How One School Beats the Odds Every DayNovember 30, 2011 | David Markus
The year is 2006.
Superintendent Peter Gorman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina is visiting Cochrane Middle School, a struggling school in a high-poverty community in east Charlotte. Known for his no-nonsense determination to turn around the district's failing schools, Gorman minces no words in describing Cochrane: "This may be the worst school I have ever seen."
Teachers working at Cochrane at the time describe students running the halls screaming, seventh graders defiantly walking out of class mid-lesson, and teachers hunkered down "just trying to survive." The school is ranked the eighth worst-performing middle school in the state.
Five years later, Gorman, who oversaw the closing of nearly a dozen failing Charlotte schools, says, "There was no instructional focus. It was the most disheartening school visit of my career."
And that may have been a good thing, because from that day forward, nothing at Cochrane would be the same. Instead of closing, the school began a long, painful-at-first, uphill journey of redemption that continues to this day and will continue for years to come. Top-notch classroom instruction for every student became job one. Bringing every child up to grade level was the mission. No reasonable effort was spared, especially in providing professional development to the faculty.
A strategic partnership with Texas Instruments, Inc. (TI) also proved most beneficial. The school district purchased the company's standards-driven math-learning strategy, TI MathForward™, at Cochrane and other schools in Charlotte in 2008. The TI MathForward program includes in-class coaching, professional development, administration training, curriculum alignment, and online resources, as well as hardware such as graphing calculators and the classroom network system.
Tactically, the school's approach was simple but far-reaching: Build trust through genuine listening, require achievement by reaching higher, and show proof through data -- all with the aim of constructing a sustainable culture of caring and achievement to outlast any one person or leader.
In 2007, Valarie Williams walked onto the 51-acre campus and took the reins as principal. Like her boss the superintendent, she was all business. Within a year, nearly half the faculty was gone. Some left of their own volition; many were shown the door. Williams identified an instructional strategy aimed squarely at bringing students up to grade level and dispatched a cadre of teachers to Atlanta to learn how to implement it. Their job was to come home with a plan to pass along to their peers. After considerable trial and error and tweaking, they put the program into action and dubbed it Interactive Learning. IL rests upon ten classroom-instruction techniques known as the Cochrane Non-Negotiables. These remain the engine of the Cochrane turnaround.
See how this school is rebuilding itself through research-backed classroom strategies and ongoing teacher development. Comment on this video, download, and more
Narrowing the Achievement Gap
In the 2009-10 school year, Assistant Principal Josh Bishop succeeded Williams and became principal. Where Williams had landscaped, Bishop began to plant and cultivate. He leaned into the professional development for teachers, making it easier on their schedules -- and mandatory. He doubled down on student-performance research to create a data-driven "picture of every student" and a results-oriented program for shrinking the gap that was leaving the school's economically disadvantaged students far behind. And he committed to leveraging technology to help students and teachers wherever he could. As the months went by and the changes took root, the student performance data showed the gap beginning to narrow.
In mathematics, TI MathForward was yielding substantial results. The percentage of Cochrane students meeting state math standards went from 34 percent in 2008 to 59 percent in 2011. Here's how it works: Each math or algebra class is outfitted with graphing calculators for every student. The calculators are connected on a classroom network. Teachers direct students to solve specific problems in groups and compute their individual answers on the calculators. When time is up, students log in their answers. These appear anonymously or by name on the class's electronic whiteboard. The teacher then leads a discussion with the class, breaking down how some students arrived at the wrong answer. Every student I observed was engaged with the technology and the problem-solving challenges, even though many got the wrong answers. The engagement of special-needs and English-language-learner students seemed especially high.
People Make the Difference
Effective though they are, the programs are not the indispensable keys to Cochrane's success; the people are. It begins with the students, who, perhaps for the first time, are glimpsing the opportunities that lie beyond the long shadows of poverty. This, thanks to the teachers, who -- with humility and determination -- are digging in to improve their practice and empower their students. Thanks, in turn, to the administrators, who know that good teaching is the only certain exit from the grip of under-performance, and who are refining their support for teachers every day. Thanks, too, must go to the district, which extends help from supporters like Texas Instruments, and, more important, allows the professionals at Cochrane to chart their own course, removing obstacles wherever possible.
Not all journeys of redemption end in success. Diminishing resources and economic stress alone are powerful roadblocks to sustainable progress. But the folks at Cochrane have already surmounted their most daunting obstacles -- the ones that exist in the mind of anyone who resolves to buck the odds. Do we possess the basics to succeed? Can we chart the right course? Can we get results and learn from both our successes and our failures?
The answer on all three counts is yes. The folks at Cochrane have answered the bell for round two of their turnaround. Just a few months ago they added ninth grade and will expand to include grades 10-12 over the next three years. They also have a new name: Cochrane Collegiate Academy.
The journey continues.
Table of Contents: Strategies to Turn Around a Failing School
This blog is part of a Schools That Work installment featuring Cochrane Collegiate Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina. Learn more about their turnaround with the links below.
- School Turnaround Home Page
- How to Engage Underperforming Students ( Video)
- Ten Classroom Strategies for Engaging Underperforming Students by Edutopia Staff
- How Principals Can Grow Teacher Excellence by Mariko Nobori
- Student Data: Twice as Many Students Meet State Standards by Edutopia Staff
- Resources & Downloads to Improve Student Performance by Edutopia Staff
- Why We Chose to Profile Cochrane Collegiate Academy by Edutopia Staff
- About This School: Teacher Excellence Narrows the Achievement Gap by Mariko Nobori
- Strategies to Turn Around a Failing School ( Video)