Jack Britt High School

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Jack Britt High School
Fayetteville, N.C.

Among educators it is widely acknowledged that high schools—particularly large comprehensive high schools serving a diverse group of students—are hard.

Hard to run because they are complicated. Hard to improve for reasons that range from students’ poor preparation and hormonal swings to teachers’ adherence to old styles of teaching and departmental stodginess.

But Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, demonstrates that with careful attention to every aspect of high school life, from school environment to instruction, diverse comprehensive high schools can serve their students and, at graduation, send them on their way prepared for the next stage of life.  And they can reach and successfully educate a higher percentage of those students than is often thought possible.

To begin to understand Jack Britt’s success, it is helpful to know a few numbers.

Jack Britt, a school of about 1,800 students, has a four-year graduation rate higher than most other high schools in the state. Although its white students, who comprise almost half the student body, graduate at rates only slightly higher than the state average for white students (83 percent, compared to 80 percent), its African-American students, who comprise about 40 percent of the student body, graduate at higher rates than its white students (92 percent, compared to 83 percent) and rates that are much higher than the rest of the state’s African American students (who graduate on average at a rate of 67 percent).

About one-quarter of its students meet the federal guidelines for free-and-reduced meals, and 83 percent of those low-income students graduate in four years compared to 66 percent of low-income students in the state.

But graduation rates are only part of the data story. North Carolina’s students take end-of-course exams that measure how much they have learned in a variety of courses. In each of the mandated tests, more of Jack Britt’s students demonstrate that they have met the standards than many other schools in the state. To take Algebra I as an example—more than 95 percent of white and Latino students at Jack Britt pass the exam and 92 percent of African-American students pass. Statewide, 86 percent of white students pass; 73 percent of Latino students pass; and 63 percent of African-American students pass.  At Jack Britt, 92 percent of low-income students pass, while statewide 68 percent of low-income students pass.

In other words, where the state has enormous and discouraging achievement gaps, Jack Britt High School has small ones that in some cases have dwindled to virtually non-existent.

No one at Jack Britt claims that the school doesn’t have room to improve. But the fact that Jack Britt does what some say is impossible makes it worth understanding how the faculty and staff at the school approach their work.

+ + +

About ten years ago Fayetteville’s student population was growing so fast that the district built Jack Britt High School, named after a long-serving superintendent. With nearby Fort Bragg, home of the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, and the Army's Special Forces, Fayetteville combines a very stable local population with a transient military one.

Conrad Lopes, who had been principal of Fayetteville’s Seventy-First High School, was asked to open the new school and he had free rein to hire his staff. Lopes says he looked not only for those teachers who knew their content but for those who were committed to ensuring that students learn it.

One of the math teachers he hired was Denise Garison, who had been teaching at Seventy-First. “Denise Garison had scores that were unbelievable,” Lopes says, and that fact caused some discomfort among other teachers.  For example, he says, one teacher told Lopes that if he had had honors classes like Garison, he too would have high scores.  “I told him, she has no honors classes.”

The fact that Garison’s regular-level students were performing at the same rate as honors students not only made Lopes want to hire her as a teacher at the new school but to develop her as an administrator, and she eventually became one of his assistant principals. When Lopes retired in 2009, Garison became principal. She says she has worked to build on the legacy Lopes built and consults him regularly by telephone.  (Lopes himself has taken a job as principal of a South Carolina high school with a huge achievement gap between white and African-American students that he is determined to close.)

Garison maintains the same hiring standards Lopes had when he brought on teachers.  In particular, she looks for a willingness to take responsibility when students don’t do well. “We don’t want teachers who say, ‘those were dumb kids,’” Garison comments. “We want teachers who say, ‘what more could I have done?’”

To some extent, that sums up the spirit of Jack Britt, where teachers echo Garison’s determination that students succeed—and where they feel the responsibility to make that happen.

