Just 5 years ago, Foshay Middle School Exemplified the worst in Education;Today, It’s a National of Successful Reform
Back in 1989 the scene at Foshay Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles could hardly have been worse. Students ran wild in the corridors, ignoring the bell schedules. Fights erupted during lunch. Graffiti marred the walls. One in five students dropped out.
Worst of all, Foshay’s test scores ranked the lowest of any Los Angeles Unified School District middle school.
So alarming was the downward spiral at Foshay that the State Department of Education issued an ominous threat to the school district: Turn this campus around or funding will be withheld and a state trustee appointed to run the troubled school.
Fast-forward to 1994. Foshay Principal Howard Lappin stood with a student and her mother on the south Lawn of the White House, handpicked by the U.S. Department of Education to help celebrate the signing of president Clinton’s education initiative, Goals 2000.
In five years, Foshay Middle School had become a national model for school reform, an evolving case study on how educators can bring the best of public education to the worst of schools.
“People used to tell me that if you sent your kid to Foshay, you sent them to fail,” Lappin said. “It’s been a long process to get where we are now. But now, you can’t tell me that kids who come here don’t want to learn…. We are a school where education reform is working.”
Two key ingredients fed the Foshay turnaround, say the school’s staff and outside education experts. First is Lappin, a charismatic, aggressive principal who jump-started the staff the minute he arrived on the scene in 1989.
He was quickly able to galvanize and motivate the school’s other valuable resource-teachers who were looking for a way “ out of the pits,” Lappin said.
“Educators talk so much about the importance of the principal,” said Gilbert Hentschky, dean of the USC School of Education and an expert in education reform. “Howard shows us all what an awesome thing a good principal can be.”
The second factor in Foshay’s success; A mix of veteran teachers and younger ones who asked to come to the campus decided to take on the challenge of the state edict with a vengeance.
“We all felt outraged and had kind of a fight-back mentality,” said Debra Laidley, a lead teacher in the school’s reform movement. “Many teachers were insulted. Teachers were very much convinced that our kids could learn, but we knew the old ways weren’t working and we needed help.”
Foshay is pursuing three major reform efforts harnessing an almost unheard of amount of staff training, new equipment and outside resources at a time when other Los Angeles public schools have been reeling from the effects of deep budget cuts.
In 1991 the school won a $1.5-million state grant to help restructure teaching. The grant made it possible to pay for the training of teachers in new classroom methods and for the hours extra time they spend at school. This year Foshay is buying its own bus so that students can “get out and access the community,” Lappin said, adding that it would be foolish not to take advantage of county museums, the Coliseum and USC less than a mile away.
Foshay was also one of the first Los Angeles schools to join the LEARN reform plan. Under LEARN, schools become semiautonomous campuses, free to make decisions that range from staff hiring to curriculum innovations. Participation in LEARN brings with it specialized school management training for some staff and parents.
Last year Foshay also was selected by a private education group to become one of nine prototype schools fro the New American Schools Development Corp., a private, nonprofit organization funded by business leaders during the George Bush Administration. The organization paid $1 million in computer equipment and is providing nearly one month of paid training time for every teacher.
As part of this program, Foshay will soon become a Kindergarten Center, keeping students at the same campus throughout their educational careers and letting the same teachers monitor their growth.
The infusion of support and program changes are bringing results. Slowly but steadily, students achievement is on the the rise. Test scores are up by 15 points in reading and about 10 points in math. Test scores “still aren’t great and have a long way to go,” Lappin says. A high transient rate-40% of students leave during the year and are replaced by a like number of new pupils-makes assessment difficult. But, the principal said, there are other indicators of progress.
Attendance is up to 96% each day. Dropouts are down to 4%. The few students walking the hallways during class carry a permission slip. Suspensions are half of what they were five years ago. Lappin says he can’t recall the last time there was a fight on campus.
And more then 200 students stay after school every day and arrive on Saturdays for tutoring.
“Foshay presents a profound lesson,” Hentschky said. Its shows that when a principal, teachers and community work together and use the resources that are around them, they can make a hell of a lot of difference.“
Inside teachers John Rubio’s sixth-grade classroom, the Foshay reforms come to life.It’s geometry time and classical music wafts from a tape recorder.” Who is this?“ he asks. "Mozart,” the kids respond in unison.
