Quo Vadimus

Teaching at a school halfway through the School Improvement Grant

I teach at a public high school on the San Carlos Apache reservation. It's a beautiful place set among the mountains of eastern Arizona. I see coyotes and roadrunners along the highway each morning, and frequently rattlesnakes, though reports of a mountain lion remain unconfirmed.

My students -- juniors and seniors, since I teach Civics, Economics and Shakespeare -- are great kids, just as smart and curious and occasionally lazy as teenagers anywhere. At first glance, they appear to be pretty poor students, with low scores on standardized tests and a general lack of interest in much of the subject matter. But move up Bloom's taxonomy, give the students some information and ask them to process it, and they come up with incredibly sophisticated insights, infused with humor and expressed artistically as well as verbally.

This is important to know because we're in a formal School Improvement process, with loads of money from various sources and hard deadlines for real improvements in attendance, discipline, graduation rates and student test performance.

And we are improving.

Our school is a far better place -- stronger faculty, fewer discipline problems, facility in better shape, quieter halls -- so much better that visitors are amazed. An annual teacher turnover rate approaching fifty percent is below ten percent for the coming year. A third of our returning students came in for voluntary summer school, taking a range of credit recovery classes in math and English, as well as a summer poetry program.

But are we a better school?
The jury is still out. Test scores are up, but we're only partway to where we need to be. There are all sorts of positive qualitative indicators:
  • The number of major fights in the high school fell by 80% this year.
  • The halls are marked by an easier and friendlier atmosphere.
  • Students who last year handed in their state exams after an hour, now keep them for the full testing period, and work the entire time.
  • Events like homecoming, prom and student dances go off without a hitch, and the police have sharply reduced the number of cars they send for after-school events.

But will this be enough? Are these qualitative improvements the harbingers of measurable results? Will a better environment lead kids to become students, and students to become successful? Will the improvement everyone senses turn up in our state scores?

So my questions for this blog -- my posts and, I hope, your responses -- are:
  • Where are we going?
  • What are we doing in my little school out on the reservation to improve the education we deliver to our kids?
  • What is being done in schools elsewhere?
  • Are we asking the right questions and attacking the right problems?
  • Are we evaluating and judging the right things in the right ways?
  • If we are a better place, but not a better school, is that enough?
  • What are we missing?

I hope you'll join me.