Building a better middle school
Photo by Dan Trittschuh
The gathering is a no-frills affair, much like its host, Columbus Collegiate Academy. The first Breakfast at CCA—a fundraising and outreach effort launched this winter—has attracted on this Friday morning about eight potential supporters to the tiny charter middle school housed in a Weinland Park church. And perks aren’t the reason. There’s no silent auction, expensive gowns, party photographer. The visitors from foundations and education nonprofits sit in plastic seats at long folding tables in the front of the school’s cafeteria, which doubles as a chapel/meeting room for Seventh Avenue Community Baptist Church. There’s a modest spread of bagels, doughnuts, coffee and juice. The room is quiet until a student in khakis and a blue polo shirt (the school’s official uniform) clangs through a door and drops off an empty milk crate in the adjacent kitchen.
Andy Boy, the school’s 31-year-old founder, started the monthly breakfasts in February to introduce more Central Ohio movers and shakers to CCA. His school has operated under the radar for the most part since it opened in 2008. But don’t let the lack of hoopla fool you. Boy isn’t much of a publicist or event planner, but he knows his way around a classroom. “What we’re doing at Columbus Collegiate is something that is just not being done across Columbus,” Boy tells the gathering.
CCA, despite its prep-school-sounding name, is no elite institution. It’s in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Columbus, just down the road from Weinland Park Elementary, one of the worst schools in the state, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Almost all CCA students are black, almost all receive free or reduced lunch and most come to the school with second- or third-grade math and reading skills. Some don’t know the entire alphabet.
But despite demographics as challenging as any school in Columbus, Boy is creating that rarest of things in Columbus—a thriving urban middle school. To be sure, it’s too early to call CCA a smashing success. But the school’s inaugural sixth-grade class (it added seventh grade this year and will include eighth next) performed better on the math portion of the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT) than all of their counterparts in public or charter middle schools in Columbus (as well as plenty of suburban middle schools). Reading scores were ahead of all but four traditional city public middle schools, and overall performance was tops. As a first-year charter, the school didn’t receive an official report card from the state. But if it did, CCA would have earned a B, a designation given to just one traditional Columbus district middle school, Ridgeview, which boasts a more affluent student population.
Most impressive was the growth the CCA students achieved. In fifth grade at other schools, 41 percent of the CCA students were proficient in math, while 35 percent hit the target in reading. Those numbers rose to 82 percent in math and 74 percent in reading after a year at CCA—a whopping average gain of 40 percentage points. What’s more, internal CCA tests indicate this year’s group of sixth-graders should make a similar leap when they take the OAT this spring. “We need to see the type of gains we’re having here at Columbus Collegiate in order to really give our students a fighting chance,” Boy says.
A middle school, ideally, helps young people transition from the fun and games of the elementary level to the more rigorous standards of high school. It’s a challenging trick to pull off in just three years. Amid the emotional and physical upheaval of puberty, children are expected to adjust to a more independent environment and learn increasingly complex subjects such as algebra, commonly taught at the middle-school level in the No Child Left Behind era. The experience can disorient children, and it’s common to see student test scores dip during the middle years. “It is the most difficult assignment in the school district,” says Rhonda Johnson, the president of the Columbus teachers union.
That dip is unlikely to drown well-off suburban kids with college-educated parents. But it’s a different story for poor inner-city students. Unlike their suburban counterparts, they might not have the resources to catch up if they enter high school unprepared. The Columbus school district’s troubling 74 percent graduation rate, far below the state standard, may very well correspond with the city’s failing middle schools, another of the district’s most persistent challenges, with 80 percent of traditional Columbus middle schools (grades six through eight) earning a D or F in the latest Ohio Department of Edu-cation report cards, according to Kids-Ohio.org, a Columbus education advocacy group. “They’re not dropping out in high school,” says Santo Pino, interim executive director of the Westerville-based National Middle School Association. “They dropped out by the time they got to high school.” Adds Mark Real, the president and CEO of KidsOhio.org: “If you’re going to fix education in Columbus, you got to do something about improving middle schools.”