“If Mozart could do what he did when he was your age, then I expect great things from you,” the young teacher responds as his students work in groups discussing the difference between trapezoids and rectangles.
Rubio is a “team teacher” with Kate McFadden. He teaches math and social studies. She handles English and science. Their plan, which awaits approval-not from a school district bureaucrat, but from a committee of parents, teachers and staff- is to keep the same class together for three years.
“ If I can have them again next year, I will know exactly what they have had, what they need and where I can take them,” Rubio said. “ In three years I will not only know these kids, but I will know their families. It gives me an advantage to help them that no many other teachers have.”
He gives out his home phone number in case there are questions with homework. Rubio stays after school running a special Spanish reading class so that native Spanish-speaking students who want to can develop their language skills.
And he gets rave review from his students.
“ He pushes us enough to make us learn,” said Parish Wagner, 11. “ WE have harder classes and more homework, but the teachers make it fun, so it doesn’t seem that bad.”
To see Foshay today is to observe a campus attempting to embrace some of the key tenets of school reform:
* School-based management: A council of eight teachers, two staff members, eight parents, four students, a union representative and an administrator governs the school, making decisions on everything from budgets to curriculum.
One of the council’s first early but significant, hurdles was finding a way to instill discipline in the school. The team decided to open a tardy room.“ Any student meandering after the bell is sent to this classroom for the period,a boring proposition that soon became a punishment worth avoiding.
"The tardiness was very serious problem,” Lappin said. “It showed we didn’t have control of the school-we didn’t know who belonged here and who didn’t.” With the success of the TNT program, short for Tolerate No Tardies, the council experienced its first positive lesson in school management.
“What came out of school-based management was a feeling that we really could do things better on our own,” Lappin said. “ We could control our own destiny.”
* Teachers as instructional leaders: The faculty see themselves as professionals who work in teams to bring the latest innovations to students. Multi-age classrooms, thematic teaching and computer learning are a few of the strategies at work inside Foshay.
“ I’m not so set in my ways that I’m unwilling to try something that I’ve never done before,” said Wayne Stevens, a 30-year veteran teacher at Foshay and the teacher union representative on campus.
Stevens said he is sold on team teaching, a way of organizing the school so that the same teachers aware the same students in all classes. It improves discipline because teachers can handle problems, he said.
* High expectations: Teachers refuse to “dummy down” lessons and place students in track according to their abilities. Every class is taught at the level expected for the grade and students receive traditional A through F marks on report cards.
Lappin and his staff reject the notion that a student who is years behind grade level should be given remedial classes rather than the same material as everyone else. All eight-graders at Foshay must take algebra, for instance
“ If they don’t know how to multiply, we get them a calculator and they can learn to multiply when learning about equations,” Lappin said. “ If they are going to fail eight grade math, ” I’d rather have them fail algebra.“
This hard line draws grimaces among educators who believe that failing a student, especially one from a disadvantaged background, erodes self-esteem. The Foshay staff take another view, however.
” To me, the overt form of classism and racism is when we say to a student, ‘You can’t learn at grade level,’ Lappin said. “ That, to me , can’t make any kind feel good.”
As a result of the stringent requirements, more than 200 students flocked to summer and winter intersession classes to make up failed classes or pursue studies; another 200 enrolled in tutoring programs for extra help.
* Parental Involvement: Parents have been invited to participate in every aspect of their children’s education, and slowly they are becoming active participants on campus. When parents speak of what they see as the major improvements at Foshay, they talk about campus safety and discipline.
“ I thought that I would never let my children come here,” said Renee A. Bey, who was two daughters at Foshay. “ But the school has been cleaned up. They don’t tolerate any symbols of gangs, like baggy pants and handkerchiefs. And the teachers really care. They will call us at home and let us know what’s going on and what’s expected of our children.”
To bring parents on campus, the school offers them courses in computer technology and English as a second language. A bungalow has been set aside as a parent center and baby-sitting is offered when parents are attending class.
“ This is the first time I have ever been involved at school,” Bey said. “ At other schools I have felt like I was invading someone else’s territory or privacy. But here we are welcomed.”