- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - Teachers who chose to remain at Brookhaven Middle School during the three years it was on the state’s failing school list are consistent in explaining why they stayed.

“The kids,” social studies teacher George Hartselle said. “If you’re in education for the right reason, I don’t know what’s so hard about this to understand.”

Hartselle, who has spent 28 of his 30 years in Decatur City Schools at Brookhaven, is one of 15 teachers who stayed at the school when some thought it was sinking.

“These are our kids and our family,” an emotional Rebecca Key said when Superintendent Ed Nichols announced earlier this week that neither Brookhaven nor any other Decatur City school would be on the failing schools list state officials released Wednesday.

Nichols said several Brookhaven employees transferred to other schools because of the school’s declining enrollment.

But, “We didn’t have teachers jumping up and down saying they wanted to leave Brookhaven,” Nichols said.

Brookhaven remained on the failing schools list for three years because it had been among the lowest 6 percent statewide on standardized reading and math tests in three of the past six years, the definition included in the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013.

A year after the law passed, when the state was still using the Alabama Reading and Math Test to assess how students in grades 3-8 were performing, Brookhaven made adequate yearly progress but remained on the list because of students’ performance in previous years.

Those scores were from the ARMT test students took in the spring of 2012. Sixth-graders in that testing period showed the largest increase in math, with their scores rising from 78 to 87. Reading for every grade level was up, with seventh-grade students scoring at 91 percent. Eighth-graders had an 8-percent increase in reading.

In the spring of 2013, the state switched to the ACT Aspire and Brookhaven students scored above the state averages at most indicators. Those scores were considered baseline, but the second round of ACT Aspire results the state released in November showed more progress.

Melissa Scott, a former Brookhaven student who became principal in the spring of 2013, started many of the programs that preceded the school’s academic progress.

“It was not me,” said Scott, now director of the district’s Center for Alternative Programs. “It was the teachers, and they were already working to make improvements before I arrived.”

But there were changes, such as ZAP, which means “Zeros Aren’t Permitted.”

Instead of letting students accept zeros for not completing classwork, Scott said teachers allowed them time at the end of school to complete assignments.

The school also changed when it intervened for failing students and adopted teaching strategies that focused on subjects in which students were failing.

Perhaps the biggest change was creating a data room that posted how every student was performing. Only teachers had access, and Scott said she held professional development meetings in the room so teachers could see which students were making progress.

“If a teacher’s students were not making progress, the boards called out the teachers,” Scott said.

But the room also gave teachers an opportunity to talk about what was working in the classroom. Scott said there was a lot of sharing in the data room.

She said most of the teachers who stayed at Brookhaven had an opportunity to leave. She said they should be commended, as well as then-Assistant Principal Derrick Aikerson, now principal at Julian Harris Elementary.

Scott said she recommended hiring Aikerson because he was from a Blue Ribbon school in the Birmingham area and had a reputation for handling discipline and understanding the curriculum.

“I knew this position needed a well-rounded person,” she said.

Scott said Aikerson handled discipline issues at Brookhaven and teachers were able to focus on academics.

Brookhaven had 32 teachers when it was placed on the failing school list and 15 when it came off. Some of the teachers retired, but most of the positions ended up at other schools because 213 students transferred the first two years Brookhaven did not comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Under No Child Left Behind rules, students were allowed to transfer before the state adopted its accountability act.

Scott said Nichols and the school board gave her everything she needed, including allowing her to hire an instructional coach and promote a long-time employee to curriculum specialist.

“We built a trust in each other, and our academic optimism about the school changed,” she said. “It wasn’t me. It was everybody.”

The fact the Alabama Accountability Act failed to consider the school’s academic gains in 2013 and 2014 was upsetting for sixth-grade math teacher Rodney Randell, who has been a teacher at the school since 1999. Brookhaven’s scores those years were better than schools not on the list.

“What’s fair about this?” Randell said.

Brookhaven was put on the list because the school failed to meet all 29 goals spelled out in No Child Left Behind. School leaders never made excuses, but the sub-group primarily responsible for the school not making adequate yearly progress was special education students.

“They were our students, too, so we’re not going to blame them,” Randell said. “We had a lot of challenges and some of our students were in every sub-group. This still doesn’t justify calling any school failing.”

Hartselle said he had colleagues who left and encouraged him to do the same. He said others would say they admired him for staying, but he thought the admiration was disingenuous. Hartselle, a 1972 Decatur High graduate, said he tried not to get angry and always thought about the message he would send to students if he left.

“I don’t want them thinking there is something wrong with them,” he said about the students. “That’s the message leaving sends.”

Students are noticing what teachers are doing.

“I think everybody is happier this year,” said Keenan Hambricks, whose mother is a counselor at the school. “And we’re glad to be off that list.”



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