Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School

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Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School
New Orleans

Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School educates kids in one of those New Orleans neighborhoods that probably looked beleaguered before “the storm” and remains down-at-the-heels, with deeply rutted streets, plywood-covered windows, and peeling paint. It’s the kind of neighborhood where people who could never be considered cowards look away as small packages are traded in broad daylight.

“I could go through this school and tell you stories about the children that would make you cry,” said the principal, Mary Haynes-Smith. She tells stories of abuse, neglect, and all the other ills that beset a poor community—even without a trauma like Hurricane Katrina.

That backdrop makes Bethune even more like a sanctuary than most schools. “We are their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents, their teachers, their cooks, their laundromat—we have to be everything,” said Smith, who had a washing machine and dryer installed in the building so children wouldn’t have to wear dirty clothes at school.

It would be easy for staff members to feel sorry for their students and confine themselves to ensuring that the children are safe, fed, and wearing a clean school uniform. But they never forget they are in the business of teaching.

Even in the first weeks of school, educators bring urgency to instruction. Everyone at Bethune knows the research: Children must read well by the end of third grade or face deep academic trouble. As a result, some of Bethune’s most skilled and experienced teachers are in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. One of these boasts that she can teach “anyone to read,” and she willingly takes on any child whom other teachers might give up on.

All of which helps explain how Bethune Elementary—with a student population that is almost all African American and poor—posts proficiency rates that well exceed state averages. For example, all of Bethune’s sixth-graders read at least at a basic level, compared with 70 percent of sixth-graders in the state, but 62 percent of Bethune’s sixth-graders read at an advanced level, compared with only 4 percent of sixth-graders in the state.

Smith remains unsatisfied: For her, basic and even advanced proficiency “is not a high bar.”  The principal wants her students to not only pass state tests but have the opportunities that most middle-class students take for granted—to graduate from high school, then have postsecondary choices such as college and meaningful work. To reach those goals, the children of Bethune must learn to read well, master a lot of content, and be able to demonstrate their knowledge on tests and elsewhere. To make sure that happens, Smith tells her teachers to “teach these children as if they were your own.”

Bethune is one of the few schools left in the once large Orleans Parish School District. After Katrina, the state took control of New Orleans’ largely failing schools and put the majority of them into a “recovery district,” which, under the leadership of Paul Vallas, comprises a portfolio of schools, most of them charter schools. The state permitted a few schools to remain in the original Orleans Parish, including Bethune, which merged with Bradley Elementary (where Smith had been principal) after hurricane flooding destroyed Bradley.

Smith now leads a combined school with almost 350 students at the restored Bethune. Though the old building gleams with new paint and varnish, inspectors found termite damage days before school was set to open for the 2010-11 school year and closed most of the first floor of the building. The staff had to scramble fast: One kindergarten teacher moved into the library and a third-grade teacher decamped to the music room. The loss of most of the cafeteria wreaked havoc on lunchtime and the school-wide morning meeting routine.

Yet the spirit that has been rebuilding New Orleans animates Bethune. Teachers cheerfully face the difficulties of lots of children and materials crammed into too-small spaces and carefully sidestep the hole gnawed by termites in the staff bathroom.

When asked what makes the school thrive, kindergarten teacher Trudy Lenz said, simply, “Teachers teach.” She believes one important element of success lies in the fact that Bethune’s staff consists almost entirely of experienced educators. She contrasts the school’s faculty to the flood of brand-new teachers who have come to work in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. “Their enthusiasm is great,” Lenz said, but added, “You can’t make instant teachers.” Novices, she said, struggle with classroom management: They “want to be friends with the kids, but they need to be teachers.”

Lenz is among the faculty members Smith recruited to Bethune. After simply taking anyone who was available immediately after the storm, Smith brought together those she considered to be the top staff from both Bethune and Bradley, as well as other educators she had known from a long career as a New Orleans teacher and administrator. As a result, she counts just about all her teachers as among the best in the city. Yet even a short time spent in the school makes it clear that faculty members are expected to continually grow on the job.

A meticulous system of monitoring known as “student academic review” helps drive the school’s improvement. Along with Smith, reading coaches Maxine Cager and Tizona Watts and math coach Gwendolyn Dupree regularly meet with individual teachers to review the progress of each student. They pore over results from a reading assessment known as DIBELS, the interim assessments required by the district, and other student work to gauge how children are doing and ask, in Smith’s words, “How do we move them up a notch?”

In these meetings, the leadership team helps teachers devise solutions to instructional problems—such as a child not reading on grade level or struggling with addition of fractions—and plan the professional development that might be needed. Sometimes, one of the coaches provides a model lesson or watches instruction to provide feedback. In other cases, an instructional expert from the district provides advice or the teacher attends a workshop to strengthen an area of professional weakness.

Watts, Cager, and Dupree regularly seek out workshops on reading and math instruction, and have used the last two decades of education research to profoundly shape instruction at Bethune. The school pays careful attention to all the elements of reading instruction identified years ago by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. In practice, that means kindergarteners who sing letters and rhymes become first-graders with “robust” vocabulary words like “amble” and third-graders who read American biographies.

Bethune keeps its academic momentum going through the mechanism of student academic reviews, Cager stressed. “We’re never stagnant,” she said. “We always know we can improve, but not in a wishy-washy way.”

If students seem to need additional motivation, teachers plan a trip to Washington, D.C., and the White House, or they arrange a tour of New Orleans. Bethune’s educators constantly worry about student motivation in a city where it sometimes seems easy to give up. To counter the despair that often surrounds them, staff members work to ensure that students feel safe, cared for, and always have goals to work toward. For example, the school keeps a supply of uniforms so no children have to feel different from their peers.

Meanwhile, educators also build links between their students and larger world. In one instance, teachers solicited a local business to build a playground; in another, they worked with local attorneys and judges to help their students hold a mock trial. What’s more, the school hosts visits from the city’s football team, every chance it gets. Umbrella in hand, Smith herself led a “second line” through the school hallways when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl.

Bethune’s principal is determined that her students find school a joyful experience. “I don’t want it to be the way it was for me,” said Smith. “I was poor, my mother had eleven children, and the teachers told me that I wasn’t pretty and wasn’t smart. It was horrible.”

Partly because of her own history, Smith tries to make sure all her students know they are her “baby” and her “love,” She reserves her special attention, however, for those students who seem the most forlorn. “This is my son,” she said of one student. It takes a while for a visitor to realize that Smith is speaking not literally but about a child she is most concerned about.

Among school faculty members, one common theme emerges: the awareness that teachers can have a profound effect on children. Cager, for example, also remembers growing up poor, though she didn’t know it at the time. She marks as one of the turning points of her life a weekend she spent at the home of her third-grade teacher, a weekend that opened her eyes to the possibilities that existed in the wider world.

With the potent combination of a caring atmosphere, the awareness that school can give their students the opportunity for a better life, and rigorous attention to instruction, educators at Bethune are building academic success—even in the devastation of post-Katrina New Orleans.

“If it can exist here, in this city, after the storm,” said kindergarten teacher Lenz, “it can exist anywhere.”

November 24 2010