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Monday, June 1, 2009

Drop-Dead Year

2009 was dubbed "Drop-Dead Year" for Polytechnic High School

“It’s a moving target,” a frustrated Braudaway said. These were the words of the principal of Polytechnic High School.

SOLDIER, how do you hit a moving target?

In 1998, the Texas Education Agency adopted tougher standards in all subjects and imposing more stringent passing criteria in a new test known as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS. Each year the rate rose for passage.

Polytechnic was losing ground arithmetically by not achieving the basic academic numbers, and geometrically by falling behind each succeeding year. In short, the high school was sinking faster that it could swim. It was set on a doomsday course for the ultimate sanction under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Betty Brink of the Fort Worth Weekly described 2009 as Poly’s “Drop-Dead Year”.

Gary Braudaway, Principal of Polytechnic High School, Fort Worth in 2006:

He faced a demoralized faculty and a hardscrabble student body, with test scores that were too low, drop-out rates that were too high, poor attendance, poorer morale, and an ongoing exodus of good teachers. The once-mighty 100-strong Poly marching band had shrunk to seven members. And most crucial, the storied school, built three-quarters of a century ago on one of the highest points on the East Side, the alma mater of some of Fort Worth’s most prominent names, was failing its students academically. Passing rates on state-mandated achievement tests were putting the school at risk of serious, perhaps fatal, sanctions…

“Most of our kiddos’ parents are so busy trying to make ends meet that we have to be their family,” Braudaway said. “For these kids to succeed, we have to give them a sense of pride in their accomplishments, their school, and the knowledge that they are part of a family that cares for every one of them. … We get them to believe in their own possibilities.”

“May be too little too late”, writes Betty Brink. “The school, despite its recent progress, has been rated “academically unacceptable” by the state education agency for four years in a row. One more year at a low rating, and by law the school must either be closed permanently or completely restructured academically, perhaps even receiving a new name. This is Poly’s drop-dead year”


Polytechnic HS Prevails

Poly did it.

Based on preliminary data in the academic core content areas, Fort Worth ISD's Polytechnic High School has achieved the academic status it needs to stay open.

Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Melody Johnson and Poly Principal Gary Braudaway made the announcement a little before 9 a.m. this morning to an assembly of students and faculty. Official ratings have yet to come out, but the District is projecting a positive result.

"I said all along we were betting on Poly - and we were right!" Dr. Johnson said, praising the hard work of students, teachers and administrators in raising TAKS scores in a year in which the bar for acceptable achievement is at the highest it has ever been in state history.

While the Fort Worth ISD is still awaiting TAKS data, the Texas Education Agency had promised that Polytechnic would receive early results because they faced closing if they failed to make academic gains.

After Mr. Braudaway made the announcement, the auditorium curtains parted to reveal balloons in Poly colors of orange and black along with a congratulatory sign as the song "Celebration" played over cheers.

Poly faculty members received orange carnations as well as personal congratulations from Dr. Johnson, Mr. Braudaway and other administrators.


"Class of 2020: My Stroke of Insight/Hindsight
Dropout Summit: Part 2"
By Eddie Griffin

Published Friday, April 03, 2009

I saw him with 2020 hindsight, Michael Sorum, Chief Academic Officer for the Fort Worth Independent School District, bringing up the rear in the buffet line at the Dropout Summit. I noticed his name tag first, though I should have known him now by sight. In lieu chicken breast, I chose rather to chew on Sorum. Either that, or we were going to chew the fat together.

“What’s our mission?” I asked.

Mission Impossible, sir,” he replied...

Congratulations to Mike, not only did he show up with Dr. Johnson’s executive cabinet at the Dropout Summit, but he was back in the trenches on Tuesday night, at the Poly High School forum.

This is 'hood turf, not a place for the fainthearted. Nevertheless, here comes the general, Dr. Melody Johnson, with her army onto the battlefield of ‘hood turf.

My footprint is upon this turf. I walk this beat here.

So, I was compelled to look at Poly High School which is threatened with terminal sanction. One more bad academic report... no telling what the state was going to do. And, closure was the almost certain option.

But during the program and pep rally motivated to save Poly High School, I heard teacher team leaders talking about their team-building efforts and collaborative teaching methodologies, and an all out mental assault to reach academic achievement. I saw and heard testimonies to the effect: all-hands-on-deck.

If they fail, I thought, they will at least go down with a great fight.

During the entire Poly forum, I sat next to Michael Sorum, our Chief Academics Officer, who was sitting, as it seemed, still in an uncomfortable hot seat.

As I departed, I shook his hand and said, “You got a winner here. I love the effort.”

Got a Winner here

Excerpts from "Solving the Poly Puzzle" by Betty Brink

Senior Davion Thornton and other students interviewed by Fort Worth Weekly are convinced they will come through. “We will make it,” Thornton said… who is so adamant that Poly will make the grade this year, ranks fifth in his class academically and has a full scholarship to Texas A&M University next year.

Texas A&M has deemed Poly a “priority one” school — a sort of “adopt-a-school” designation that means A&M will have recruiters on campus, provide scholarships, and encourage kids to excel. The principal said he’d been told A&M is so pleased with the performance of recent Poly graduates that the college wants more of them.

“We believe in the kids there now,” Kelly, 71, said... Alumni group’s scholarship program... gives out two $1,000 awards each year.

