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Can MoCo School Success Be Repeated in DC?

The school was failing, but the kids had done extraordinary things. This was the paradox at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring. If test scores are awful but the children have walked through deserts, waded across rivers and learned new languages, the question becomes not so much "Why are the children failing?" as "What's wrong with this school?"

At Broad Acres eight years ago, test scores were so low that the state threatened to take the place over. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast and Principal Jody Leleck decided to remake the school. They negotiated with the teachers union to add extra hours to the workweek for extra pay. Teachers would offer no more excuses about poor kids from dysfunctional families; expectations would soar. About a third of the faculty left; Leleck hired 27 veteran teachers that first summer.

"We were doing the children of Broad Acres a disservice, and that's criminal," says Leleck, now the system's chief academic officer.

Criminal is the word D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has used to describe the failure of many city schools. But whereas Montgomery has had striking success in turning around low-income student performance, the District is still at the starting gate, locked in a fierce battle over how to purge lousy teachers.

Rhee's faceoff with the Washington Teachers' Union creates a dynamic different from the cooperation between Weast and Montgomery County Education Association President Bonnie Cullison. She said she hears Rhee telling teachers, " 'You're not doing the job,' as opposed to 'Let's work together.' You cannot make it happen in a district where you set up conflict."

Or can you? Rhee has turned D.C. politics on its head and become a national figure because she did what no previous schools chief had done: She blasted through decades of resistance to change. The question now is, what good is it doing?

Weast won't criticize his D.C. counterpart, but he will say that narrowing the achievement gap is about expecting all children to work hard and love learning. "You can do it anyplace if you treat people like you want to be treated," he says.

To see what can be done to boost achievement among kids like those in the D.C. schools, I visited Broad Acres, where 88 percent of students qualify for meal subsidies and three-quarters come from homes where English is not spoken. Two-thirds are Latino, 22 percent are black and the rest are Asian. Kids move in and out at a breathtaking rate; only 30 percent of fifth-graders have been there since first grade.

"Thirty apartments in the complex next door are scheduled for evictions in January," says Principal Michael Bayewitz. "That's several dozen kids we'll lose. One-third of our families have no working phone numbers. The families are in survival mode, just like in D.C."

All of this is by way of description, not excuse. Bayewitz and his faculty work to turn Broad Acres into the center of its community. There's a health clinic in the building. Teachers make home visits. A sign on Bayewitz's office wall says, "Student achievement will not be predictable by race."

"Yes, our kids have been through trauma -- unbelievable stories," he says. "We recognize that and we sympathize, but it's no excuse for not learning."

He hands me a stack of essays that students wrote about their journeys to America. They tell of being chased across the border, of encounters with coyotes both human and animal. Whatever your beliefs about illegal immigration, these are children who were ordered onto trucks to travel to a place they could not imagine, for reasons they could not comprehend.

Now those children are learning: 81 percent met reading proficiency standards this year, up from 47 percent in 2003.

Broad Acres did this without Rhee's reform tactics: no young recruits from Teach for America, no cash for students who come to class, no linkage of teacher pay to test scores.

Rather, the faculty gathers every Wednesday for hours of mentoring and brainstorming, creating plans for each child who is falling behind. In classrooms, bilingual or special education teachers slide in alongside the regular teacher, taking two or three children onto the floor to focus on computation or reading aloud.

The formula includes after-school activities, arts and music, and a mental health team that swoops in to examine the family crisis that may lie behind a classroom outburst. But teachers say it's not extra budget lines that make the difference; it's the conviction that nothing will stand in the way of achievement.

When a kindergartner keeps falling asleep in class, a teacher goes to see the parent. Problem identified: The family has one twin mattress for four children. Solution: The school gets the child a bed.

A boy arrived from North Africa last year and began acting out in kindergarten. "We couldn't keep him in a seat, couldn't talk to him," the principal says. "We had him evaluated and put him in Kim's class." That's Kim Burnim, the national Teacher of the Year in 2006.

