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Tuesday, June 10, 2008 | A southeast San Diego charter school has quietly done the improbable, becoming one of only two California middle schools to pull itself out of No Child Left Behind’s purgatory.

More than 300 middle schools statewide have fallen short of the federal law’s escalating test standards and will be forced to restructure. Restructuring means just about anything from replacing staff to undergoing state takeover, and it rarely works. The vast majority of schools don’t boost achievement after restructuring. Their test scores keep stagnating.

A (Nearly) Singular Success

  • The Issue: Keiller Leadership Academy is one of only two middle schools in California that have dramatically improved achievement and shed a negative federal label after repeatedly falling short of No Child Left Behind testing goals.
  • What It Means: State education officials are studying the school for clues on how to replicate its success elsewhere. Three hundred and sixty seven middle schools are currently in the same straits as Keiller once was, and few reverse their fortunes.
  • The Bigger Picture: Keiller’s director attributes many of its reforms, including its changed culture and new focus on vocabulary, to the freedom it enjoys after converting into a charter school. Charters are independently run but publicly funded schools that are not bound by school district rules.

Keiller Leadership Academy, however, found a way out that worked. Once one of San Diego Unified’s lowest-scoring public schools, Keiller shed the law’s dreaded “Program Improvement” label after remaking itself as a charter school in 2005.

Hiring, once limited by school district seniority, has been thrown open to any interested teacher. Uniforms blot out gang colors on the campus. Cutting spending on custodians helped beautify the once-barren campus. And a new schedule features fewer, longer classes and a school-wide focus on vocabulary, scrutinized by university professors who help teachers tailor their lessons and improve.

“It’s so easy to blame the parents, or the community” for low achievement, Executive Director Patricia Ladd said. “All those things we can’t control. We have to take things as they are and stop the blame game.”

Charter status, which allows schools to run independently while being publicly funded, is no silver bullet. It has not translated into success for every struggling public school in San Diego, such as Memorial Academy of Learning and Technology. But for Keiller, autonomy empowered Ladd to dramatically alter the school’s culture through a smattering of reforms.

Quelling Gang Issues Via Uniforms

Keiller’s turnaround is now being studied by the California Department of Education, whose consultant Jenny Singh calls it “a big deal” and a case study for other schools. For two years Keiller’s test scores ranked in the top 10 percent among demographically similar schools, outscoring the public middle school that many Keiller students would otherwise attend.

It is a stunning achievement for a first-time principal like Ladd, who spent most of her career teaching gifted children in wealthier areas of San Diego and had never before worked south of Interstate 8. When the self-described “white lady from Point Loma” was tapped to work at Keiller after finishing a leadership program at the University of San Diego, Assistant Director Joel Christman was uneasy.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s a greenhorn. She doesn’t have any idea of the challenges we’ve got,’” Christman said. “But it was an asset. She demanded that our kids have the same things as the kids there. She never accepted what she saw here.”

Before Keiller could begin to reshape what happened in classrooms, staff had to quash the outside distractions that hindered learning. Fights dwindled when Keiller instituted uniforms, preventing students from wearing gang colors to school. As each student passes through the front gate, now dubbed the Gates of Wisdom, Ladd greets them and waits for their reply — with eye contact — before they pass. Teachers scrutinize uniforms, even checking for white socks under the hems of khakis.

Similar efforts at district-run schools have been hobbled by parental waivers that allow students to flout the uniform rules, said Christman, who previously worked at Mann Middle School. He said Keiller’s new rules also have a diversionary effect. Kids who insist on wearing gang colors don’t come to Keiller in the first place, he said.

Yet gang and behavior issues still erupt: In December a boy threatened a classmate with a hunting knife during gym class. Another boy, expelled from a different school for stealing cell phones, has stolen a dozen phones since coming to Keiller. Last week, a girl toted a knife to school, pointed it at the teacher who confronted her and was shipped to juvenile hall. In the aftermath of that incident Ladd lauded the two students who reported the knife, calling them “heroes” and sparked a class discussion about leadership and “snitching.”

One student recounted being beat up at another school, telling a teacher, and getting a worse beating from other kids the next day. Another questioned whether the two “heroes” might face retribution if the knife-wielding girl ended up at the same high school. A third explained that “snitching” was telling on someone who broke a window, but “if a weapon’s involved, that’s different.”

“But breaking a window is wrong, too, isn’t it?” Ladd asked.

Peer Pressure for Students and Teachers Alike

Despite such incidents, the overall feel of the school has changed, teachers said. And that, in turn, paves the way for learning.

“If people are comfortable where they’re at, they’ll take risks,” said Robert Heredia, a math and science teacher who joined the school this year. “It translates into raising that hand and asking questions.”

