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Norfolk, a blueprint for narrowing gap

The majority-black Virginia district cut its gap by more than 20 percent. "Our only business is teaching and learning," the superintendent says.

By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
Published May 19, 2004

NORFOLK, Va. - The final bell at Rosemont Middle School rang 15 minutes ago, but teacher LaDawn Durant will be around for another two hours.

She is staying late to show four African-American girls how to navigate standardized tests. This isn't unusual; the Norfolk school district paid its teachers more than $1-million this year to help struggling students after class.

It is one of several ways the schools here are targeting their achievement gap, the academic divide that separates black and white students nationwide.

The results so far have been startling.

In virtually every grade and subject, Norfolk schools have markedly narrowed the gap between black and white student performance on state tests.

In 1998, 67 percent of Norfolk's white third-graders passed the state English exam. Only 41 percent of the district's black third-graders met that standard.

Five years later, the passing rate for black students had jumped to 61 percent. That narrowed the gap in third grade by 23 percent - significant improvement for the achievement gap, where progress usually is measured in tiny increments.

Norfolk's numbers are particularly noteworthy given the district's demographics. Two-thirds of the students are African-American. Sixty percent are low-income.

"Our only business is teaching and learning, and trying to improve the quality of both," said Norfolk Superintendent John O. Simpson, who was ordered by his school board to improve student achievement when he took over in 1998.

Simpson, who is black, said the key was changing the culture in Norfolk schools.

The district took $1-million from its administrative budget and put it into classrooms. It did the same with many administrators, kicking them out of the central office and back to the teaching ranks.

Teachers were ordered to test their students - over and over, if necessary - until they could determine what they knew. That information was used to tweak lesson plans and identify children who needed extra instruction.

The Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts have made little progress in narrowing their achievement gaps, which are wider than Norfolk's in almost every area.

The school superintendents in those districts say they are impressed with Norfolk's improvement, especially given its higher poverty rates. But they say Norfolk has distinct advantages.

It gets considerably more money per student than either Hillsborough or Pinellas, they say. And Norfolk is only about one-third the size of either bay area district, making it easier to re-engineer.

"The trouble (here) is ... it's a moving car and you're trying to change the tire while it's moving," said Pinellas Superintendent Howard Hinesley.

"Kiss your brain"

The three school districts do have some things in common.

All operated for decades under a school busing order imposed by a federal judge. Norfolk schools, in fact, closed for six months rather than desegregate in the late 1950s.

In the mid 1980s, after Norfolk officials sought and received relief from busing, the school district found itself struggling with racially identifiable schools. Hillsborough already is in that predicament; Pinellas is moving in that direction.

But Norfolk's gap is closing, while the gap in the Tampa Bay area isn't budging. Simpson, the Norfolk superintendent, said the key is commitment. "Everybody knows what we want and what we expect," he said.

That attitude is evident at Sherwood Forest Elementary School, a Norfolk school that last year met the stiff standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a feat achieved by about 13 percent of Florida schools.

Eldre Horton, 11, is one of 36 students in a classroom split between two teachers. The kids who are doing well academically are in one group. The other group includes students who are in special education or having trouble in one or more subjects.

Despite their differences, both groups are expected to do the same work. While the teachers use different approaches, their standard is the same - mastery of the material.

Today's assignment is a two-page reading exercise titled Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse. Students on both sides of the classroom take turns reading while the teachers fire off questions.

Eldre, in the advanced group, shoots his hand in the air when his teacher asks for a description of the house in the story.

"There were men lying all over the place," he answers, correctly.

In this classroom, right answers draw an unusual response. The teacher tells the student, "Kiss your brain." The deserving child obliges, kissing the palm of his hand and smacking his forehead.

So does the teacher.

"Often, if we forget, the kids will either remind us or just automatically do it," said Karen Spencer, one of the teachers.

Across town from Sherwood Forest is Ocean Air Elementary, a school that functions in a very different world.

Most of its 600 students qualify for a free or reduced price lunch, making it one of the poorest schools in the district. It has a 62 percent mobility rate, which means almost two-thirds of its students arrive, leave or do both during the school year.

But administrators say the commitment to every student here is just as strong.

On a recent weekday, a group of fourth-grade teachers were hunched over a small table, reviewing test scores. They weren't happy with what they saw.

The teachers wondered whether the students were tired by the time they got to a question with a high percentage of wrong answers. They noticed an even distribution of answers to another question, an indication that none of the students knew how to solve the problem.

In Norfolk, knowing why students answered incorrectly is as important as the overall test score. It allows teachers to identify weaknesses and adjust their instruction accordingly.

There is a maxim in education circles. Testing at the end of the school year is an autopsy. Testing during the year is a check-up.

The Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts do a lot of autopsies. That's all they can do with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which delivers its results at the end of the school year.

That makes absolutely no sense to educators in Norfolk.

"The more people can use data and dig into it, the more they value it," said Linda S. O'Konek, Norfolk's executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Pulling in the same direction

Simpson, the school superintendent, takes the achievement gap personally. That's because he learned its harsh lessons firsthand.

When he was in junior high school in Pennsylvania, his school district desegregated. His new school had 17 academic sections, with section 8-1 being the most rigorous.

Simpson was placed in section 8-17, along with every other black male.

That was one of the major differences between black and white schools, he said. While black schools were woefully underfunded, black teachers had high expectations for their students.

"We had the church, we had the community, we had schools all pulling in the same direction - developing the whole of the child," he said.

Simpson is trying to duplicate that model in Norfolk.

He said getting teachers on board wasn't hard, especially after representatives from the two teachers unions were given a seat at the decision table.

The administrators who aided teachers in the central office were another story. Many weren't happy about being shipped out to schools. Some worried about their new duties. Others were concerned about taking on extra work.

The changes were made slowly, over several months. Now the administrators function as "master teachers," aiding classroom teachers in numerous ways.

School principals have had to be creative.

Rosemont Middle School, for example, now has four physical education teachers instead of the usual eight. Principal Jeanne J. Kruger, a supporter of Simpson's approach, needed more math and English teachers. So she cut four physical education teaching units.

The result: Larger PE classes, and more concentration on subjects where students need help.

Finding teachers who are willing to go along with such tactics is tough, Kruger said. All you can do is listen for enthusiasm and passion during job interviews.

If she doesn't hear it, she keeps looking.

LeKeya Seldon has the passion. As soon as her students enter the classroom, she begins firing off questions.

"Did you have homework in other classes?"

A student nods yes, but that's not good enough.

"Did you finish it or run through it?"

"I finished it," said James Seymore, who is 14 and in the seventh grade.

The school is quick to target students who aren't doing well, especially those who are older than their peers. The school assigns a teacher, a mentor of sorts, to help them. The student checks in with the teacher for moral and instructional support.

The school calls them its "moving on up kids."

James knows his teacher stays on him because she cares. He could easily have been held back a year, but she helped him escape that fate.

"If she wasn't around..." James said, his voice trailing off. "It's like she gives us more chances and she understands."

Seldon is still learning herself. She showed up at the district's door a year ago as a long-term substitute. A job in finance didn't challenge her.

The students at Rosement do every day.

"Nobody is dumb. Nobody is stupid," she said. "If you expect more from them, they will give you more."

Positive reinforcement

Antoniio Wade, 13, is sitting in algebra class, his favorite.

"It's fun to figure out the problems," he said.

His parents, Vivian Hoffman Sr. and Cynthia Wade, have tried to instill a work ethic in Antoniio. They ban television before 7 p.m. on weekdays and don't allow telephone calls on school nights.

Their reward is a three-ring binder, a lifelong report card of sorts, stuffed with every certificate and award their son has ever received.

Children need structure, Cynthia Wade says.

Her two children know what is expected of them. She likes that the Norfolk school district spells it out to them.

"They need that reinforcement," she said.

Back in algebra class, the chalk is flying. Teacher Rosa Ross is writing and solving and erasing and writing again, while Antoniio and his classmates try to soak it all in.

Ross often sounds like a drill sergeant trying to get her math troops in order. She calls every student by his or her last name and stares at them when they pretend not to be listening. She is drilling them today, trying to make sure they know how to solve the problems.

"I know y'all and your mistakes," she said.

She writes 2x+

y = 8 on the board and asks for a possible answer. A not-so-confident voice throws out an answer: 3, 2.

The student is correct, but not finished.

"Why?" Ross wants to know.

The voice, growing more confident, explains. "Three times two is 6, plus two is 8, therefore, it is a solution."

She does this again and again, each time calling on a different student and not moving on until the student can say how he or she arrived at the answer. Class participation here is a must.

When she is done, she asks for volunteers to solve more problems, this time at the board.

They click and tap on the board and then step away to reveal their answers. They get a nod from the teacher, but only if they can explain how they got the answer.

Now a flurry of papers is making its way from student to student.

"This is your homework," she said. "Do one and two now."

Antoniio is grateful for his teachers' diligence.

"They give us enough time to learn a subject before they move on," he said. "Most of the students who go to this school pass."

Time spent on task is the primary reason.

At Rosemont, students attend math every day for 85 minutes, nearly twice the amount students receive in Florida school districts.

Those who need even more time can visit Ross on Wednesday afternoons, when she stays after school.

"If we want them to be successful," she said, "we have to help them."

- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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