A Promise to Renew

Hidden successes, public shortfalls and a make-or-break year for one Newark school

NEWARK, N.J. –– Erskine Glover was home recovering from hip replacement surgery last summer when the scores arrived.

The principal of Quitman Street Renew School knew based on internal assessments that more than 80 percent of his students had shown growth during the 2012-2013 academic year. But he also knew that most were still not performing at grade level, and the state’s standardized tests are grade-level exams. And so he was hoping for the best but bracing for bad news.

Still, when the pass rates landed in Glover’s email box, he felt like he’d been punched in the gut. Fourth-grade reading: 9 percent of students proficient. Fourth-grade math: 17 percent. Not all numbers were that low, but the best performance, in eighth-grade English, was 50 percent proficiency. Most grades and subjects saw declines, and overall, fewer than a quarter of students scored at or above grade level, placing Quitman in the bottom 2 percent of schools statewide.

Principal Erskine Glover, chatting with student Zyion Bethea, is a father figure to many of the 600 children at Quitman. He wears sneakers with his suits as he is recovering from having his left hip replaced and awaiting surgery on the right side. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

“It looks like we’re not even doing anything,” Glover said. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He and numerous staff members have been putting in tremendous hours, in some cases –– his included –– at the expense of their own health.

He wondered if he should step aside and allow someone else the chance to turn around one of Newark’s historically low-performing schools, which serves an impoverished population of 600 children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. It took a serious pep talk from his boss, Assistant Superintendent Peter Turnamian, to persuade him to stay the course. If anyone could be the right fit for Quitman, it should be Glover, 44, a highly educated and painfully sincere African-American leader in a predominantly African-American school. He commands widespread respect from colleagues and parents, and many students look to him –– the father of two teenagers –– as a paternal figure.

Related: A Newark school leader’s urgency to renew

Although Glover has been principal of Quitman since 2010, it had only been a year since the start of Newark’s “renew school” reform initiative, giving him and seven other principals hiring power and increased resources and budgetary discretion. Superintendent Cami Anderson said from the beginning she knew the payoff wouldn’t come overnight, and she would wait a few years before passing judgment on the principals’ success or failure. They were, after all, trying to reverse decades of inadequacies.

What’s more, several factors beyond Glover’s control influenced the outcome of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) at Quitman. For one thing, the tests themselves were harder as the state began phasing in the tough national Common Core education standards. For another, Quitman’s student population is rapidly changing: There was an influx of children with special needs when their school closed last academic year, and meanwhile some of the highest-performing students are being recruited away by well-regarded charter schools. And much of Quitman’s best progress has occurred in the early grades that don’t take the state tests. (NJ ASK assesses third grade through eighth.)

So Glover decided to keep trying, buoyed by the belief that vastly different results can come from the same children depending on the actions of adults. Yet again he resolved to prove to the world that he is not a failure, and his students are just as capable as children anywhere.

Today, six months later, several new initiatives are in place at Quitman. All classes now have a half hour a day of “sustained reading” –– with students quietly reading a passage and answering analytical questions –– to prepare for the next round of state exams this spring. The school day is now 7.5 hours long, compared with a national average of 6.5. A hundred students have been asked to stay for an additional hour and a half of daily tutoring, and about 80 of them typically do. The most advanced middle school students now have their own honors classes.

Glover is spending more than $80,000 for a consultant from the company that makes Quitman’s new math curriculum to work on site with his teachers. It is a lot of money, he knows, but the district required schools to adopt new textbooks last fall, and Glover felt his team needed considerable support to instruct the material effectively. He said the investment is already paying dividends in the quality of teaching he observes.

“We’re counting on these things to launch us to another level,” said Evelyn Vargas, the vice principal.

Quitman was one of four Newark schools recently selected by the district to try what’s known as “blended learning” in third through fifth grades, some of the classes with the lowest test scores. The schools were chosen based on academic need, coupled with officials’ belief in their technological capacity and leadership ability to roll out yet another new initiative smoothly.

Quitman Principal Erskine Glover watches student Jordan Brown-Wright work on her spelling. He spends much of his day visiting classrooms, where the hard work of students and teachers inspires him to keep going despite the school’s shortcomings. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

In February, Quitman’s third- through fifth-grade classes began dividing into small, rotating groups: one at any given time working with the teacher, one doing a group activity or project, and one online working on assignments individualized to address a child’s specific deficiencies. Glover had invested $75,000 getting his teachers trained and buying the necessary laptops and digital content.

