George Hall Elementary School -- A Title I Distinguished School Still Figuring Things Out

We have gotten used to hearing bad news about schools -- particularly schools that serve children from low-income families. And yet there is good news out there. Some educators really have figured out how to educate all kids to high levels.

I was reminded of this recently when I attended a ceremony at the National Title I Conference in Houston that honored dozens of Title I schools for their work in raising achievement and closing gaps. Title I is one of the key components of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (just reauthorized as Every Student Succeeds Act), through which federal money flows to schools and districts with large percentages of students from low-income families. Title I is meant to ensure that poor children have the same educational opportunities as middle-class children, though it hasn't always worked out that way.

But the National Title I Distinguished Schools honored at the conference are a reminder that some educators have been able to put together pieces of the puzzle.

I was delighted to see that one of the schools honored was George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama.

Back in 2009 George Hall was awarded Ed Trust's Dispelling the Myth Award, and I have been privileged to see first-hand the work that the educators at George Hall have done over the years.

The first time I went to George Hall Elementary the school was having a "literacy fair" that would be the envy of any school.

Through most of the school's corridors, teachers had run a timeline of American history from the 1600s to the 2000s. On the right side of the corridor were murals, pictures, and artifacts illustrating the events that were described in essays on the left side of the corridor. Colonial settlements, Paul Revere, the Gettysburg Address, and the moon landing were among the topics addressed by the students. In the hallway, students performed plays and acted out characters.

All in all, it was an impressive display of elementary school learning.

The school kept the literacy fairs going for a few more years after the award, but budget cuts that eliminated the job of writing coach were part of putting the fairs on hold.

In addition, Terri Tomlinson, the principal who had led the school from being one of the lowest performing schools in the state to one of the top-performing schools in the state, retired recently.

Whenever a school changes leadership there is a worry that the school will fall apart. Happily, Tomlinson's writing coach and Title I director, Melissa Mitchell, was appointed as principal. Mitchell had been the leader of the literacy fairs and had been an integral part of what she calls "The Transformation."

The fact that the school was named a National Title I Distinguished School recognized the stability and excellence Mitchell has brought to the school, even as it has undergone changes that could knock any school off its footing.

For example, Alabama adopted a new assessment, ACT Aspire, which is billed as being aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Like the rest of Alabama, George Hall's proficiency rates aren't as high as they were under the old tests, known as Alabama Reading and Math (ARMT). "I always tell people that scores are not worse than they were before, they are different," Mitchell says. "Different because the old test measured proficiency on standards taught, and the new one measures readiness for a test that they will take years from now," meaning the ACT, which is used by colleges in their admissions process.

The new test, she adds, "focuses on the process of getting to an answer more than just identifying an answer choice. That process is why instruction has to be more student-centered and rigorous. I believe that most of the Alabama public is unaware of how the ARMT and ACT Aspire differ. But we are going to work diligently to grow each year on this new test!"

George Hall Elementary has also undergone a huge change in its student body. For a long time it served a rather stable neighborhood in Mobile known as Maysville, and most of its students lived in one of two federal housing projects nearby. Mobile redrew school attendance lines, which means many of its students have moved to other schools. George Hall has had an influx of new students -- students who didn't start with them from the beginning.

Mitchell said just doing what they have done the past few years isn't enough -- they have to figure out new things to do.

All of which goes to show that schools are not perpetual motion machines where if we can just "fix" them they will stay fixed. Every year -- sometimes every day -- presents new challenges.

I am hoping to report more about what George Hall is doing to meet those challenges later this spring, but for now, congratulations to George Hall Elementary and all the other schools for being recognized as National Title I Distinguished Schools.