We hear a lot about failing and persistently low achieving public schools in Louisville. But schools like this exist across the state and across the country.
Author Ron Berler spent a year inside Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk, Connecticut. He tells his story in his new book “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside one of America’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools.”
As part of The Next Louisville education project WFPL’s Devin Katayama spoke with Berler.
How did you get access to the school?
I mentor kids at that school and so through my mentoring I got to know the principal and the teachers quite well and the principal is a risk taker. And he was eager, almost, to find out what an outsider saw of his school…..I was lucky that I had access to Brookside. In return for unlimited access my access, my offer to Mr. Hay the principal was, I will serve as a voluntary teacher’s aid which I did.
What did you see that was special to Brookside Elementary School?
He [Mr. Hay] changed the culture. He came into a fractured school that did not believe that its kids were capable of learning. His very first day at school as a principal he addressed the faculty and said, look, too long expectations for our students have been too low. If you set the bar low kids will achieve that bar and not go any further. If you set it high they will reach farther than you imagine. And not only will the top students excel, but the lower students will increase their scores, their ability as well. And when one teacher objected to that and said I don’t think our kids can handle that, he said I’m not going to stand for that. And he didn’t.
In the book you write about teachers teaching to the state’s standardized test. What does that look like?
It was like two different schools. From the start of school at the last week of August until Christmas break it was like any school you could imagine. They have their texts and they did their special projects. And then they get to January 2, they come back from the break, and for the next nine weeks–for 22 percent of the school year from January 2 until the beginning of March–the school dumped its regular curriculum. They put aside their text books, they put aside their reading materials, they put aside their math stuff and they studied from study guides that were aligned to the standardized test. And so instead of a broad based liberal arts education they spent 22 percent of the school year prepping for a very narrowly standardized test.
What did you learn?
So much criticism is heaped on teachers. And I saw good teachers, great teachers and bad. Most of them were mediocre. It’s a nice thought that every kid should have the greatest teacher in the world, but that’s not the real world. A school is not unlike any other company. You’re going to have a bell curve of talent. But the thing is at Brookside I never saw one teacher, ever, quit on a kid.