Related: Perseverance at a Newark school following midyear teacher turnover

Blended learning is one of the most rapidly growing trends in education because it gives teachers the ability to simultaneously meet the needs of various ability levels. Glover does not yet know whether it will help turn the tide for the school, but in his heart he knows this:

It is Quitman’s make-or-break year.

Not only is the principal self-imposing a deadline to show results or seriously reconsider his path ahead, he wants to avoid the possibility of Quitman being placed on a school closure list next year. For both those reasons, significant improvement on NJ ASK is essential. Thanks to the extraordinary performance of a handful of teachers and the hard work of numerous others, Glover believes it is possible.

Yet the challenge to get scores up grows steeper still, as Quitman’s student population continues to grow even needier. This year, the school received 60 new students from two charter schools closed for poor performance. Most arrived far behind academically. Six students from a school for children with behavioral disabilities that was also shut down were sent to Quitman as well. Staff members throughout the building are identifying more students with untreated mental health issues.

Glover now needs his other hip, the right one, replaced, and his doctor wants him to do it soon. (He has avascular necrosis, a disease that restricts blood flow.) But with so much at stake for Quitman, he will not consider a surgery date before the end of June.

A New Teaching Strategy

Seeing the promise in Quitman’s NJ ASK scores requires a look behind the raw numbers. The best performance came in eighth-grade English, where the pass rate was 50 percent. That might not sound like much, but consider that, in 2012 as seventh graders, only 4 percent of those same students passed the state English exam.

To Glover, the improvement is proof of the power of excellent teaching. The eighth-grade English teacher is Christina Patterson-Bright, a longtime veteran of the school known for motivating instruction and a deep commitment to the students. Last year, she worked closely with Rosemary Coyle, one of Glover’s new recruits, who emphasized literacy skills in her social studies classes. Patterson-Bright and Coyle pushed the students to persevere when their math and science teachers quit midyear. Though half achieved grade-level proficiency in English, the pass rate in math was a mere 11 percent –– demonstrating the difference that teachers can make.

This year, Patterson-Bright remains at Quitman. Coyle reluctantly left in December to do a mandatory three-semester internship for a graduate program; though she hopes to return in the fall of 2015, her classes are now staffed by a long-term substitute. Seventh- and eighth-grade math are still taught by a teacher who isn’t certified in the subject, but Glover said he is dedicated and working hard, seeking guidance from the math consultant. To Glover, that is preferable to what he had before: a fully credentialed teacher who did not want to be there.

Related: Special education expansion brings challenges, hope to Newark school

In his mind, last year’s midyear departures of all four sixth- through eighth-grade math and science teachers was no excuse for the middle grades’ poor performance on the state math test, but at least it offered an explanation for what were in some cases dramatic declines. Sixth graders saw their math pass rate fall to 32 percent from 57 the year before. In seventh grade, the drop was even worse: to 4 percent proficient from 45 percent a year earlier.

Quitman fourth-grade teacher Dawn DiGiovanni works with Damir Ingram on a math problem. A second-year teacher, DiGiovanni says she’s able to meet the needs of more students this year thanks to a new “blended learning” program allowing her to work with small groups as children rotate to different activities around the room. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

While the teachers who quit all had their own reasons for leaving, they generally were overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the demands of their jobs, despite the fact that three of them convinced Glover otherwise when he hired them the previous summer. One was a teacher the district had required him to keep on.

More perplexing were the results for third through fifth grades, where there wasn’t anything visibly wrong but something clearly was not right. In fifth grade, for instance, only 5 percent of students passed the reading test, down from 18 percent when they were fourth graders the year before.

Glover sensed teacher motivation lacking in some cases; in others, he said, teachers were trying hard but struggling to be effective. He hopes that blended learning will infuse new energy into those classrooms, resulting in better performance.

Dawn DiGiovanni, who teaches fourth-grade math and science, estimates that about 50 percent of her students are below grade level, 20 percent perform above average, and everyone else is somewhere in between. Last school year, her first at Quitman and in a full-time teaching position, she said she did not have the capacity to meet the wide array of needs in her classes.

This year, DiGiovanni has undergone extensive training and planning in preparation for blended learning. Even before the new initiative began, she had started dividing students into small groups and having them rotate around the room with activities better suited to their individual strengths and weaknesses.