Krina Rodriguez, a junior and a member of the softball team, joined the chorus of optimists. “We will pass this year, I’m sure,” she said. “School is better now — we’re ready.”

“We motivate the parents [to get involved] through the kids,” Braudaway said. “And we keep them informed about what their kids are doing and what’s going on at the school. We call with good news, not just the bad. We involve the parents and the community.” Braudaway shows up at every sports game; his teachers are active in the school’s extracurricular activities, and they also work with the parents through the neighborhood churches, he said, setting up after-school tutoring sessions, for example. “Each of my teachers is a mentor,” he said.

“Experience is important, but it’s not always what a school needs,” he said. “In a school like Poly, you also need teachers with fresh bright eyes and a ‘change-the-world’ attitude, and I have found them.”

“The teachers put more effort into teaching than they did before Mr. Braudaway came,” he said. Johnson told of one teacher who, working after school as a volunteer tutor, started crying as she told her students how badly she wanted to help them pass the tests.

“It was never like this before,” said Damian Thornton, Davion’s younger brother. “Not many seemed to care about us and the [former] principal never came out of his office.”

Damian, a junior, said that the students will pass the TAKS because “We’ve become a part of this school now. It’s the spirit of the school that motivates us. We know we can do it.”

Braudaway and his staff also invest major effort in assuring that kids get to class. When attendance is checked and the absentees are identified, Braudaway and a crew of vice-principals and coaches call to see why each kid isn’t in school. If there isn’t a parent at home, or if there’s no good excuse for the student’s absence, “We go get ’em,” he said.

“They actually come to our homes and knock on our doors to see why we’re not there,” Johnson said. “That makes us feel like they really care about us. We respect that.”

Associate Superintendent Sherry Breed is the director of a new district initiative begun last fall that the administrators hope will make a difference at Poly and 15 other schools that are in academic trouble. It is called PEAK — Public Educators Accelerating Kids. Breed is giving Poly “extensive support” in implementing the program, she said. “I’m at Poly so often discussing the plan with the dean of instruction that I need an office there,” she joked.

PEAK is a pilot program with money from the state and matching funds from the district that financially rewards teachers for their students’ academic growth. But Breed was quick to point out that, unlike other incentives, the program encourages collaboration between teachers, not competition, so that the whole school benefits. Pluses for the teachers include five additional days of pay per school year, more clerical support, and mentoring and master-teacher coaches for new teachers. Poly is getting even more intensive help with the addition of campus test coordinators and additional instructional support for each academic content area through teacher specialists assigned to Poly to “teach teachers,” Breed said.

Fort Worth legislator Marc Veasey has filed a bill this year to give local school administrators some of that flexibility. Supported by State Rep. Lon Burnam, whose district includes the Poly attendance zone, the bill would prohibit the state from changing Poly’s name and would extend the time that a school has to pass the TAKS as long as the school raises its scores each year, as Poly has been doing.

In late February, State Sen. Florence Shapiro, chair of the senate education committee, and Rep. Rob Eisseler introduced legislation that addresses the fairness and flexibility issue. If passed, it will replace the state’s current school accountability system based on annual standardized testing with one based on charting individual students’ progress over time. The problem for Poly and most of the low-performing schools is that even if it becomes law, the measure won’t be implemented until 2011.

But the 800-pound elephant is still in the room: Why did the district wait so long to take drastic action on Poly? [betty brink]

And a new anti-drop-out program called Project Prevail has just been unveiled that is designed to pull the whole community together to keep kids in school. It enlists businesses, parents, churches, students, area colleges, and social service organizations in an “It takes a village to save a child” approach.

All of the programs seem innovative and progressive, designed to bring long- needed reform to a system that one former district administrator called “teaching 21st-century kids in 19th-century schools.”

Eddie Griffin, former president of Trimble Tech’s PTA and a mentor to minority kids, said Poly could be turned around quickly if it uses the model of Tech, the only high school in the city that allows open enrollment.

Trimble Tech started as a technical-vocational school to teach trades to kids who weren’t considered college-bound. Up until 1996, Griffin said, it was “low-performing, low-scoring” academically because academics were often sacrificed for the technical programs, which had also been neglected. Machines and equipment needed to train kids were “antiquated or broken,” and there were no computers, he said. Griffin, whose kids went to Tech and whose grandkids are now students there, complained to Tocco about the neglect. Tocco responded by pulling together a 100-member team of parents, educators, and business representatives, including Griffin, and they were given the job of coming up with a plan to turn the school around.

They did. A curriculum was developed that improved the school’s academic performance because it was geared toward the knowledge needed by the kids who were pursuing technical careers, whether they were going on to college or not. College-related courses were expanded. Computers were put in every classroom, and state-of-the art machines were installed to train kids for mechanical jobs. The business reps developed curricula that would allow certification in technical fields so that a student was job-ready as soon as he or she graduated.

“We didn’t intend for these kids to not strive for college, but we did recognize that the majority of the district’s students are from low-income families. With good jobs, many are now able to work their way through college,” Griffin said. The plan was built around the needs of the students, with flexible hours for those who had jobs and programs for older students who had dropped out and come back, he said. Drop-out and teen pregnancy rates have since gone down.

Within one year of the plan’s implementation, the school’s test scores rose dramatically. “We have had 14 straight years of acceptable or above,” Griffin said, “and two years of exemplary or above.” He gives high marks to former principal Sue Guthrie for the school’s success.

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