56 and approaching his 35th year in the system, Thompson will have the option to retire as early as next year, but he seems to have lost no zest for the job. He approaches it with the perseverance and dedication of a long-distance runner.
In the end, he says, it boils down to hiring good teachers, giving them the training and materials they need and setting the standards high. “It comes down to effective teaching,'' he says. “It's really the grunt work in what you do day in and day out.'' – LAT-WP
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