In many schools, the boy would be labeled "special ed" and shunted to a separate track. But Burnim set up behavior markers and put peer pressure to work. "To stay here, where he wanted to be, he had to get in line with all the other ducks," she says. "We involve the other children; they take him under their wing and let him know we don't do disruptive things here."

When I saw the boy, he moved easily from one activity to another, competing to finish his work and move on to the next bit of math fun.

Too often, schools desperate to boost test scores become grim factories in which children are force-fed rote skills. But at Broad Acres, teachers coach each other to keep kids engaged in rich material for its own sake.

In Andrea Sutton's fifth-grade class, 16 kids sit on the floor, jumping up to explain to one another the roots of the American colonists' grievances with the British. The teacher's voice never rises above a stage whisper as she plies the class with questions that would fit nicely in a high school course.

"With all the pressure from No Child Left Behind, it's so easy to cut out history and science," Bayewitz says. "But these kids are going to need those complex skills in high school and college. And these kids are going to college."

Can D.C. schools do this? Can Rhee's confrontational style produce cooperative learning? I looked for a D.C. school that matches Broad Acre's population. The results, coming Sunday.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  January 8, 2009; 9:10 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I see the Post has declared war on Michelle Rhee because she isn't bending over for them. Cmon guys, give the woman a couple years to cut through the decades of bureaucracy and incompetent, barely literate teachers before we send out the pitchforks.

Any comparison of MoCo and DC is ludicrous- even if this was a so-called "poor" school district it's one of the richest counties in the country with a history of superlative public schools. Meanwhile, in DC, teaching jobs are make-work for constituents and cronies.

Posted by: sgrahamuva | January 8, 2009 10:50 AM

What Broad Acres is doing is great, and they get a ton of support from MCPS.

But what about the four schools near Broad Acres, with the same population type or a touch better off demographically, that get NO support from MCPS? All those schools are full of kids who could use a clinic and beds and attention. All those schools are full of teachers, some quite dedicated, who could use the extra support.

Instead, and I say this from inside knowledge, those schools get nothing but endless threats from MCPS and hours of pointless meetings for teachers where they look at "data". The "data" is detailed information about each child's past performance.

Yes, knowing a child's status helps. But teachers could review that quickly in their own prep time instead of having to look at it in groups.

MCPS, if you want Broad Acres results, support the schools the way you support Broad Acres.

Posted by: jweissmn | January 8, 2009 1:17 PM

It seems fairly incredible that "the faculty gathers every Wednesday for hours of mentoring and brainstorming." Who is with all the children? If it's at 6 in the morning, how do they get around the union contract rules that govern the length of the work day? This would be a great strategy to apply in DC if it were real...

Posted by: wendyjacobson | January 8, 2009 7:08 PM

The MoCo vs. DC failing schools comparison is "apples and oranges." Weast could transfer under-performing teachers to other schools. Rhee has nowhere to put under-performing teachers because she has too many, and so must fire some, which firings the WaPo and Weast call "confrontational."

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | January 9, 2009 10:47 AM

Good for Broad Acres! They are having success because they aren't forcing their school to operate the exact same way other schools do--the teachers were able to accept working conditions (and compensation) that suited their passions and abilities. I agree that they aren't hamstrung by some of the ludicrous constraints in the district, but I still applaud their attitude.

The problem with Rhee is not that she speaks truth or that she has high expectations. The problem is that she thinks it's necessary to do so with rudeness, and condescension, and self-righteousness. The article in December 8th's Time Magazine captures her well, I think--walking out of meetings with no explanation, etc. I hate to think that our country will accept the idea that cleaning up a school requires such tactics. I think Rhee has done a lot of laudable things, but I wonder if she would agree that teachers have to be rude in order to inspire their students--there can be consequences for poor teaching, even firing incompetent teachers, but it can be done with some class.

Posted by: ehf5 | January 13, 2009 9:48 PM

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