School ‘improvement’: a principal’s story

The New York Times had a heartbreaking story last week about the removal of a beloved, hard-working elementary school principal in Burlington, Vt. By all accounts, Joyce Irvine had done a fantastic job. But she was moved to a different job so the school district could qualify for $3 million in federal school-improvement grants, which require drastic measures to turn around low-performing schools.

Wheeler Elementary School, where Irvine was principal, has a 97 percent poverty rate, and about half of its students are foreign-born, many of them refugees from Africa who arrive speaking no English, according to the Times. It is being transformed to an arts magnet school, with the goal of attracting more middle-class students.

Aside from the refugee students, Wheeler sounds a lot like Bloomington’s Fairview Elementary School, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches and where test scores have generally trailed those at other Monroe County School Corp. elementary schools. Fairview will adopt the Artful Learning curriculum this fall, with plans in place for it to become an arts magnet. (It is not, however, on the list of Indiana’s Tier I and II lowest-performing schools that are initially eligible for improvement grants).

The Times story raises obvious questions about rigid school-reform models that judge schools largely by test scores and require removing principals and teachers who work hard, know the students and are making progress. But you also have to wonder why the diversity-conscious Burlington School District would have so many poor and non-English-speaking kids crammed into the same school.

A 2007 article in The School Administrator magazine provides some background. The Burlington superintendent initiated a series of community conversations on introducing socioeconomic balance, which led to the magnet-school plan, the article says. But some parents went “berserko” at the idea of changing school attendance boundaries, according to one parent activist.

The New York Times story about the Burlington school is part of a new “On Education” series by Michael Winerip. The first installment was a nuanced look at Teach for America.

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