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In both our role as researchers and as a charter school authorizer we have come to appreciate over and over again the critical importance of school leaders in making schools great. In our “Needles in a Haystack: Lessons from Ohio’s high-performing, high-need urban schools” report from 2010 we identified school leaders as one of the keys to these schools’ success. More recently, Public Agenda studied nine high-performing, high-need, schools in Ohio and they reported at the successful schools “principals lead with a strong and clear vision . . . and never lose sight” of their goals. What’s more, “these principals earn trust and respect by engaging and supporting their staff in building the structures, practices and confidence necessary to fulfill this vision.”
School leaders drive success for their buildings, and in the schools we authorize (currently 11 buildings serving about 2,700 students) the school leaders are pivotal in leading school success and improvement efforts. There is no harder job than running a successful school building for high-poverty students. Yet, there are school leaders across the state and the nation who do it day-in and day-out, and too few get recognized for their great work. We are fortunate that some of these leaders work in schools that Fordham sponsors and it is our privilege to tell a little bit of their stories and the impact they are having on students in Ohio.
We enlisted Ellen Belcher, veteran journalist and former Dayton Daily News editorial page editor, to tell the stories of nine individual school leaders over the next nine to ten months. Ellen knows education, schools and leadership and we couldn’t think of anyone better to interview these dedicated educators and highlight their work. We also can’t say thank you enough to the school leaders for their generosity of time in speaking with Ellen, in correcting facts and details along the way, and in being frank about their work, their challenges and their successes.
We start this series with veteran educator Dr. Glenda Brown. Dr. Brown runs the Phoenix Community Learning Center in Cincinnati. The K-8 school of 380 students has met every single academic target in their contract with Fordham since 2010, while serving a student body that is 94 percent economically disadvantaged. In 2012 Phoenix earned an Excellent rating from the state of Ohio (one of only 29 charters statewide with this top rating). We hope you find this series interesting as well as the people profiled. Terry Ryan, Editor, Ohio Gadfly
Glenda Brown has spent most of her career teaching in public schools, first in Ohio, then in Texas and back in Ohio again. Disappointed that minority children where she worked and nationally were performing so poorly on achievement tests, in 2001, she started her own school.
Eleven years later, Phoenix Community Learning Center is one of Cincinnati’s highest-performing charter schools. Brown, who was born in Bessemer, Alabama, said the school focuses on teaching higher-level thinking and treating even children who come to school behind as if they’re gifted.
The 62-year-old has taught middle-school special education classes, students with severe behavior problems and early elementary grades.
Her K-8 school has 380 students this year, though enrollment has been as high as 410.
Brown, who grew up with 11 siblings, said historically poor children have been treated as if they’re inferior – and that teachers too often believe that.
She said that while curriculum is important, it’s a teacher’s relationship with her students that matters most.
“I began to look at the difference between tolerance and acceptance,” she said. Too often teachers “cross their arms and say, ‘I’m done with you.’ ” Instead, they should be saying, “I’m going to look for another way to help you when you don’t live up to expectations.”
The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Dr. Brown.
Q: Why did you start a charter school? Were you unhappy teaching in Cincinnati Public Schools?
A: It wasn’t necessarily Cincinnati Public. It was everything. Our children in urban areas are not thriving. The achievement gaps are getting larger. I said, “Let’s try something different. Let’s not teach down to them. Let’s teach them as if they’re gifted.” In a charter school, we could attract people who wanted to close the gaps and who believe that children are smart. I also wanted to start a community (aka charter) school because I believe in no excuses. If parents aren’t making a child do his homework, we can do things here at school for him. We can say before school starts, “Sit here, baby, and start your homework.”
Q: What were you wrong about?
A: I thought I could save everyone. I thought it would be a lot easier than it has been. I thought people would want to teach in a charter school and that people would come running. I was wrong. It’s hard to change that old paradigm of kid-blaming and parent-blaming.
Q: Is Phoenix growing?
A: Our parents are requesting that we start a high school. We have two people looking at opening one within two years. It probably will be a start-up, not connected to Phoenix. The children are even asking, “When are we going to have a high school?”
Q: How many students do you lose each year? Why do they leave?
A: We lose a little less than a third. Families move a lot. And sometimes people listen to their children when they say, “I don’t want to go there anymore. There are too many restrictions.” I tell the parent, “I think you’re making a mistake. We’ll see you when you come back.” And some do come back. Last year a lot of children moved out of state or to other cities. People were following work, or they were out of work and had to leave to live with relatives. Some people leave because they just don’t like me. We don’t get a lot of that. But I have to humble myself.
