You've Heard About Schools That Haven't Improved -- Here's One That Did, and It Has Lessons for Us All

If you are looking for educators who have figured something out about how to improve schools, you could start by looking at Wade Carpenter Middle School.

The first thing to know about Wade Carpenter is that it is in Nogales, Arizona, one of the poorest cities in the country. This is the Nogales with the big fence along the Mexican border. I visited last spring, and I found that pictures had not prepared me for the fence's looming, efficient brutality. Not that the fence is impermeable. Drugs and guns -- at least in local lore -- are regularly catapulted over the fence. And, not long before I visited, a 16-year-old Mexican boy died when he was shot repeatedly by U.S. border guards through the fence's metal bars.

The second thing to know is that Wade Carpenter is the "poor" middle school in Nogales -- the other one being up in the hills and serving children of business people and professionals. Parents at Wade Carpenter are more likely to pack produce for shipment throughout the United States, and 92 percent of the students -- almost all of whom are Hispanic -- qualify for free and reduced-price meals, twice the rate in the state. The exceptions are students who are children of teachers and other staff members.

The third thing to know is that 10 years ago Wade Carpenter was, by all accounts, a mess.

Low-performing and with many discipline problems, it was known as a "gang" school -- definitely not a school where teachers would enroll their children. Prodded by the federal accountability system, the school district reorganized the school in 2003 by putting in place a new principal, Liza Montiel.

Montiel, who is herself a native of Nogales and an alumna of Wade Carpenter, had been principal at nearby Lincoln Elementary, where she had led a lot of improvement.

She arrived in October, after the school year had already begun, which is a difficult beginning for any principal. One of Montiel's first orders of business was to address the fact that very few students could meet state reading and math standards, a slightly fancy way of saying that they couldn't read or do math at anywhere near grade level.

Montiel recognized that not being able to read well or do math could doom her students to adulthoods of poverty and dependence, and she used one of the key levers available to principals: the master schedule. She reworked the school's schedule in the middle of the year so that students who were behind found themselves in extra reading and math classes in the second semester. This meant they weren't in the elective classes they had asked for, which upset both the students and their parents. "We had an eighth-grade walkout," Montiel said. "But it was important."

Montiel wasn't trying to keep kids from band; she wanted to make sure they could read. By making such a drastic change in the middle of the year, she made it clear to everyone in the school what the primary job of the school and kids was.

One issue she faced was that many middle school teachers don't really have expertise teaching reading -- they usually assume that kids can read by the time they get to middle school. So she brought in outside experts to help, and as teaching positions opened up she hired elementary teachers who better understood early reading instruction.

"It was really hard those first few years," Montiel said. One thing that helped her a lot, she said, was visiting other middle schools. She had lived in Texas for seven years where she had worked with "an amazing principal," and she went back to visit and consult with her.

Back at Wade Carpenter, "We changed everything," Montiel said. That included classrooms, which "were not child-friendly," eliminating the practice of using students as office aides, getting rid of Coke and candy machines and assigning students to homerooms where teachers were expected to get to know the kids. She made sure teachers had time to collaborate and begin aligning the curriculum to Arizona state standards. Until then, Montiel said, teachers had been "winging it" without ensuring that they were teaching the state standards. Teachers brought in the Saxon Math program to help kids develop number sense and procedural knowledge and carefully assessed students' reading, providing them with extra help when needed.

"I started showing students and teachers the data," Montiel said. Students who had been getting good grades were shocked to know how low their achievement actually was, but Montiel and her team emphasized that hard work could change that and that college was a real possibility for them.

Today, a majority of students are meeting state standards and Wade Carpenter is performing at levels that are more usual for middle-class schools in Arizona. To give just one data point, 80 percent of the eighth-graders met state reading standards in 2013, compared with 72 percent in the rest of the state.

When I visited, students bragged to me about what they were learning and told me how much they like their teachers. Teachers make them work, they said, but are always willing to help them. They also bragged that the teachers were beginning to implement Common Core State Standards; it was clear they were excited to become connected to academic standards that could help propel them into the larger world. This is something that I think often gets lost in conversations about schools: Kids love learning stuff, understand the need for high standards and develop deep bonds of affection with anyone who cares enough about them to teach them to high levels.

But there's something else as well, and I'll be writing about that next week. Stay tuned, because it's about having fun.