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METAIRIE, La. — When it was time for Kelly Ragas to choose a middle school for her son three years ago, John Q. Adams was certainly the most convenient option: She worked as its school secretary and already had a child there. But she had doubts. The school was rated a C by the state, and while Ragas was comfortable with its increasing diversity, she knew other longtime residents felt differently.

“Some people from years ago, they look at the school and say, ‘It’s so different now,’ ” said Ragas. Three-quarters of the school’s students are non-white and more than a dozen languages, including Arabic and Urdu, are spoken.

By the end of her son’s first year, the school’s rating had dropped even further, to a D. But then the Jefferson Parish district hired Jason Beber to take over as principal in fall 2018 with a mandate to get Adams back on a path to academic success.

“They knew I had been a turnaround guy,” said Beber, who had taken a school in a neighboring district from its lowest performing to one of its highest. “My vision was I want Adams to start with an A.”

Early signs were promising. In Beber’s first year, 2018-19, the school’s rating improved to a C, and teachers and staff reported that student behavior and teacher morale improved too. But the coronavirus pandemic has threatened that academic progress.

“I’m concerned because he’s making that transition to high school and it could be more than two months’ worth of work that he’s missing. Even if he does some at home, it’s still different than being in class every day. He might be a little behind.”

Kelly Ragas, school secretary and parent, John Q. Adams Middle School

Louisiana schools are closed through the end of the school year, if not longer. While districts elsewhere in the country have switched to online education, Jefferson Parish, where Adams is located, chose not to move its curriculum online amid concerns that many students lacked home internet access. The district has made printed instructional packets available at meal pickup locations for students who cannot get online, and teachers are free to provide digital-based lessons. But all of the work that teachers assign is optional: Students aren’t receiving grades.

At Adams, teachers and staff are doing what they can to stay connected with their students. The school’s Facebook page has become a popular resource, offering access to school counselors as well as a virtual talent show. Teachers have been reaching out to students over their own social media accounts. But, Beber acknowledges, for students who lack online access, these are not options.

“Some of [my teachers] have only been able to contact 10 to 15 of their students and they have 100-plus students,” Beber said. “Some of our kids are reaching out through their friends via cell phone or word of mouth, asking, ‘Can you get ahold of so-and-so? We don’t have Internet.’”

The issue goes beyond remote learning. “We have newcomer families from other countries who need outside services: housing, food, things like that,” said Beber. The school uses an automated translation tool to text families in multiple languages about food distribution centers and city-wide relief programs. Beber and his staff are also keeping a list of all the students teachers have not been able to reach.

Related: Parents of kids with disabilities worry quarantine will mean regression

John Q. Adams Principal Jason Beber speaks with students in an ESL class designed for students who’ve just arrived in the U.S. Immigrants make up a large share of the school’s student body. Credit: Photo: Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report

As recently as mid-February, Beber’s day-to-day concerns revolved around student engagement, teacher development and upcoming state evaluations. Adams is located in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood, but it draws many of its students from nearby communities with large immigrant and lower-income populations. One of the school’s greatest challenges, Beber said, is that many families work seasonal jobs in tourism and other industries, moving between the U.S. and their home countries multiple times a year. It’s common for a student to attend Adams for a few months, then return with their parents to Ecuador, for example, he said, only to reappear at Adams a few months later not having attended school in the interim.

On top of that, many students struggle with the stresses of poverty. Some 90 percent of students live in households that qualify for government assistance.

In spite of the challenges, Beber and his staff were confident that their students were better prepared than ever for state assessments. But the tests, scheduled for April, were cancelled because of the pandemic.

“Some of [my teachers] have only been able to contact 10 to 15 of their students and they have 100-plus students.”

Jason Beber, principal, John Q. Adams Middle School

“We’re actually upset about not taking the state tests this year,” he said. He and his staff were looking forward to showing another year of academic gains after a bump in reading and math scores in 2018. It would be further validation of a shift in both school culture and expectations that many say was long overdue.

“There were several of us who felt like we weren’t being pushed the way that we needed to be pushed, not the students, not the teachers,” said Danita Brown, an algebra teacher in her 14th year at Adams. “We weren’t performing at the level we knew we could.”

While bringing in a new principal may seem like an easy and obvious solution, research shows that the disruptions caused by changes in leadership can actually reduce student performance, at least in the short term.

At Adams, however, the turnaround has been swift. That’s not to say that there weren’t concerns at the beginning of Beber’s tenure.

