With much of a Monday morning still to go, Jill Saia found herself sitting at her desk in the principal’s office at Delmont Elementary. It was a rare moment, with no immediate concerns.
“It’s been very quiet here today,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
It didn’t last.
“Fight!” someone cried, storming into her office.
Saia jumped up and started racing down the hall, this reporter following close behind. The school secretary gave her a questioning look, but Saia waved her off.
“No, it’s OK,” she said. “This is what school really looks like.”
Delmont has all the hallmarks of a tough school: Almost every student lives in poverty. Many come from broken homes. All but one or two of the 370 children at Delmont are, as the educational euphemism goes, “at risk.”
To avoid potential state takeover of Delmont, which earned an F under the state’s new rating system, the school will have to make dramatic growth over the next two years.
And Saia is trying out some long-held ideas about how to do just that.
Instead of structural reforms commonly in vogue for school turnarounds — such as longer school years — Saia has zeroed in on teacher development as the key to improving Delmont.
Given a free hand in hiring and firing, Saia ended up replacing about 60 percent of her staff, resulting in a mix of experienced and inexperienced educators.
“We can’t always find high-quality teachers, so we grow our own here,” said Saia.
Also, Delmont and five other chronically low-performing schools in Baton Rouge are participating in a federal grant that will pay out almost $7.4 million over the next three years.
Delmont is receiving $425,000 a year for each year of the grant. The other schools are Capitol, Merrydale and Park elementary schools, Mayfair Middle, and Glen Oaks High.
In return, the schools are instituting big changes in the way they operate and in personnel.
Saia, in her previous job as a professional development specialist, spent a lot of time working with teachers at Delmont.
“I knew which teachers I wanted to keep, and I knew which ones I would politely invite to go elsewhere,” she said.
The new staff wasn’t automatically embraced by Delmont’s students, for whom teacher turnover — 50 percent-plus for the past three years — is the disturbing norm.
“They thought we were just temporary people,” Saia said. “They didn’t realize we were here to stay.”
Why they fight
When the year began, Saia didn’t have to wait for trouble.
“I’m not gonna lie. When we got here in August, the discipline was real bad,” Saia admitted.
The readily available statistics on Delmont tell only part of the story of why these children turn from good to unruly so quickly. A better indicator is the steady stream of children with undiagnosed and untreated mental-health problems.
And those problems can lead to fights, like the one that broke out that Monday as fourth-graders were leaving the school library.
Earlier that morning, Saia had visited the library, where the local chapter of historically black fraternity Omega Psi Phi was handing out free age-appropriate books to the children, most of whom have few if any books at home. Saia was alert for any signs of problems and was gratified not to see any.
An hour later, her fears were realized.
As she reached the library, the fight was over. One boy, the victim, was sullen and upset. Saia knew the other boy well. He was prone to sudden, frightening outbursts.
“Some of these children are so angry,” said Saia.
Every Tuesday, Saia directs her most-problematic students to the “big blue bus,” a mobile clinic set up after Hurricane Katrina to offer medical services to displaced children. The service has remained to deal with the day-to-day problems in north Baton Rouge neighborhoods.
“I need a big blue bus here every day,” she said ruefully.
Teaching the teachers
Saia, in her 28th year as an educator since graduating from LSU, spent years as a middle school science teacher and then the last decade training and working with teachers. She said she never wanted to be a principal, but here she is, working 12-hour days and still enjoying herself.
The appeal is simple: She gets to take all the ideas she’s stored up in her years as an educator and try them out.
Improving how teachers teach has been her lifelong passion and, for the last decade, she has focused on one promising approach, National Board certification.
This certification — bestowed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, based in Arlington, Va. — is a year-long, often longer, process of self-examination during which teachers have to demonstrate to their peers that they know what they’re doing.
The certification is available to teachers with at least three years of experience, and it has to be renewed every 10 years. In Louisiana, it also means $5,000 extra in salary a year. Across the country, more than 91,000 teachers are National Board certified.
Saia was one of the first teachers in Louisiana to earn this special certification, back in 1999 when she taught at LSU Lab School. She renewed the credential in 2009.
