Saving the Birmingham City Schools remains a work in progress. Yet while the state department of education continues efforts to bring the system’s finances and operations in line, there is evidence that local administrators are fighting to right their ships, at least at some schools.
A case in point: Bush Middle School, which had to begin the school year with the distressing news that it had not met its adequate yearly progress goals, has now fixed that thanks to the efforts of Principal Emeka Nzeocha and his staff.
The school had not been far off the mark. “They had met all academic goals,” said Michaelle Chapman, communications director for the school system. “The school had failed to make AYP because it had not met the goal of having 95 percent of its special education students participate in testing.”
Nzeocha recalled the moment when he got the news, in July, that his school had missed AYP. “My heart just sank,” he said. “I was literally sick. I was physically sick. I felt like we had worked so hard, the students had worked so hard and the parents had been so supportive…it was truly disheartening.”
Correcting that problem, however, turned out to be relatively easy. Nzeocha realized that the state was counting a student who had moved out of state just before the testing began, so on paper it appeared that one student had failed to take the test. The principal appealed that, providing irrefutable proof that the student had moved to another state, and the state ruled that Bush had now hit the 95 percent mark.
But to understand why Nzeocha was so disturbed by almost failing to meet AYP, you need to know how hard he and his entire staff had worked to improve. For the year 2011, Bush Middle had failed to meet goals for special education in reading and math. Even before the single student moved away, school teachers and administrators had to bring the special education students up to acceptable standards in those two academic areas.
Nzeocha had not presided over Bush Middle for long before having to tackle that issue. He had been appointed to the principal’s job just last summer – right before the school year began. He was determined to bring Bush up to AYP. His strategy for addressing the problem in special education was just a part of the effort, because scores for the entire school could stand to improve.
“We tried to focus on those areas that we know that our students struggle the most with. That happens to be reading and mathematics,” Nzeocha said. “Our objective then became, ‘How do we reach these students?’ We decided to use a total staff effort to basically attack the problem.”
Students were scheduled to go to reading at the library. Science teachers and social studies teachers built into their lessons specific reading and math techniques that the students were learning from other teachers. “Somehow we tried to make the curriculum related to all the things that the kids are studying. That way we did not have a gap in any of those subjects. That’s how we were able to attack it, using whole subject matter relationships.”
When it came to special education students in particular, Nzeocha said, “We individualized instruction. We tried to focus on each student.”
Special education teachers looked at each student’s individual education plan. When they saw that a student needed additional attention, they worked on areas of weakness.
The school put on competitive reading and math derbies, which, along with entertainment including dancing and refreshments, provided extra incentive for students to do well.
Nzeocha said his entire staff, from the teachers to the cafeteria workers and janitors, encouraged students to do well. “It took everybody stepping up, trying to help,” he said.
The results were impressive improvements across the board. In special education in particular, the math and reading scores rose dramatically. Special education reading scores went up 32 points in sixth grade, 37 points in 7th grade, and 27 points in 8th grade. Math scores improved by 33 points in sixth grade, 38 points in seventh, and 42 points in eighth.
“We could not have achieved what we did without every single individual. We had students who bought into what we were trying to do. We had teachers who bought into every initiative. Had custodial staff members who would watch a class when the teacher was out. Lunch room members would encourage the students,” he said. “We tried to create an environment of respect. It had to start with the adults. They had to buy into the program, the change initiatives, for it to trickle down to the kids.”
Bush Middle began a mentoring program, where every student was assigned to an adult member of the staff who was to meet with that student weekly to see how they were progressing. Staff members and parents played a part in everything from extracurricular activities, to cleaning the school.
“All that goes into every single thing that led up to our success,” Nzeocha said. “It was an extreme dedication to putting the children first. When this fails to become about the student, we all fail.”
In the midst of so much negative news out of the Birmingham Schools, the success at Bush Middle is cause for optimism that at least some of the problems plaguing the system and threatening the futures of students can be arrested by the right people with the right approach.
“The success story at Bush proves how a visionary principal can inspire a faculty, staff and students to work harder and smarter and achieve more,” said Superintendent Craig Witherspoon.
For Nzeocha, the improvements in his school speak volumes, but not just about him. He sees Bush Middle’s achievements as a commendation for the entire community. “We are just as good students, this community is just as good, this staff is just as good as every other student, staff and community in the system,” he said. “We can be successful.”