Having Faith in the Students
Greg Mohammed, also known as “Mr. Moe,” is the kind of teacher who always has students surrounding him or sitting outside his classroom just to say hello. He’s the kind of teacher serious enough to motivate kids in his science class, but playful enough to craft a giant, wooden hall pass the size of a butcher block — the only one he hasn’t lost. And he’s the kind of teacher who gets emotional when he talks about the dedication he and his fellow teachers have for the kids at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“It’s incredibly touching to me that so many of our teachers have said they’d gladly give up a bonus if it would go to the kids,” he says.
At Glendale, a target site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, the teachers are taking the lead in transforming the educational experience for students at one of Salt Lake’s consistently low performing schools. Most of the students live in poverty, and many have enormous challenges in their home lives to overcome. But the students are resilient, the staff has faith in their abilities, and after making some major changes at the school, they’re seeing signs of growth. The school made Annual Yearly Progress last academic year, and is on track to do it again this year.
Glendale won a three-year federal School Improvement Grant with a faculty-approved plan that boosts the rigor of curriculum, extends class time, fosters parental engagement and community partnerships, and increases teacher development – all with staff input and collaboration between the faculty, administration and district.
“It happened quickly, but the faculty has really gotten on board with the grant,” says Susan McFarland, president of the Salt Lake Teachers Association. “There were a few initial struggles, but with the help of the Priority Schools Campaign, now we’re really moving forward.”
To kick start the process, the staff and administration attended a series of trainings and workshops, including a C.A.R.E. (Culture, Abilities, Resilience and Effort) workshop led by Priority Schools Campaign staff, which offered educators proven strategies to raise achievement at low-income schools with high ELL populations. The faculty, administration and district also participated in training on communicating their renewed sense of purpose and drive toward success.
Educators Making Decisions Together
As part of the communications training, teachers came up with “dream headlines” for the collaboration taking place to transform Glendale. The winner: “Together We Can Make Clear and Effective Decisions for Our Schools.”
Already, they’ve made several effective decisions, and the school day at Glendale looks a lot different than it did a couple of years ago.
The academic year has been extended by 12 days and 55 minutes have been added to each school day. Students now attend two periods of math and two periods of Language Arts. There are Extended Learning Program classes, where academically gifted students are offered a chance to expand their knowledge. There’s also a Newcomers Class for kids new to the country, or even to school. Salt Lake City has a huge refugee population, and many of the new students had never attended a day of school in their lives before arriving at Glendale.
Glendale also offers the AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) program, which targets kids in the “middle” who have the ability to go on to college but who need extra support and encouragement. Also in place at Glendale: a continuous in-school academic support program, which prepares students for college eligibility and success, as well as intensive supports and additional class time for English learners, who make up nearly half the student body.
“Given their language barriers, these kids are doing fantastically well,” says Jeff Sorenson, who used to teach the newcomers class but now is the AVID program leader. “These kids have challenges. They go home to an empty house, they don’t have the support a lot of other kids get, but they are great kids, and we’re all so proud of them.”
Sorrenson tries not to get discouraged by the negative media attention heaped on teachers over the past year. He knows that he and his colleagues at other low-income, struggling schools are leading the profession in transforming student outcomes, despite what the headlines say.
“There’s a real backlash out there, as if we’re not doing our jobs and are just sitting around drinking lemonade,” he says. “But the teachers at Glendale are here because we really want to be. We haven’t had an increase in years, but we’re dedicated to what we’re doing and are working in overdrive to serve the needs of all different kinds of students.”
What the headlines don’t capture is what many of these students are up against and why they might not perform so well on test day, or any day, for that matter.
In Mr. Moe’s class, one student made it to school, but was unfocused. When Mr. Moe asked him why, the student said his brother had been killed in prison the night before. On another day, a student’s father had been locked up. Then there was the time a child’s mother died of a drug overdose. Yet they all made it to school and to Mr. Moe’s class.
“How well do you think you’d perform academically under those circumstances,” Mr. Moe asks. “It’s a real wake up call to the middle class.”
Teach the Students, Not Just the Subject
Sometimes the kids get down on themselves and think the obstacles might be too large to overcome, but Mr. Moe reminds them that he came from a poor background, too, and even though he might not have been the smartest kid in school, he was one of the hardest working.
“I remind them that hard work is what matters most,” he says.
Mr. Moe says the humanness of the educational experience is why teachers come to Glendale. He says they come to Glendale to make a difference in children’s lives.
“We come here to teach the students, not just our subject,” he says.
Mr. Moe likens his students to the snowcapped mountains that ring the Salt Lake valley. After a while, he says people get used to them and take for granted the beauty they add to the world.
But he then he and a few colleagues play basketball with the kids after school. The assistant coach from the affluent high school across town also comes down to play and run drills with the kids, and he reminds Mr. Moe that his students, like the mountains, add beauty to the world.
Kids from countries that span the globe, who speak more than 30 different languages, come together to shoot hoops and run drills with each other. They’re grateful for the time with the teachers, and especially the assistant coach from one of the notorious varsity high school basketball teams.
“I can’t get half my kids to run drills at all,” the high school coach once told Mr. Moe. “But these kids don’t care who they run drills with, they’re just happy to be out there. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
We all know they can do it. We just want them to know it.
Like most cities, Salt Lake has a clear divide between the “have’s” and the “have not’s” – it’s even marked by the classic railroad track separating the affluent east side from the low-income west. Glendale is in the west, and some might say it’s therefore on “the wrong side” of the tracks.
What the educators at Glendale are working hard to do is convince the students that they’re not on the wrong side of anything.
Sarah Herron is the new library technology teacher at Glendale, and she’s been impressed by the commitment of the teachers to raising not only student achievement, but their belief in their abilities.
“They’re teaching the kids about respect for themselves and each other, and they’re putting in the extra hours and extra time to make the grant work because they know it will lead to these kids’ success,” she says. “We all know they can do it. We just want them to know it.”
Turns out, some of them just might know it already. Like Dakota, a 12-year-old who wants to be a TV anchorman or concert pianist when he grows up. “Last year I realized I wasn’t really doing the work I needed to, but my teachers helped me realize that I needed to do it for my future in TV,” he says.
Then there’s Darius, 13, who wants to be an attorney or a doctor. “With all the stuff we’ve been through, we’re still hanging on, and it’s because of our teachers,” he says. “The teachers encourage us, and make us want to work because they believe in us, so it sort of makes us believe it too.”