On a recent Tuesday, DiGiovanni began the morning math period with a quick lesson on fractions with the number 1 in the numerator. She then gave the 15 children in the room a few questions to test basic understanding. (Kevin and Olivia are going to share a pizza cut into six slices) She walked around to check their work, distributing painted popsicle sticks accordingly: Kids with all correct answers got purple, those with one wrong answer got green, and those with multiple wrong answers got red, although they were not told the reason for their placement in a particular group.

For the next 45 minutes, the children moved in 15-minute intervals. The red group began with DiGiovanni reviewing the basics with fraction puzzle pieces to show, for instance, how eight-tenths is equal to eight one-tenth pieces. The green group worked independently on drills at the Hewlett-Packard laptops along the right side of the room. The purple group played a game in pairs, adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators. When the red and green groups later had their turns for the game, they got easier problems where the denominators were all the same.

DiGiovanni said the new approach to teaching is particularly helpful to struggling students. Some of the top performers said they also are learning more as they are no longer being held back by classmates in need of remediation.

“The math is very, very great,” said Arshad Mallard, 10, a purple group member wearing a royal blue New York Giants T-shirt in lieu of Quitman’s uniform royal blue polo. He said he discovered that his textbook “has a lot of over-my-level things inside of it,” and now he’s getting to try them out.

And DiGiovanni, who said she felt overwhelmed at times last year and sought much guidance from experienced colleagues, can see herself becoming a more effective teacher. “I’m definitely meeting the needs of more children,” she said.

Southern Inspiration

Glover is particularly excited about what’s happening in the fifth-grade math and science classes of Jessica Allen, a teacher he hired in September. Allen, a 12-year teaching veteran, had just moved to New Jersey from Virginia because of her husband’s job. She chose to work in Newark despite living nearly an hour and a half away, near the Pennsylvania border, because she loves teaching urban youth, and she chose a position at Quitman over one at a charter school.

Jessica Allen, who began teaching at Quitman last fall after moving from Virginia, has distinguished herself with long hours, fun activities and a determination to raise her fifth-grade students’ test scores. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

Coming in for a tour and interview, she had not expected a school labeled failing to look so inviting and engaging, and the students she met seemed genuinely happy to be there. “I walked in here, and I was just amazed,” she said. “I was amazed by the colors on the walls, the bulletin boards. I just fell in love with it.”

Allen said she wanted to cry when she saw her students’ dismal NJ ASK scores from last year as fourth graders. In the months since, she has been working hours comparable to or even longer than Glover’s, leaving home at 4:30 each morning so she can be the first person in the building when it opens at 6:30 a.m. She stays until 7 or 8 p.m. despite having two children of her own, a daughter in sixth grade and a son in seventh.

At the beginning, middle and end of each academic year, Newark administers a test to gauge schools’ progress and compare their performance to one another. In the fall, none of Allen’s students passed the math portion. In January, her classes had the highest fifth-grade scores in the city. The scores don’t count toward Quitman’s state rankings like NJ ASK results do, but at a minimum, they serve as inspiration.

“All we had to do was try harder, and we did it,” said 10-year-old Jahson Allen (no relation to his teacher). He is one of many fifth graders who come in early and stay late for tutoring when Jessica Allen asks them to. “She motivates us to not give up,” Jahson said. “She helps us to do our work very good.”

Some of Allen’s teaching strategies are practical ones for test preparation. She is constantly drilling students on the concepts they have learned throughout the year so they do not forget. But while many urban educators are criticized for taking the fun out of learning to get their students to score better on state exams, Allen stands out for the opposite reason. Her third-floor classroom is part garden and part zoo, with students growing corn, basil and peas, to name a few, and raising snails, turtles, beetles and frogs. The guppy fish are having babies. Students are preparing for a squid dissection, and Allen will bring in her deep fryer so they can make calamari.

Quitman fifth grader Kalifa Swaray demonstrates to classmates how to do a problem using fractions during Jessica Allen’s math class. Allen often gives students the opportunity to assume leadership roles with their peers. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

She fits in more than most teachers imagine possible by being a stickler for time management, looking to save a few seconds anywhere she can. In a Southern drawl that is the source of much laughter in her classroom, Allen often speaks to her “munchkins,” as she calls her students, in fill-in-the-blank sentences (“So my answer is actually…”), awaiting their rapid reply. That’s faster and more effective than asking a question, waiting for students to raise their hands and calling on a single one, and it requires everyone to pay attention.