That’s no easy task. Phi Delta Kappa, the professional education society, produced a scathing audit of the district’s middle schools in 2005, citing discipline problems, lack of focus and a mutual disrespect between students and teachers. Since then, test scores have remained lousy despite the closing of four struggling middle schools (the district will shut down five more in June) and top-to-bottom makeovers of other poor performers. Meanwhile, the acclaimed Knowledge is Power Program laid an egg last year after Central Ohio civic leaders urged the charter school group to start a middle school in Columbus. KIPP Journey Academy in Linden would have earned an F from the Ohio Department of Education if it weren’t a first-year charter.
Columbus City Schools superintendent Gene Harris says fixing middle schools is her top priority. “We can’t just give up,” she says. On the table are a slew of reforms, from single-gender institutions to shifting middle grades to the elementary level. Harris says she’s not hooked on any particular idea. “What I am wedded to is finding strategies that will be necessary to really help students in those middle grades and support teachers in those middle grades.”
She doesn’t need to look far for inspiration. Real urges Harris and other Columbus officials to take a closer look at what Boy is doing at CCA. “He’s got a track record,” Real says. “There aren’t many people who have that.”
Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the mixed record of Ohio charter schools than the rise and fall of W.E.B. DuBois Academy. In the gritty Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, DuBois, one of the first charters in the state to receive an “excellent” rating, was a beacon of hope. Its students, mostly poor and black, posted some of the best test scores in the city, and its founder, Wilson Willard, was a hero in education circles.
Fresh out of the University of Cincinnati, Boy started at DuBois in 2001 and quickly achieved impressive results. During his five years there, he taught everything from second to ninth grades and subjects such as math, science and language arts, working ridiculous hours and winning the school’s teacher-of-the-year award twice. “I fell in love with school choice,” he says. “I fell in love with what we were able to do with our students.”
Around 2004, DuBois expanded—but for the wrong reasons. “There was some greed,” Boy recalls, “and there was some disorganization, and that led to a lot of teachers and people being unhappy and leaving.” Boy quit in 2006 and within a couple of years academic performance dropped at DuBois from “excellent” (an A grade) to “academic emergency” (F). What’s more, Willard went from shining star to cautionary tale. Acting on a tip, the Ohio Auditor’s Office launched an investigation of the school’s finances. Today, Willard is serving a four-year prison term for inflating enrollment numbers (charter schools receive public money on a per-student basis) and using school funds to pay for improvements on his home.
The collapse devastated Boy. “I almost left education altogether,” he says. “We were one of the best schools in the state. I thought, ‘If this is the best that education has to offer, I’m in the wrong field.’ ” But before he could leave, he approached Kathryn Mullen-Upton and Terry Ryan of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, DuBois’s sponsor, and delivered an analysis of what went wrong at the school. Impressed, the pair asked if there was anything they could do to keep him in education. “I said, ‘Well, I certainly would be interested in doing this the right way,’ ” Boy recalls. (Fordham is now the sponsor of CCA.)
In 2006, Boy won a fellowship with Boston-based Building Excellent Schools, a training program that prepares talented educators to lead urban charter schools. He hoped at first to start a school in Cincinnati, but at the insistence of the Walton Family Foundation, a major Building Excellent Schools donor, he switched to Columbus. The goal was to create a school-choice showpiece down the road from the Statehouse, where charters were under fire. Boy identified Weinland Park as the neighborhood most in need and focused on grades six through eight because of the city’s middle-school struggles.
His timing was terrible, however. A politically charged environment made it tough to raise money (Gov. Ted Strickland had proposed a moratorium on charter school start-ups, a provision that the legislature later killed). New to Columbus, Boy also lacked local connections. “I was cold-calling everybody,” he says. And it didn’t help that KIPP was planning a school in Columbus at the same time. The high-profile program—which had the backing of the city’s civic leadership, including the powerful Limited Brands founder Les Wexner—had gobbled up what little support was out there for charters.
Boy couldn’t catch a break. He battled city zoning officials over the location of his school inside Seventh Avenue Baptist, struggled to arrange bus transportation for students, laid off four teachers when enrollment failed to meet projections (“the worst day of my life,” he says) and borrowed $80,000 from his father, a dentist, to keep the school afloat. But CCA did have one thing going for it. It worked out its start-up kinks in relative anonymity, unlike KIPP Journey Academy, the focus of media scrutiny as its principal resigned a couple of months into the school year.
