SCHOOL YEAR STARTS WITH HIGH EXPECTATIONS

Robinson Elementary sets course to lead change at TPS

'Dream Team' in place for '11

8/30/2011
BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Counselor Antonio Davis helps students find where they need to go on the first day of classes at Robinson Elementary. After the school ranked last in the district on standardized tests last year, TPS overhauled the entire staff.
Counselor Antonio Davis helps students find where they need to go on the first day of classes at Robinson Elementary. After the school ranked last in the district on standardized tests last year, TPS overhauled the entire staff.

It's Friday, and no students are near Robinson Elementary, but Anthony Bronaugh holds the school library's audience captive.

Two dozen teachers lock onto their new principal as he paces the room. These teachers are the cream of the crop in Toledo Public Schools, leaders among their peers. They are accustomed to being the helpers, not being the helped.

"That kind of baggage needs to be left at the classroom door," Mr. Bronaugh said.

Their roles will be redefined. This year, at Robinson, they will have higher expectations. Last year, Robinson hit bottom.

The school ranked last in the district on state standardized tests.

The state rated the school in academic emergency, the equivalency of an F. In a bid to turn the school around, district administrators took drastic steps. The school's entire staff was displaced; the principal was removed.

District officials were quick to defend the school's prior staff, and called it unfair to blame one person or one group for poor performances that spanned years.

But for teachers like Sara Barnhill, a special education interventionist at Robinson, the news was a gut punch.

"A lot of teachers took that to heart," she said. "To me, it was a failure."

The district picked Mr. Bronaugh from Sherman Elementary to lead the new Robinson and fourth-grade teacher Natalie Sexton was chosen as the building's teacher representative.

And that's it.

PHOTO GALLERY: Day 1 at Robinson Elementary

RELATED CONTENT: Back to school calendars

Breaking district procedure, TPS left the hiring of staff to Mr. Bronaugh and Ms. Sexton, who could ignore seniority rules and pick the teachers they wanted. The only rule was that no more than 50 percent of the staff could be from the last incarnation of Robinson.

They grabbed reading coaches, interventionists, lead teachers from other schools, and teachers with high union positions. Most of Robinson's staff has held some type of leadership position somewhere in the district.

The entire staff -- including Mr. Bronaugh, who took on the top position on Aug. 2 -- was hired within the last month.

"We joked that this is our 'Dream Team,' " Ms. Sexton said, referencing the 1992 United States men's Olympic basketball team.

It may have started as a joke, but it's become an expectation.

This year is one of big change in Toledo Public Schools.

After incremental districtwide improvements on state test scores while the same familiar schools struggle year after year, district officials say now is the time for better, that incremental change is not enough.

They wanted big change. They picked Robinson to be their model.

So, after choosing a principal they thought could bring that change, they gave him the staff he wanted and the support teachers said they needed.

Federal grant money is being pumped into the school, funding a six-week summer camp, an extra school week, a parent coordinator, additional staff, training for teachers, new technology, and more.

But now the question is, if you assemble a "Dream Team," can it turn around a school?

Monday was Day 1.

The school has 179 days left to find out.

Principal Anthony Bronaugh, picked from Sherman
Elementary, addresses students as classes open.
Principal Anthony Bronaugh, picked from Sherman Elementary, addresses students as classes open.
District officials, Mr. Bronaugh, and Robinson teachers granted Blade reporters and photographers nearly unfettered access to the inner workings of Robinson.

The Blade will be at the school during much of the year, documenting what happens to a school that's been completely remade, and detailing whether the Robinson model will, in fact, boost academic achievement in Toledo's central city.

No one called the 1992 squad the Dream Team of its great roster. It was called it the Dream Team because it won the gold medal.

"If you don't know where to go, see me," school counselor Antonio Davis called out to stragglers outside Robinson.

At 9 a.m. Monday, many students don't know what class they were in.

Mr. Davis read off a clipboard, pointing them on their way, as parents filed past.

Inside, the school office was packed. Dozens of parents were enrolling their children.

Ebony Ulis had wanted her daughter to attend the district's all-girls academy, but was turned away because of lack of space.

She came to Robinson not because she had heard of the changes, of the new funding, of the extra help.

Her children's home school, Lagrange, closed, and they needed a new school.

"I heard nothing," Ms. Ulis said, "except that they had a new building."

By 2 p.m., the school day already over, parents remained in the office, their children not yet enrolled.

Mr. Bronaugh held court a second time Monday, but the audience seemed less enthralled.

The day was winding down, and he was laying out expectations for seventh graders. Many were disappointed they share their building with kindergartners, as they had hoped for the freedom of middle school.

Mr. Bronaugh told them to forget their disappointments and worry about being role models for their younger Robinson peers.

He told them to show Robinson pride. He told them about the staff, and how they are different this year.

"All the teachers wanted to be here," he told the class.

The teachers at Robinson said that after years of being told they worked for a system that wasn't good enough, they're encouraged.

It helps to push away the negative, said Erin Crabtree, who works with emotionally disturbed students.

This is the first year she's been at a school on the first day. Normally, she's bounced between buildings for weeks.

"It makes me feel so good," she said of being labeled a Dream Team member. "I feel like I'm going to be in a movie someday."

Ms. Barnhill came back to Robinson. It wasn't an easy decision.

She felt beaten down. She didn't feel good enough to work among Robinson's new staff. But she started to listen to Mr. Bronaugh's encouragement.

"Maybe, as a professional, I do belong," she thought.

Monday, she and Ms. Sexton modeled good behavior and how to conduct morning meetings to their fourth-grade class.

As they sat in a circle, Ms. Barnhill told them why they needed to listen to their classmates when they talk.

"What we have to say and share is important," she told the students. "We matter."

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086.