The teachers and staff at Franklin Middle School in Champaign, Ill., have a saying: “Don’t be deficit.”
It’s not a school-wide statement about out-of-balance government spending; their slogan is a reminder not to shortchange students based on their backgrounds or perceived abilities. It’s about avoiding assumptions.
Setting this tone is Principal Angela Smith, who admits she occasionally gets called out by colleagues for making her own assumptions about students. Like when she was astounded that a boy in the school’s college preparation program for low-income students explained precisely why he used the word “wrath” in his writing instead of the more basic “anger.” Because, he said matter-of-factly, the anger was paired with action.
Smith confessed, “I shouldn’t have been surprised.” Still, it’s easy to be surprised by Franklin Middle School’s performance. While a large segment of students are the children of physicians or professors at the nearby University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, nearly six in 10 students at Franklin qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a statistic that in many U.S. schools is also an indicator of low academic achievement.
Smith acknowledges her students’ challenges but doesn’t use them as an excuse. “Poverty—it shouldn’t matter,” she said. “That’s not our focus for kids. Our focus is on their strengths, what it is they bring to the table… [Poverty] has been a barrier long enough for kids.”
That statement goes a long way toward explaining why Franklin Middle was named a 2011 Breakthrough School by the MetLife Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and why Smith, as the school’s leader for the last four years, was in San Francisco last weekend to accept the award at NASSP’s annual conference. Several senior officials from the Department of Education also attended the conference to listen to school leaders and share information about the Obama administration’s proposals for P-12 education, special education and improving school safety and climate.
While Principal Smith took home her school’s award, she credits her 85-person staff for the strides that Franklin has made in recent years. For more than a decade, the Champaign Unit 4 school district was under a federal consent decree because of concerns that its African American students were over-represented in special education and under-represented in gifted programs. In 2009, a federal judge ruled the district had successfully fulfilled the terms of the decree.
Key to Franklin Middle School’s turnaround has been collaboration among its teachers, Smith said. For example, every month, each faculty team—say, all the 7th grade math teachers—join Smith to walk the halls, observe other teachers in action, and talk about what they see. These drop-ins are not meant to evaluate the educators being watched, but rather to give the other teachers some ideas for their own practice. When Smith first built this time into each faculty team’s schedule, the teachers were amazed by what they could learn from colleagues just down the hall.
“They’d never walked out of their classrooms,” she said. “How could they? They were always teaching.”
While these observations last just a few minutes, when it comes time to evaluate her teachers, Smith spends entire class periods in each classroom. Her district requires tenured teachers to be observed for 40 minutes twice year; teachers who have not received tenure get evaluated four times a year.
“You can spend a lot of time evaluating, which is why it’s critical that your [assistant principals and deans] are instructional leaders” who can share in the workload, Smith said.
Smith is also fanatical about analyzing student achievement data, and she and her teachers use it constantly to guide instruction and make tweaks. Almost everywhere she goes, she carries reports documenting her students’ performance on standardized tests and other assessments.
Compared to five years ago, the trend lines are up and gaps in achievement among types of students have narrowed. Discipline problems are way down.
That’s not to say that Franklin doesn’t have areas to work on. Under No Child Left Behind’s accountability system, last year the school missed its growth targets—known as “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP—in math and reading for students with disabilities and, for low-income students, in reading. As a result, the school is labeled as failing for not making AYP across the board, a seemingly unfair brand when you meet Smith and see what gains her school has made in every subgroup of students, in both reading and math.
In San Francisco, at a roundtable with Department of Education officials, Smith and other principals said they found it very appealing to hear that the Obama administration has proposed a fair accountability system, which acknowledges that there’s a big difference between a school with a couple of issues to improve on and one that persistently underserves large groups of students year after year.
Smith says her school’s improvement has been due in part to personalization of its program—again, using data and other information to tailor instruction to students’ needs.
“I think we’ve been able to not just gain a personal relationship with our students, but have some personal, real conversations with one another as educators [and] do a lot of personal reflection about what it is we’ve come to do,” she said. “We’ve overcome a lot of barriers…that really keep you from getting to the heart of the matter, which is kids.”
Just as it would be easy to “be deficit” about Franklin Middle School, it would have been easy years ago to discount Angela Smith. The daughter of a young African American mother in inner-city Chicago, Smith would have been classified as economically disadvantaged in the same way that so many of her nearly 600 students are today.
“That could have been me,” she said, reflecting on the youth she works with now. “I could have been one of those kids you pegged as not having a lot.”
Angela Smith and Franklin Middle School have overcome their deficits and have broken through.
Office of Communications and Outreach