She quickly became sold on the intensive process as a way to help teachers improve their craft.
Several studies, including an extensive 2008 one conducted by a National Research Council panel, have concluded that the board-certification process successfully identifies good teachers, though many schools fail to make full use of their expertise.
Nevertheless, the research is inconclusive as to whether the process itself actually improves one’s teaching, but many educators are sold on it.
The focus on teacher improvement stems from a body of research that suggests having an effective teacher in the classroom is the best thing schools can do to improve student achievement.
For instance, economists Eric Hanushek, John Kain and Steven Rivkinin in 1998 estimated that at least 7.5 percent of the variation in student achievement resulted directly from teacher quality and added that the actual number could be as high as 20 percent. Out-of-school factors such as poverty, however, remain much better predictors of student achievement.
Figuring out how to create an effective teacher is a far from settled debate in education circles.
National Board certification has many prominent advocates pointing to it as the way to go.
Every one of the more than 30 teachers at Delmont is either nationally certified or is seeking it. It’s not the first school locally to try to have every faculty member National Board certified, but Delmont is the first to make this approach the linchpin of its effort to escape state sanctions.
Hanging outside Saia’s office are seven framed National Board certificates. They include Saia’s and six veteran National Board teachers she’s recruited to the school.
“Woodlawn Elementary has a big wall,” Saia said. “Ours will be bigger than theirs.”
The less-experienced Delmont teachers, those with less than the necessary three years in the classroom to qualify for full National Board certification, are getting a head start on their national certification through a program known as Take One! The participants get a chance to clear one part of the certification process, and bank their passing score for later when they have enough experience to finish the rest of the process.
Reforms ignore motivation
Motivating teachers is one of Saia’s abiding passions and part of the reason she loves National Board certification. It’s also something she feels is often ignored in the education reform movement and many school turnaround efforts.
“If you take a whole group of highly dedicated people, it makes a difference,” she said.
Every other Monday after school lets out, teachers gather in the library for two hours to learn how to do their job better.
Chastity Pattan, a prekindergarten teacher, is one of the teachers who stayed at Delmont. After a recent Monday training, she talked about how happy she is to see that teachers are not burning out as they have in years past.
“It’s October and people still have the motivation,” she said. “The light is still on.”
Saia’s allegiance is clear when you walk into her office. Perched above her computer is an autographed copy of Diane Ravitch’s 2010 bestseller, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”
Ravitch is a former assistant U.S. secretary of education who served under former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In the book, Ravitch, a longtime advocate of school accountability and school choice, parted ways with former allies. She argues that many of the reform efforts have backfired, damaging public education in favor of unaccountable private interests and unfairly denigrating teachers.
Delmont getting an F grade at all is the outgrowth of the school accountability movement Ravitch began to champion back in the 1980s and now critiques.
The fruits of school accountability are apparent in the masses of data Saia dutifully collects for the parish school system, the state and the federal government. She does so, but she views it largely as a chore, something done to please the people funding her experiment in teacher development.
Earlier that Monday, for instance, she conducted an observation of teacher Lauren Bunch’s kindergarten classroom to help her prepare for a visit the next day by a team of outside administrators, known as a Quality Support Team.
Saia bemoaned the limitations of the checklist she was filling out. The form doesn’t leave room to explain in greater detail the subtleties she sees, the reasons why children are or not paying close attentions or asking more incisive questions, she said.
“They’re not looking for creativity or ingenuity,” she said. “They collect all the stuff everyone collects. The easy stuff.”
Another chore, and one that’s taken up more time than she thought it would, has been the facility she inherited.
Much of Saia’s early tenure has been spent pestering and cajoling Aramark, the private company that handles school maintenance, to come and fix things at the 56-year-old school.
In August, the air conditioning broke.
Teachers and students crowded for days into the gym and a newer classroom wing, the places with cool air.
Although the school has received extra resources, it has about 70 fewer students than it had last year. The school system responded by transferring out three of her teachers.
While she fought against the transfers, Saia said, she’s determined to show improvement, to show that the school didn’t improve simply thanks to extra money and human beings.
“What I’m trying to show is we have success because of our teachers,” she said.