She designates a well-behaved child –– on Feb. 18, a boy named Phillip –– as the student teacher, with authority to judiciously dispense bathroom passes so she doesn’t have to waste class time on matters so mundane. When students work independently and in small groups, she gives them extra worksheets on concepts learned previously so that, if they don’t understand something and she’s occupied with their peers, no one sits around waiting. “If you cannot do it on your own, there’s another activity you can be successful at,” she tells them. There are also “table captains” selected weekly who meet with Allen to learn how to explain assignments to their classmates.

Asked how much of her own money she spends on classroom supplies, Allen replied with a giggle. “Don’t tell my husband,” she said. “I do spend a ton.”

If Quitman’s 43 fifth-grade students (Allen sees them in two groups a day) were to take NJ ASK today, the school’s internal testing indicates that 16 of them would pass. But another nine are on the cusp, and others are not far behind. Allen’s goal –– she’s reluctant to say it out loud –– is an 80 percent pass rate, up from 17 percent for the same class last year.

“I want 80 percent of my children to walk out of this classroom being successful and ready to go to sixth grade,” she said. “I want them to walk into the room with confidence knowing that, when they sit down with that sixth-grade teacher, they will know every previous skill they needed up until now. I don’t want them to go to another grade and feel upset. I don’t want them to feel discouraged, and I don’t want them to feel that they hate math. I don’t want them to get back to that point.”

Behind the Numbers

Great teachers are one critical ingredient for a school turnaround. Involved parents are another.

In math class with Dawn DiGiovanni at Quitman, fourth graders Lyana Gonzalez, Crystal Serrano and Ijanae Poulson work together on a fraction game. Some students receive a harder version of the game than others, depending on their understanding. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

Parents passing through Quitman’s main office are encouraged to pick up a four-page packet sitting on the counter. It is called “School Snapshot for Families,” and in no uncertain terms it describes the challenges facing Quitman –– and asks for families’ help. One heading asks, “Are Students Coming To School?” and pie charts answer the question: Last academic year, 29 percent missed more than two days per month, and 34 percent missed one to two days monthly. “Attendance is critical for school success,” the packet says. “Be sure to get your children to school every day on time.”

Turn the page, and the topic is NJ ASK. The question is how many students performed at grade level last spring, and the answers are grim.

Reading grades three through five: 14 percent, compared with 38 percent citywide. Math in those grades: 29 percent at Quitman versus 53 in all of Newark.

Reading grades six through eight: 23 percent, compared with 46 percent citywide. Math: 14 percent for Quitman, 47 percent for Newark.

The packet does not include the good news: On another test, one administered internally to gauge progress from the fall to the spring, more than 80 percent of students met computer-generated growth targets for the year, even though most still fell short of grade-level proficiency. (That test predicted with almost complete accuracy last spring which students would pass the NJ ASK and which ones would not.) And in kindergarten, 62 percent of children ended the year on or above grade level in math, compared with 30 percent the prior September.

Herein lies the conundrum for educators in low-performing schools across the nation: If a student arrives in fifth grade reading like a first grader and makes three years’ worth of growth, he still will not pass a grade-level state test despite major progress and clearly effective teaching.

Yet grade-level test results are the ones the public understands and were for years what policymakers used to make high-stakes decisions for schools. The system has been evolving, and New Jersey is now evaluating schools and teachers based on students’ growth compared against their peers across the state. Superintendent Anderson, too, says she cares more about growth than overall proficiency numbers. But Glover is keenly aware of how the public perceives his students, and sometimes those perceptions hurt.

At a recent citywide school enrollment fair, Glover found a fact sheet about Quitman stating that the school has a low-performing early childhood education program –– a conclusion based entirely on the NJ ASK scores of older students. In fact, three of Quitman’s teachers in the early grades have been deemed model instructors by the district, meaning that their colleagues from around the city periodically come observe them at work.

Jessica Allen coached her fifth-grade math students to the highest scores in Newark on a test administered citywide in January. Although the results do not count toward Quitman’s state ranking, they serve as inspiration for the school. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

Glover has been worried about staff morale, and before the winter holidays, he and his administrative team personally paid for a teacher celebration. “This job is hard,” he said.

Throughout the fall and winter, Glover and his staff hosted three parent nights to inform families about the school’s performance and solicit their help in improving. About 50 parents in total came, generally those who are the most involved anyway, and vowed to do their part. Glover tries to slip some of the same messaging into other events like student award assemblies that tend to attract bigger crowds.