“We all work together to . . .  keep high standards for our students and ourselves,” says English teacher Delarese Townsend. “We always want to be better. No matter what our overall average is for the year, we look for. . . those few [students] who didn’t make it. We always look for ways to help them. We don’t look at other people and point fingers at other people and other situations and say that’s why this child didn’t make it. We try to find ways within our classrooms, within ourselves, and even within our departments to help that child.”

Because teachers have been hired specifically for their dedication to student learning, Garison says, her best teachers are eager to teach ninth-graders and the lower-performing students. “All of our teachers want to teach everybody,” she says. “My most experienced teachers—my best teachers—they want to teach the lower levels.” Because of that, she builds the master schedule in part by asking teachers what they would like to teach. “My teachers are spoiled,” is the way Garison puts it. “I need to keep spoiling them because they’re doing what they need to do.”

Unlike many high schools where counselors are charged with scheduling, Garison considers building that master schedule one of her key responsibilities. “Counselors are real counselors,” she says, who have other responsibilities: talking with students about their academic aspirations, monitoring their grades and attendance, intervening whenever they see trouble, and linking students to whatever outside social services they may need as well as any tutoring or school-level help.

 Jack Britt has what is known as a 4 X 4 block schedule, meaning that students only take four classes a semester, completing, for example, the entire English I curriculum in a semester and then taking Algebra I the following semester. Each student takes two core academic classes a semester and two electives. Each class period is 90 minutes long, requiring teachers to plan and teach differently than they would for the more typical 47-minute class. “I love it,” Garison said. “It has worked.”

One of the drawbacks of a 4x4 schedule, however, is that teachers can’t have common planning periods with other teachers teaching the same subject. It’s simply not possible to block off a period, preventing all students from having that subject in that period, without creating impossible conflicts. Knowing that common planning is a key lever of school improvement, teachers plan instruction together during the two weeks before school starts in the fall. They study the standards, map out when they will teach each of them through the year, and develop common assessments that they all work toward. That planning process means that all sections of the same class are working on the same material at the same time, even while teachers bring their individual personalities and teaching styles to bear on individual lessons.

To facilitate ongoing collaboration, teachers’ classrooms are often grouped together by subject, so that, for example, algebra teachers are near each other and can consult with each other in the hallway before school starts and between classes. For the past couple of years, scores in the Civics and Economics end-of-course exam have been below the 90 percent success rate that Garison considers to be minimal. The civics teachers have been scattered through the school, but for the 2010-2011 school year she has brought them together, expecting that, as teachers are now near enough to consult on a regular basis, the scores will improve.

To build the master schedule, Garison begins in February by having students—including the incoming eighth-graders—sign up for classes. Most of the students have few choices for their academic classes—particularly in the first couple of years—but, on the theory that even kids who are disengaged from academic work will be excited by their electives, she asks students to be particularly careful in making those selections, and works hard to ensure that they get their first choices.

Garison begins the work of designing the schedule with a “wish” schedule built on instructional needs; for example, “I wish every section of pre-calculus could be 22 students.” She moves to more realistic possibilities from her wish list.

In addition to embodying  instructional priorities, the schedule needs to work for each student.  Getting learning off to a strong start in the fall, and establishing the direction for the year can be derailed if, during the first weeks of the semester, students spend their days in long lines outside the counselors’ doors because they have been assigned the wrong classes. So, while the schedule is, for the most part, set by spring break, Garison and an assistant principal spend the summer reviewing the schedule, student by student.

This means that every student has a solid, accurate schedule on the first day of class. “If a student isn’t in the right class,” Garison says, “I haven’t done my job.”  She says it was exasperating as a teacher to build a sense of esprit de corps among her students in the beginning of the school year only to have that process disturbed by the sudden appearance of additional students who were not new to the school but who had been mis-scheduled.

Having a functional schedule may seem like a small detail of running a high school, but that kind of administrative competence is part of why Algebra I teacher Brian Randolph says he is “in heaven” at Jack Britt. But, he adds, his satisfaction also comes from the fact that the leadership expects much more of teachers than administrators did at his previous school.  These expectations have pushed him to be a better teacher.  “I know if I had stayed,” he says of his previous school, “I would have stayed at that level.”

