Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How a Middle School Can Be ‘Dangerous’ and Still Get an A

How a Middle School Can Be ‘Dangerous’ and Still Get an A

When Shawn Carson taught last year at a middle school named the South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, he entered his room on many days to find a message from his students on the blackboard. In graphic and vulgar language, as he recalled in a recent interview, it described him committing a homosexual act.

On one occasion, Mr. Carson said, he caught his female students breaking open lockers in the room. Some of his pupils, known in the school’s parlance as “scholars,” threw his books and stapler out the window. When he went from desk to desk, offering editing advice on writing assignments, he was often met with profanity.

Mr. Carson was not alone among the school’s faculty members who said they endured such episodes. Michelle L’Eplattenier said a digital camera and a cellphone were stolen from her room. A student in Shannon Staples’s class routinely overturned desks. Ms. Staples was also punched while trying to separate two pupils trading blows.

Because of their experiences, Mr. Carson, Ms. Staples and Ms. L’Eplattenier have all left the school within the past year, part of an exodus that has claimed roughly half the faculty. And their concerns about the school’s climate are echoed by students. In a survey conducted last year by the City Department of Education, 98 percent of Applied Media’s students said there was fighting in the school, 94 percent said there was bullying and 67 percent said they were worried about crime and violence in the school.

Reflecting such realities, the New York State Education Department has placed Applied Media on its list of “persistently dangerous” schools, one of 52 in the state. Applied Media earned the designation after its second year of existence.

Yet when the city’s Education Department recently released its progress reports about public schools, Applied Media received an A.

There are, of course, firm statistical reasons for the grade. While the overall performance of Applied Media on standardized tests falls well below citywide averages, the school raised the scores of its lowest-performing pupils, as well as those in special education and bilingual tracks, which are indeed sensible criteria for appraising a school.

The A grade, though, may also have something to do with the fact that the progress reports weigh all safety factors as only 2.5 percent of a school’s total grade, said James S. Liebman, the Education Department’s chief accountability officer. He has said the department decided not to give safety more consideration because statistics on school violence rely on self-reporting and tend to be deceptive.

For a great many children, parents and teachers, however, the order and security inside a school matter for rather more than 2.5 percent. And so the case of Applied Media and its A is a tale of two schools, the one reflected in the Education Department’s metrics and the one experienced firsthand by many of the teachers.

“This is a school that’s doing remarkably well on the progress side, and ‘remarkably’ isn’t a word I use lightly,” said Mr. Liebman, who is also a law professor at Columbia University, where this reporter is on the journalism faculty.

The principal, Roshone Ault, said she supported teachers in disciplinary matters by bringing in experts in “social-emotional learning” to train the faculty and was offering students incentives like pizza parties for good behavior.

“ON discipline we had a system in place,” she said. “There was a lot of support around it.”

But teachers dispute her description.

“I didn’t teach last year,” Ms. Staples said. “I was a police officer and a baby sitter. You’d write up kids left and right, and then nothing would happen. No one would help you. And the kids would just come right back. After I got hit, the principal’s response was, ‘That’s what happens in middle schools.’”

Mr. Carson similarly described a lack of administrative support and meaningful discipline. “The administration would be telling you that it would all fall into place if you had a better lesson plan or more student engagement or arranged the desks in a U shape,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter how good your lesson plan is if the kids can’t even stay still long enough to write the ‘Aim’ and ‘Do Now’ off the board. There are no repercussions. There is no punishment fitting the infraction.”

The woes, Ms. L’Eplattenier said, went beyond discipline. Many classrooms lacked books, a problem also cited in the student survey. A school supposedly oriented to media did not have a student Web site. A closet’s worth of canned food, donated by pupils before Thanksgiving 2006, was never given to any charity and eventually spoiled, Ms. L’Eplattenier said.

During the 2006-7 term, 13 of the 16 teachers were in their first year. The principal, Ms. Ault, had never led a school before founding Applied Media in 2005. She previously coordinated special education at a charter school in Harlem that was shut by the state for academic deficiency.

Still, Applied Media showed student progress on its standardized tests.

One reason for the improving scores, Ms. Ault said, was that during the period of test preparation in the late winter and early spring, she removed the “most disruptive” students from their regular classes. Dmitry Terekhov, a teacher, said: “The A we received is a testament to the teachers. We got the job done.”

Mr. Liebman advanced another view of Applied Media’s identification as “persistently dangerous,” saying it actually speaks well for the school. Only a school that keeps track of its disciplinary incidents will compile enough examples to make the state list, he said. Ms. Ault, the principal, offered the same explanation. Some teachers, however, say they were dissuaded from reporting incidents.

As for the high attrition rate among teachers, Ms. Ault called it “commonplace” at new schools. Mr. Liebman said many teachers flee schools that are in the midst of reform and instilling a “culture of accountability.” He did not address the roles of theft, violence and insults in persuading teachers to leave.

Even Mr. Terekhov, one of the few teachers striking some optimistic notes about Applied Media, conceded the challenges. “No principals want to be where we are,” he said. “No teachers want to be where we are. It’s too hard.”

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His e-mail is

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