Q: How do you recruit students?
A: Word of mouth is the most powerful way. I do run media campaigns with TV and radio commercials. We also blitz the community with posters, flyers and yard signs. It is very competitive. Ten years ago, traditional public schools didn’t feel there was going to be a lot of competition. Now everyone is out there competing with each other. We talked about this day coming – with parents shopping around and schools being run more like businesses. Well, that day is here. Parents are very savvy. They go to the Ohio Department of Education web site, they go to greatschools.org. That’s how our parents pick schools. We do have some parents who believe that the school knows best, and they say, “Here is my child” and then walk away. But we always interview them to find out if the parent wants to choose us. There are expectations for parents, and sometimes we have to have conversations about whether the parent really wants what we offer.
Q: Phoenix has gone up a letter grade on the state report card in each of the last three years. How did that happen?
A: Professional development. We meet every morning from 8 until 9. We don’t talk about what teachers are doing; rather, we talk about what children are learning. Data came into the picture, and, based on it, we decide what we do next. We also meet from 8 until 4 on one Saturday a month. Teachers are getting smart in the way they need to be smart – to prepare children for jobs that do not even exist yet. We also applied for a Race to the Top grant. We got around $200,000 to be used over four years. We’ve spent it on instructional leadership, materials, assessment pieces, professional conferences and small stipends for teachers for their additional work. We also hooked up with the International Center for Leadership in Education. If I had to sum it up, the explanation is data and accountability. Before, we were doing a lot of good things, but they weren’t being data-driven.
Q: What’s your succession plan?
A: I’ve thought a lot about that. I work with the University of Cincinnati in its educational leadership master’s degree program. When I see teachers on staff who show promise, I encourage them to go through that program. I have three people finishing up in a doctoral program. Any of those people could step in. When I retire, the question will be who steps up, not is there anyone. I can think of five people in this building who could do it.
Q: What’s been your relationship with Cincinnati Public Schools?
A: Charter schools were started to create a lab. We were supposed to share information, and it was to be a partnership. Things got politicized, and unions challenged whether charter schools should exist. The intent got lost. Over the years, we have mellowed. I see the trend as working together more. There’s only one set of kids. That should be the only thing we’re concerned about.
Q: What’s your favorite question to ask teaching applicants?
A: Our student body is 100 percent African- American. More than 90 percent of applicants are Caucasian. So sometimes I’ll ask them if they think they’ll need special training to teach African-American children. Most of time they will say no, that children are children. That leaves me with a lot of hope. When they say, yes, I will need lots of training, that sends up a red flag. I usually don’t hire those people, but I will ask a follow-up question to make sure they’re not just giving me the answer that they think I want. I always ask a question around classroom management. I follow up that with a scenario and tell them to talk to me about how they would handle it.
Q: What was your worst moment at Phoenix?
A: It was right at the beginning. We were having an informational meeting with parents. They were asking how things were going. We told them how we had been teaching the children the school song and the school creed. They said, “Yeah, they’re learning all that stuff, but what about learning how to come in and sit down and do what they’re supposed to do?” I didn’t know what to tell them. I knew they were telling the truth about the need for discipline. That year people were pulling their kids out of Cincinnati Public Schools like mad. We had gotten a lot of kids who had behavioral issues. The parents were tired of their kids being suspended, so they brought them here. I didn’t know enough at that time to translate what they were learning. I just knew that the parents were right and that the kids were out of order. We did a get a handle on things. That summer we listed all the behaviors we didn’t want to see the next year. We said we didn’t want children throwing pencils, so we’re not going to have pencils. We took them back when the students finished writing. We said we didn’t want paper airplanes zooming through the air, so we decided to use journals. When the parents asked that question, I had nothing much to say. I should have verbalized what we were doing and said that it was going to take time. That haunted me for a long time.
Q: How would Phoenix students describe your school?
A: Until this year, they’d say, “It’s that good school.” When we started in 2001, some eighth-graders were talking to other kids in their neighborhood about where they went to school and the kids said, “Oh, that good school.” They told us that story. And since then, we’ve called ourselves, “That good school.” After we got our new report card, the kids have changed “good” to “excellent.” They will tell you that we’re achievers, that we’re excellent.