Students now clamor to see their grade point averages posted publicly near the Gates of Wisdom, said Tertia Miyashiro, a 7th grade teacher who has taught nine years at the school. Peer pressure has shifted. Seventh grader Kadijah Betts said her friends helped her ace a recent vocabulary test, posted prominently in Ladd’s office. She readily cites her GPA — a 2.2 — and quickly adds, “But I’m trying to go higher.”

“Now, the peer pressure is always positive,” said Eva Contreras, director of recruitment and parent involvement. “Are you on the GPA board? Are you going to join the club?”

Pressures have changed for teachers as well. When San Diego Unified operated the school, hiring was heavily influenced by the district’s human resources division, which usually limits principals’ choices to a short list of the most senior applicants for teaching jobs. Widening the pool was critical, Ladd said.

“We’ve become a massive employment agency meeting the needs of adults before we meet the needs of the children,” Ladd complained of the district system. “We have to be able to hire staff according to performance — not time in the chair.”

Ladd can now interview anyone who applies for a teaching job, and can more easily dismiss teachers who don’t mesh with Keiller’s mission and challenges. Teachers compare their classes’ scores, measured and publicized periodically over the year, to gauge which methods work. Singh knew of no other schools using that method. And every teacher sets personal performance goals that Ladd uses to evaluate their work.

Outsiders also help critique teacher work — a process Ladd compares to a surgeon being monitored by her peers. Professors from the University of San Diego train teachers and review videotapes of classes to dissect lessons. Teacher planning time used to be consumed by teaching classes for substitutes who failed to show up, repelled by Keiller’s reputation, Miyashiro said. Now, teachers devote more time to planning and data, and review university-run studies that track their students’ progress over time.

“In my elementary school, the teachers didn’t really talk to you,” said Eric Alvarado, an 8th grader at the school. “Here, they really support you. If you don’t do your homework good, they help you through it.”

Keiller also confronted what students lacked — the experiences and exposure that many kids in wealthier areas enjoyed, such as visiting museums, traveling, even seeing the beach. Without those experiences, Ladd said, students lacked a rich vocabulary. And without that vocabulary, they were unable to understand their textbooks. Reading underscored the dismal test scores in every subject, she said, and reading would help change them.

Her solution was an aggressive focus on vocabulary, drilled during a daily class. Even science teachers stress vocabulary, teaching the prefixes and suffixes that spangle science terminology. And Keiller decided to stretch classes longer by adopting a block schedule with fewer, longer classes each day, devoting more time to basic literacy and less to transitioning from class to class.

Rewriting the Budget to Meet Needs

Like many reforms at Keiller, block scheduling had a price. Block scheduling requires more teachers because each one teaches fewer, longer classes, Ladd said. Keiller also sought a larger crew of counselors to address student needs, and heavier supervision during lunchtime to maintain order. To keep an intimate feel, Keiller enrolls roughly 200 fewer students than in years past, which reduces its state funding. And it typically pays its teachers 2 percent higher salaries than the San Diego Unified salary scale, said finance manager Rosa Hunt.

Seceding from the school district allowed Keiller to cut the services it didn’t want and redirect funds to cover block scheduling and other desired changes, Hunt said. Keiller replaced district custodians with a less expensive contractor, and spent the estimated $18,000 savings on landscaping to transform the barren, weedy campus, now splashed with flowers and patches of grass, Ladd said.

Keiller also scaled back spending on professional security, once an essential for the rowdy campus, as the new school culture changed behavior. And by reminding employees that saving electricity meant more money for classrooms, Ladd said she scraped together more savings. Ladd estimates that Keiller has cut its monthly electricity bill from $7,000 to $4,000.

Outside help is also crucial. An external group, ExED, helps manage Keiller’s budget for $110,000 annually. And board members have courted grants from groups such as the Girard Foundation, which has given Keiller roughly $207,000 over the past three years. (The foundation’s president, Buzz Woolley, is also the founder of voiceofsandiego.org.) ExED lists $225,000 in grants and $4,000 in fundraising as part of its $3.8 million budget.

Hunt, an ExED employee, was so impressed by the school’s management and mission that she pulled her kids from charter and public schools in Chula Vista to attend Keiller.

“I was doing my kids a disservice by not taking them there,” Hunt said.

Paula Cordeiro, a Keiller board member and dean of USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, said the next few years will test Keiller’s success. The turnaround has already happened. Sustaining it and improving on that success will be more difficult, she said.

“It’s a lot of common sense” that drove Keiller’s turnaround, Cordeiro said. “But there’s a lot of things we do [in education] that aren’t common sense.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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