His comments are echoed by fellow math teacher Cindy Sullivan, who, as the wife of a military officer, taught in Texas, California, and Hawaii before coming to North Carolina. She, too, feels she is a better teacher at Jack Britt than she had been in her previous schools, and puts it this way: “Teachers will rise to the expectations that are given to them by the administrators and the school district the same way. . . children rise to the expectations of the teachers.”

One way administrators establish expectations is through teacher evaluation. Garison’s four-and-a-half assistant principals each have responsibility for evaluating—and coaching—teachers. Each portfolio is drawn up much the way kickball teams are chosen on the playground, with each administrator choosing individual teachers they want to work with in rounds, one by one, until the final teachers up for grabs are those who are having the most difficulties and need the most support. This is a system first put into place by Lopes, and Garison says that when she was an assistant principal she would tell her cohort, “One of you is the last pick. It’s my job to make sure that you are not the last pick next year.”

The assistant principal is expected to provide a lot of help, support, and guidance to the “last pick,” but Garison says that nothing is formulaic or pre-set. It is, rather, tailored to the individual needs of the teacher. “If the teacher is having trouble with classroom management, that could be a symptom of any number of problems—is the instruction aimed too high? Is the instruction aimed too low? There’s no one solution. You have to go in and see.”

Some of the expectations for teachers are simple, but with multiple benefits, and far from universal in high schools. For example, in part to maintain crowd control and in part to facilitate sharing among staff, teachers are expected to be in the hallway outside their classrooms ten minutes before classes start in the morning and during the time between classes. Fights are uncommon at Jack Britt, in part because when there are  more adults present in the halls, it’s less likely that students will get into fights—and in part because of careful attention paid to building personal relationships among staff and students. This minor expectation—being in the hall—creates a situation where teachers can strengthen relationships and, not incidentally, as a network of teachers, create a culture of civility throughout the school day.

Relationship-building is facilitated in part by the fact that thanks to the 4 x 4 schedule, teachers only have about 90-100 students per semester, in comparison to the 150-180 students most high school teachers are responsible for. Personal relationships are also facilitated by the extensive sports and extracurricular activities at Jack Britt, which generate school-wide attention. Football may not quite be the religion it is at some Texas high schools, but the team is important, and supported across the school. On one day in the fall of 2010, many of the students wore black in solidarity with the football team; on another day the football coach and some of the players wore pink in solidarity with breast cancer awareness month.

Another expectation is that teachers teach “bell-to-bell.”  No teacher is supposed to allow homework to be done in the last half of class—a common occurrence in other high schools that have block schedules.

Although teachers aren’t expected to submit their lesson plans to administrators, administrators do monitor grades and test scores and will meet regularly with any teacher whose students are not succeeding.

The purpose of all these structures is to ensure the success of each individual student, and Jack Britt is filled with success stories.

One story exemplifies the way the school operates. A top student was unable to qualify for a full scholarship to college because she was homeless and had no permanent address. The counseling office sprang into action and found three other scholarships that, together, more than made up for the first one. However, one of the new scholarships was given only on the condition that Jack Britt essentially co-sign for it and keep tabs on the student while she was in college. That’s what they did.  Now, counselors regularly call and visit her to make sure she is keeping up with her studies. “She stated in her North Carolina Teaching Fellow Scholarship interview that she wanted to be a teacher like the ones she met at Jack Britt who cared for her so much that they took her in (literally),” Garison writes in an email, adding that the student also wrote “that she couldn’t wait to play that kind of pivotal role in the lives of children herself one day.”

Like all high schools, Jack Britt is a complicated place, with a lot of moving parts. A combination of high expectations and an attention to the small details of high school life have helped Jack Britt graduate outstandingly high percentages of its students and send many of them on to college. 

Sums up Garison: “It’s all about everything—it’s the culture.”

November 24 2010