Kimberly Joinelle helps a student in her sixth-grade math class. Teachers like Joinelle say the school’s new principal, Jason Beber, has valued their input. Credit: Photo: Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report

“The staff attitude was mixed,” said Joan Growl, who has been at Adams for the last nine years of her three-decade teaching career. “When a new principal arrives the first thing for the teachers is sort of an anxiety that [the principal] will assume that the teachers … haven’t been doing their job or doing what they needed to do.” Whatever new goals or strategies a principal wants to put into place, she said, should begin with listening to teachers and valuing their input. “Mr. Beber did do that,” she said.

Teachers said those efforts began before the school year started. In July, Beber began to schedule individual meetings with every adult in the building, from teachers to custodial staff. He recalls that in these meetings, he did very little of the talking.

“People gave me an earful, what they’d like to see change, who’s doing what, who’s not doing what,” he said. “They got to be heard. That was a big thing. I listened.”

This was an important step, agrees assistant principal Laura Leinhardt, who has worked at Adams under two previous principals. “That kind of one-on-one doesn’t always happen,” she said. But listening is one thing, getting teachers and staff on board with your plans is another.

“The best and quickest way of getting people to buy in is to show them some quick results,” said Leinhardt. “People had complained about student behavior. Well, with a noticeable shift in student behavior, that’s going to get some of those people who are naysayers to say, ‘Wait, he might know what he’s talking about.’”

“There’s less fighting and less conflicts. In classes, it’s just more relaxed.”

Savanna Williams, student, John Q. Adams Middle School

Some students said they can see the difference. “Compared to sixth grade, school safety has gotten better,” said Savannah Williams, an eighth grader whose mother teaches at the school. “There’s less fighting and less conflicts. In classes, it’s just more relaxed.”

Improving student behavior began with changing expectations of everything about Adams, Beber said, even the physical building. The district has a campus of the month award to celebrate clean and tidy facilities. Beber was dismayed to learn that Adams had never won. He found that school maintenance requests had been allowed to languish, without response.

“How hard can it be to get campus of the month?” he asked. He had the maintenance team clean up the schoolyard, removing graffiti and paint stains. In February 2019, the school won the honor.

Seventh grade algebra students at John Q. Adams Middle School. The coronavirus shutdown has put the school’s fragile academic gains at risk. Credit: Photo: Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report

Beber also opted for a more proactive approach to school discipline, seeking to identify kids who were struggling before they got into more trouble. One result was the Adams Man Club, which he initially created for male students who’d had at least three suspensions. “The idea was, we’re going to tell them how awesome they are,” Beber said. The group meets weekly so members can discuss issues they are having both inside and outside of school. They wear bow ties on Mondays to set an example for the rest of the school, and they’ve gone on college tours and recently led a school-wide canned food drive.

Beber said that in-school suspensions have dropped for club members and across the board. Some Man Club members are now on the honor roll. “We didn’t give them any extra tutoring,” he said. “We invested in culture, relationships.”

Related: Desperate parents need help as coronavirus upends their lives

Beber said he has seen the dividends of the improved school culture during the school closure. Teacher attendance in voluntary weekly Zoom meetings is 100 percent, he said. And some students are asking for and completing assignments, even though the work is optional. But there’s no denying the shutdown’s toll on kids and their families.

Ragas, the school secretary, said her son, Mario, now an eighth grader, isn’t motivated to do the optional schoolwork. She worries about what will happen to him next fall.

A sixth grader completes a math assignment at John Q. Adams Middle School. Many of the school’s students are transient and miss months of school. Credit: Photo: Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report

“I’m concerned because he’s making that transition to high school and it could be more than two months’ worth of work that he’s missing,” she said. “Even if he does some at home, it’s still different than being in class every day. He might be a little behind.”

For students and families the school has yet to make contact with, the situation could be even more dire. “We’re losing time with our most vulnerable kids,” Beber said. “That’s the harsh reality.”

Despite the challenges of getting kids back on track when they return to school, Beber sees some reasons for hope.

“I think Adams will be a little better prepared because we’re always filling gaps. We have kids who leave and then weeks or months later, they’re back with us,” he said, referring to the school’s transient students. “My teachers have done a good job of saying, ‘They’re back, let’s pick up where we left off … let’s make a plan, so that we can give them the best education possible.’

It’s what we do.”

This story on school turnaround during a pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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Amadou Diallo is a journalist, playwright and photographer whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wirecutter, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera America and The Christian Science Monitor. He has been...

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