CCA is intense and strict, similar to KIPP in many ways. Boy incorporated elements from KIPP and other successful charters on the East Coast he studied during his Building Excellent Schools fellowship. Features include daily homework assignments, double class blocks for math and reading, five annual college field trips, a rigorous code of conduct and an unapologetic focus on standardized tests. The most striking piece is the extra learning time—nine-hour school days, optional monthly Saturday classes (lack of busing limits participation) and a longer school calendar. CCA’s 82 students spend 64 more days in school a year than their peers in the Columbus district. Boy and others say the school’s extraordinary results would be impossible without that additional time.
The staff works hard, too. Teachers tutor kids before and after school and field after-hours cellphone calls from students (and parents) struggling with homework assignments. Seventy-hour weeks are common, and seven of the eight employees teach, including Boy and his co-director John Dues. Everyone sweats the small stuff, and if students come up short—a missed homework assignment, an untucked shirt, disrespectful classroom behavior—they are held accountable. Students even receive demerits if they miss school because of illness. “This is like a job,” says reading and writing teacher Jennifer Burdine. “This is our philosophy.”
Boy acknowledges the school is not for everyone. CCA takes a firm stance against “social promotion”—advancing low-achieving students to the next grade to keep them with their peers, a common practice elsewhere. During CCA’s first year, 22 students were held back, nearly 40 percent of the inaugural 57-student sixth-grade class. Many made significant strides—and saw their OAT scores improve—but they still were behind. The decision wasn’t popular, and 12 left CCA for schools that would elevate them. “They’re not ready for seventh grade,” Boy says, referring to the kids who left. “It’s going to be more of the same for them.”
But CCA is a good fit for families looking for something different. On a recent day, Krystal Wilson sits in the CCA cafeteria with her 13-year-old identical twins, Tyrone and Tyree Jefferson. The boys smile as their mom recalls their early struggles at the school. “I was getting letters under my pillow that this school was killing them,” says the Linden resident with a laugh.
The mood is much different today. Wilson and another parent, Diahana Walker, praise teachers, as well as Boy and his co-director Dues, for their commitment, high standards and communication. “I can call Mr. Boy and Mr. Dues and talk to them, just like they’re my neighbor,” says Walker, a north Columbus resident. “I can text them, and they’ll text me back.” Wilson raves about the extra help her son Tyree is getting in math and writing, and his improving test scores as a result. “This is the best thing to happen to all of us,” she says.
About four years ago, Harris proposed eliminating middle school altogether in Columbus. Other cities had done it, and the idea made economic sense: The change could close lots of under-enrolled schools. She wanted to move sixth grade to the elementary level and seventh- and eighth-graders to high school. But the public balked at the latter idea—parents of young girls feared older teens would prey on their children—and the district quickly downscaled to just one seven-12 pilot program, Linden-McKinley STEM Academy.
Still, the misstep didn’t stop the flood of new ideas. In the fall, the district will debut two single-gender middle schools (one for boys, one for girls), while Fifth Avenue Alternative Elementary School will begin the conversion to a K-8 model, the sixth in the district. Though moving seventh- and eighth-graders to high school bombed with the public, the K-8 concept has gotten a better reception. K-8 schools also have performed well academically, particularly Indianola Informal, the only middle-grade school in the city to receive an A from the Ohio Department of Education. Harris says she’s “very proud” of those schools, but she doubts she has the building space to widen the concept districtwide.
Rather, Harris wants to introduce new practices to struggling middle schools. In the fall, she sent leaders from all traditional middle schools in the district to the University of Virginia for a weeklong turnaround boot camp. The district also hired Community Research Partners to study its middle schools, and it’s consulting with the National Middle School Association about best practices. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We’ve got a problem,’ ” says Pino of the National Middle School Association. “I give them credit for recognizing it.”
Inspired by the Community Research Partners report completed at the end of last year, Harris is considering a major overhaul of the middle school schedule. Currently, students have eight distinct periods a day. Teachers struggle to connect with kids under the system. “It’s hard to develop a relationship with a student you see for 42 minutes a period,” says Johnson, president of the Columbus Education Association. As a result, Harris is exploring whether she can schedule double blocks of classes so children can spend more time with some teachers, in addition to getting extra time in such subjects as math and reading. Moreover, she wants to assign groups of students to the same teachers and give those instructors common planning time to organize cross-disciplinary projects.
Real praises Harris for her efforts, but he also suggests the district should consider establishing a school like CCA. Such an institution—uniforms, strict discipline, longer school day and year—would be popular with parents, according to surveys conducted by Real’s organization. “There’s a real unmet demand,” he says.
