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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Richland 1 looks to Mobile for overhaul

Alabama district accomplished dramatic turnaround using drastic measures
Staff Writer

School leaders in Mobile County, Ala., handed pink slips to every teacher, every principal, every cafeteria worker at its lowest performing schools, then rehired just the ones leaders wanted to keep.

The school system tied teachers' pay to students' performance on test scores at certain schools.

And the district gave big bonuses to principals, then said, "Improve the test scores or you'll lose your job."

In 2002-03, only about 27 percent of Mobile County schools, which includes schools in the city of Mobile, met state goals on standardized tests. Last year, 85 percent did.

The school district, which has nabbed a national reputation and recognition in national publications like Parade Magazine, could become Richland 1's model for improving its own struggling schools.

A couple of bus loads of leaders from the city of Columbia, businesses and schools will visit the 65,000-student school system in January to see if some of its program can be replicated here.

In August, Richland 1 along with city and business leaders announced a partnership to improve the lives and education of its students.

Richland 1 and the Mobile school system possess many similarities, including that their lowest performing schools have student populations that are nearly 100 percent African-American. Many come from poor homes.

Now, Mobile County's school leaders say they've closed the achievement gap between black and white students at many of their schools.

The question is whether Richland 1 and Columbia will make some of the same controversial decisions as Mobile.


Historically, Richland 1 has charted a course for its schools with little input from the city or other entities.

But this time, a new crowd of decision-makers will be at the table, changing the nature of the discussion.

The school district has partnered with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the city of Columbia, business leaders and others.

They're acknowledging the link between Richland 1 schools and the city's prosperity. And they are pushing school improvement to a top priority slot.

"If the city center's schools have a problem, then the whole community has a problem," said Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. "It's time for improvement."

Five Richland 1 schools, all in the city, faced a state takeover earlier this year because of consistently low state report card ratings. Alcorn Middle, Gibbes Middle, W.A. Perry Middle and Eau Claire High schools, as well as C.A. Johnson Preparatory Academy, are considered chronically underperforming.

As in Mobile, these schools' students are nearly all African-American. Many come from poor homes.

The best approach is a school-community partnership as is being proposed, said Jo AnneAnderson, executive director of the state Education Oversight Committee.

"We all bear the brunt of historic discrimination and the poverty that so many African-Americans have had to endure," Anderson said. "It's a cumulative effect over time that has left an entire group of people disadvantaged. The best way to close that gap is through community partnerships."


Ten years ago, Mobile County was on the verge of recession, said Leigh Perry Herndon, of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.

As unemployment crept to the double-digit mark, the state of Alabama was threatening to take over the nearly bankrupt Mobile school system.

Test scores were low, and school morale was even lower.

It was in this atmosphere that Mobile's new superintendent, Harold Dodge, walked into a staff meeting with top district officials and issued a command — part charge, part threat.

"You've got 48 hours," he told the staff. "What we're doing isn't working. I want a series of recommendations on how to do it differently. Now go."

Ultimately, the group hatched a plan sure to raise blood pressure and controversy. But they correctly banked on it raising test scores, too.

First priority: keep the good teachers and staff. Throw out the bad ones.

"When you find yourself in a situation that, no matter what you do, you can't get success, you buy into failure. You lose hope," said Dodge, who recently retired.

To change the "loser" culture at those schools, district leaders fired everyone and had them reapply for their jobs. In the end, about 70 percent were rehired.

Next, they tackled the school's principals, offering $12,000 bonuses to attract the best. The catch: The new principals had to sign five-year contracts.

"The research shows that schools that fail have revolving-door leadership," Dodge said. "We wanted strong leadership. And we wanted them to stay."


Tough decisions lie ahead for the new group of school, city and business leaders.

If they attempt to replicate the Mobile model, they'll need to:

• Establish a foundation. For the past decade, The Mobile Education Foundation has tackled tasks the district had little time for, including recruiting about 1,200 businesses, nonprofits and churches to partner with individual schools to mentor and tutor students.

To date, partners, including DuPont, have invested more than $10 million in resources and volunteer time in the schools, said Carolyn Akers, director of the foundation.

It's also held hundreds of community meetings, gathering input on what the community thinks of the schools, then working with the superintendent to implement those changes.

"What we did wasn't rocket science," Akers said. "It can be replicated."

• Decide which of Mobile's programs are worth replicating.

Some in Mobile warn against approaches like basing teachers' pay on student performance. "The idea that you would dangle money in front of (teachers) to make them work harder is an insult," said Jim Wrye of the Alabama Education Association.

Long term, Wrye said that and other approaches used by the Mobile school system have hurt schools and created a shortage of 100 teachers. "There have been successes, but there have been failures, too," Wrye said.

• Agree on a strategy, which will be the biggest challenge. Opinions are splitting already.

"When you fire staff, institutional wisdom walks out the door," said Vince Ford, Richland 1 board member. "Understanding of a community walks out the door. I'd rather evaluate each teacher's performance."

But board chairwoman Wendy Brawley, who heard about Mobile's impressive gains in closing the gap between black and white students, said she's not counting anything out.

"I'm not opposed to doing something that appears a little radical as long as we do it in a way that's sensitive to our communities," Brawley said. "We'll take a look at it in January."

Reach Smith at (803) 771-8462.

CHANGING SCHOOLS | How Richland 1 and Mobile County, Ala., schools compare


Mobile County: More than 65,000

Richland 1: Nearly 24,000


Mobile County: 59 percent white; 38 percent black; 5 percent American Indian; 5 percent Asian; and 2 percent Hispanic

Richland 1: 78 percent black; 18 percent white; and 4 percent other


(an indicator of poverty)

Mobile County: about 67 percent

Richland 1: nearly 65 percent


• Eight-five schools in 2006-07 met 100 percent of Annual Yearly Progress academic goals, up from 27 schools in 2002-03.

• The district says it is closing the achievement gap between poverty and non-poverty students and between black and white students. On a state reading and math standardized test, Mobile students scored at or above the state average at the Proficient Level in 46 of 48 categories.

• Between 2003-04 and 2006-07, five transformed schools moved from not meeting AYP goals to three meeting 100 percent of goals, two meeting 94 percent.

SOURCE: Richland 1 and Mobile County school systems

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