Susan Freeman reached into a desk drawer inside her office in November and pulled out an old copy of The Champion. It featured a front-page article several years old detailing serious disciplinary problems that plagued the school years before she arrived – problems she was working to eradicate as the new principal.
The story annoyed her, she said, because, regardless of its accuracy, it didn’t mention the school’s potential. It didn’t capture what she believed the students there could do, she pointed out.
“I use it as motivation,” she said, smirking.
It seems to have done the job. McNair Middle School made Adequate Yearly Progress this year – a state and federal designation for performance measured with the state’s CRCT, a test given to students in grades one through eight.
Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that measures each state’s progress toward the goal of all students meeting state academic standards in several subjects, including math and English. The test also examines schools’ attendance and – for high schools – graduation rates.
Freeman was named principal at McNair Middle four years ago. She arrived from Terry Mill Elementary, where she had been principal for six years. For 12 years, the state had said Terry Mill Elementary needed improvement, and by the time she left, she said, the school met its state goals four years in a row and was named a Distinguished Title 1 School, an honor given to high-performing schools with large percentages of disadvantaged students.
When Freeman arrived at McNair, the vast majority of the staff was new. The school had never made AYP.
“Coming in four years ago, we knew that the school had deficits in terms of academic expectations as well as discipline and parental and community involvement,” she said. “So it’s been a vision from day one to make AYP but more importantly to prepare our students so that they can go to high school without remediation.”
It started with a vision – making sure, primarily, that everyone who taught wanted to be there, she said. After her first year, 20 teachers transferred from the school.
“It allowed me to select teachers who were strong in their content,” she said. “Since that time, I’ve only had one or two teachers
Freeman said she set up accountability panels that teachers faced each year to assist teachers’ efforts to improve student performance. She also started new programs. During the 2006-07 school year, McNair piloted single-gender classrooms in each grade and called in Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Classes saw tremendous gains in a sample group of students – not only academically, but discipline improved as well, she noted. They expanded the program the following year, starting Small Learning Communities called academies or houses. They offer same-gender courses at each grade level as well as co-ed.
“They’re able to focus more,” Freeman said of the program. “Girls want that eye contact. They want to know you care about them. … Boys need to move every three or four minutes.”
McNair teachers also participate in professional learning activities three to four times a week during planning time. She has also made it a point to look at student performance data and to change instruction accordingly. Last year, McNair Middle almost met AYP but missed the target by two students in a small subgroup, Students With Disabilities.
“Ms. Freeman introduced reading during students’ extended learning time – that helped,” said Ernest Johnson, a sixth-grade special education teacher who has served McNair Middle for five years. “I thought we should have made (AYP) back then because we were so close, so I was excited to ramp things up a bit more.”
The school has also worked to improve parental involvement by hosting six “Lunch and Learns” each year that give parents the opportunity to visit the school during their lunch hour and talk with teachers and administrators about the curriculum, the instructional programs and counseling services. McNair also houses one of the school systems’s 11 Parent Resources Centers in which parents can receive GED preparation, job interview training, computer and resume-building courses.
When state test results came earlier this year, the school made AYP, but it still has large performance gaps to close. About 56 percent of students meet or exceed the state’s expectations in math. More than 80 percent, however, meet or exceed the state’s expectation in English.
“We are elated that the word is out that McNair is a place of learning,” Freeman said. “We’ve been working for a long time. It has always been that this is a place for student learning, but our making AYP has validated what we do, but we still have work to do and will continue that – it only continues.”