There’s no CCA clone in the works, but the district seems to be taking a similar approach with its latest makeover of Champion Middle School. Five years ago, the district also restructured the near-east-side school, bringing in a new staff, introducing merit pay and boosting professional development. The effort flopped: Champion remains a basket case (seven years in a row in academic emergency), and the state declared it one of the worst schools in Ohio earlier this year. In March, Champion’s new principal, Ed Baker, told the Dispatch he intends to emphasize discipline and attendance, as well as building an intervention period into the school day for students who need extra help.
But even the best reform ideas will fail without good teachers. A wave of recent research has concluded that class size, curriculum and funding all pale in comparison with the quality of instruction. “The key to it all is the teacher in the classroom,” Boy says.
Abbey Kinson struggled during her two years teaching sixth grade in Washington, D.C. The atmosphere was chaotic; disrespect was rampant; fights were common. The Ohio State grad joined Teach For America (TFA), sort of the Peace Corps of education, to help poor children in struggling inner-city schools. But how do you do that if teachers and kids fear for their safety, and classrooms are so out of control that it’s impossible for students to learn? Once, she says, she walked in on another teacher kicking a student cowering on the floor. “You definitely feel alone in a system like that,” she says.
When she finished her TFA tour, Kinson sought a much different environment. In D.C., she got to know KIPP, which operates seven schools in the city. Looking to return to Ohio, Kinson hoped to join the KIPP Journey Academy in Columbus, but the school had filled all its teaching openings. She widened her search and discovered CCA. She met with Boy and Dues and came away impressed. “I was like, ‘OK, they’re talking the talk. They know what needs to be done to have a successful school.’ I knew right away this is where I wanted to be,” she says.
Just as CCA isn’t right for every student, many teachers also are wrong for the school. Boy wants smart, hard workers who believe “any student can learn no matter where they come from.” He looks for TFA alumni, because he knows they’re willing to put in the long hours (four of the seven CCA teachers participated in the program), and he screens out candidates who distrust standardized testing and care about self-esteem more than academics. He asks every potential hire whether it’s better to be strict or caring. “The best answer is the most caring teachers are strict,” he says. He then asks candidates to teach a sample lesson in their subjects. “We know in the first two minutes of their lesson plan whether they’re a candidate for us,” Boy says.
What’s less important is a teaching license. Four of the seven teachers at CCA are nontraditional (not education school graduates, no state certification) who couldn’t get a full-time job in Columbus or other Ohio public school districts. “Statistics show that there is no link between teacher certification and student results,” Boy says. (CCA, however, requires teachers to work toward certification once they start at the school.)
Boy says attracting good teachers is what CCA does best. The starting pay of $38,000 to $40,000 matches Columbus City Schools (though CCA can’t keep up with the district’s subsequent wage increases), and the school was awarded in March a grant that provided some teachers with $3,000 bonuses (administrators received $8,000 payments). But intangibles are the real attraction. “We have a mission that truly dedicated teachers can buy into,” Boy says. “And once we find those people, and they buy into what we do, you’re able to have consistent classrooms. You’re able to have teachers all moving in the same direction.” When CCA laid off four instructors last year, one worked for free for the rest of the school year because she so believed in CCA’s mission, Boy says.
On a recent morning, Kinson stands in front of her sixth-grade math class. Good teaching is a mysterious thing. Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker article in 2008 identified “withitness”—a combination of anticipation, command and mastery—as the quality all good teachers share. Whatever you want to call it, Kinson’s got it. Without missing a beat, she improvises a math problem on the spot, excuses a child to the bathroom and looks over students’ shoulders, praising and correcting. She moves quickly through the material, but the 20 or so sixth-graders keep up.
The lesson focuses on fractions and percentages. Kinson poses a question and a student answers, “five twenty-fifths.” The answer is close, but Kinson urges him to think deeper. Every teacher at CCA goes through an innovative summer training program developed by Doug Lemov, the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story. Lemov’s program focuses on the mechanics of teaching (something education schools often ignore) and one of his techniques is “right is right”—don’t settle for the almost right answer. The boy pauses for a few seconds and then the “aha” moment comes: He forgot to simplify his fraction. “One fifth,” he says proudly.
Dave Ghose is an associate editor at Columbus Monthly.