Sandi Fain reads with students from bottom left, Bailey Bell, Josie Sudderth, Adrianna Chaman, Dalyn Kil- gore, Jasmine Roberts, and Hailey Skiles during quiet time on the last day of school at Red Bank.
Special to The Blade/Michael Locke
Teachers say they’ve seen the growth. The staff at Red Bank is improving, reading consultant Roxanne Anthony said between lessons in late May. The members are becoming more mature, better at their jobs.
As Ms. Anthony prepared for a lesson while fellow consultant Sandi Fain handled math lessons, fourth-grade teacher Della Hass walked into their room during a break.
“These guys are good,” she said about the pair.
But teachers aren’t just open about talking about both their and their colleagues’ performances. They’ll readily tell you how effective they think their bosses are doing.
Open about performance
Ask most teachers about their principal, and they’ll likely either answer gushingly or try to avoid the question.
At Benwood schools, when Ms. Fain is asked about her school’s leader, she doesn’t hesitate or try to find the right way to put it.
“Every day, she comes to work a better principal,” Ms. Fain said about Stephanie Hinton.
Some teachers said they also are better now at talking to students about what they expect from them. Patricia Clark, a kindergarten teacher at East Side Elementary, said that’s helped the climate in her school.
“There’s more academic work, instead of fluff or cutesy stuff,” she said. “We are more focused now.”
What’s developed in Chattanooga, through a continual focus on the quality of education done in a positive way, is a culture where people in the school system feel free to talk about each other’s job performance.
It’s just part of their jobs now. And that honesty makes it harder for underperforming teachers and principals to hide in the open.
“People who come to visit here can’t believe how open we are,” Ms. Swanson said. “An unintended consequence of our reforms has been to talk about things openly and to carry on a conversation about it.”
The core elements of the Benwood Initiative are universal. Every teacher can improve, if given support, training, and follow-through by administrators.
But it’s not so simple to just take the model used there and apply it exactly the same to other school districts such as Toledo.
For instance, unlike Toledo, Chattanooga has no principals’ union. A principal who a superintendent thinks is ineffective can be removed. But that puts stronger pressure on a district administration to assess talent at the building level and have the fortitude to make tough decisions. Ray Swoffard, Deputy Superintendent of Chattanooga’s Hamilton County schools, recalls meeting with ministers and leaders of the local NAACP who were upset with the removal of a principal at one of the Benwood schools. Instead of buckling, administrators arrived with a thick folder full of data that showed teachers at the school simply weren’t performing, and the principal wasn’t doing anything about it.
“Halfway through the folder, they said OK,” Mr. Swoffard said.
Staffing at the building level is also drastically different in Chattanooga compared to Toledo. When a school has a teacher vacancy, the principal has strong autonomy to fill the spot. Principals do the interviews and pick the best candidate, allowing those building leaders to craft a staff they believe fits the school.
In Toledo Public Schools, a prospective teacher doesn’t apply to an individual school but to the district. After higher-seniority tenured teachers choose what schools they want to teach in, and staff bump throughout the district based on Toledo teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement, district personnel then place new teachers in buildings with openings.
That means central-city, high-poverty schools tend to get the least-experienced teachers as high-seniority teachers place themselves in more affluent middle-class West Toledo schools.
Reform by expectations
Most education reforms are based on a program, such as a reconfiguration of schools or a particular curriculum model. In Chattanooga’s Benwood Initiative, the focus is on “reforming by expectations.” The initiative-designed goals that were paramount allowed schools to design how they would meet those goals, and then gave them the support to reach the targets.
“We never prescribed to a school how to get it done,” Ms. Swanson said.