Under Newark Public Schools’ current reform strategy, Quitman faces competition from an increasing number of charter schools looking to enroll the same students. Kids who perform well and have involved families are most likely to be recruited away by high-performing charters. Twenty-one students with proficient scores on the NJ ASK transferred out of Quitman last fall, primarily to high-performing charter schools that recruited them away. One couple told Quitman administrators they saw the chance to attend a charter school as an invaluable opportunity for their older son, but they keep their younger boy in second grade at Quitman.

Last year, Doris Slaughter was approached by two charter schools interested in having her enroll her grandson D’Andre Stevenson, now 11. She discussed the options with the child, who is on Quitman’s honor roll and student council, and together they decided to stay put. D’Andre, a sixth grader, has attended Quitman since pre-kindergarten, and he is comfortable there. Besides, “I don’t think the charter school is that much better,” said Slaughter, who attends virtually all of Quitman’s family meetings and events. “Since he’s doing so great, why mess with it?”

Slaughter said the fact that D’Andre is excelling academically and socially at Quitman is far more important to her than the school’s average test scores. And she said Glover has made great strides in improving the school culture, if not NJ ASK proficiency rates. “He turned it completely around,” she said.

The environment at Quitman is such that, when a student ran away from home last fall, he continued reporting to school every day for more than a week. Glover was eventually notified that the boy was missing and pointed his family to his classroom.

Irony and Determination

Glover’s challenge is to keep a positive culture and raise test scores while Quitman’s student population keeps getting bigger and needier. He is anticipating yet another influx of students next academic year as another of the original renew schools, Newton Street, is expected to close this spring. (Officials say they plan to turn the Newton building into a community center, a decision that has heightened anxiety at Quitman as staff members wonder if their grace period, too, might be running out.)

Then there is the matter of Glover’s health, as well as the health of his staff. The number of physical ailments in the building has become a running joke. The vice principal needs foot surgery, which she is waiting to have until the spring. The sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher and a special education teacher are both out on medical leave. The data coach is hobbling around with torn ligaments in her knee. “Quitman is falling apart,” Glover said, only half-kidding. “I work them so hard.”

Them and himself. Glover returned to Quitman in mid-September after having his left hip replaced in late July. He still regrets missing the August teacher training sessions and the first few weeks of school, apart from the first day, when he hobbled in despite doctor’s orders to stay home. He ripped his meniscus on his left knee during rehab and began having pain in his right hip. His doctor says he needs that one replaced now and should allow six to eight months for recovery. He’ll consent to surgery on June 30 and staying home most of the summer before going back to work.

That’s assuming at least half of Quitman students pass the NJ ASK this spring. Otherwise, he said, he needs to reassess what he is doing. Glover believes the school will meet a goal of 50 percent proficiency this year, and to get there he wants his staff to focus on good teaching, not test scores. But clearly the pressure is on.

Glover is aware of the bitter irony in his personal circumstances. If he wanted to be a rising star in urban education, all he would need to do is take an easier job leading a school with a more privileged population. Test scores would be higher and easier to move upward, and he would have time to finish his Columbia doctoral dissertation, which has been sitting untouched for the past few years. Then he would have his pick of positions in a central office or in higher education.

But if he leaves Quitman without turning scores around, then what? He still has a family to help support, and his son and daughter will soon be applying to college.

He tries not to think too much about that scenario, just as he tries to tune out the physical pain he’s in walking up and down the school’s three flights of stairs to spend the majority of his days visiting classrooms. “Why complain? It’s not going to change,” he said. “I can’t stop walking. That’s just the nature of what I do.” He wears sneakers beneath his suits, has a cane but usually doesn’t use it, and bends down whenever he sees a tissue or snack wrapper on the floor.

He prefers walking the halls to being in his office, where he never can keep up with all the emails and paperwork. He hates feeling like he’s in reactionary mode rather than being proactive. But so many little things demand his attention each day, whether signing off on a student report card being released to Child Protective Services or tracking down a contract for the math consultant.

On his daily rounds of the building, he finds plenty of cause for frustration but also many reasons for inspiration in the hard work of his staff and students. Seeing them, he reminds himself to keep going.

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Sara Neufeld

Sara Neufeld is a contributing editor. She was first assigned to the education beat in 2000 while interning at the San Jose Mercury News; her… See Archive