School of the Week: Marcus Garvey Academy!

Academy’s one-year journey off of state’s improvement list demonstrates power of teacher, staff and parental involvement. Collaborative leadership, a lesson for all

Four Detroit Public Schools were removed from the state‘s Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) list this year, three Elementary-Middle Schools-A.L. Holmes, Marcus Garvey Academy and Priest-as well as Western International High School. Each has plans and support in place to ensure continued academic growth.

In particular, the story of how Garvey Academy came off the list after just one year is one of leadership, focus on data, school improvement and changing traditional academic models, staff and parent involvement in the process, as well as the school’s overall ability to maintain its focus on educating every child, which, in this case, resulted in every single one of 120 students listed in an under-performing subgroup demonstrating academic progress in 2012.

“This is an opportunity to service the groups that really need us the most.”

When Garvey Principal James Hearn first learned in August 2011 that his school appeared as #97 on the list of the 98 schools identified by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) as being considered in the lowest five percent of all schools statewide, he says that he avoided the “victims/poor us” mentality in favor of an ethic that “this is an opportunity to service the groups that really need us the most.”

In this case, that group was made up of 120 pupils classified as Students with Disabilities, whose two-year decline in standardized test scores led to the school’s placement on the state’s watch list.

Leading up to that August, Principal Hearn felt confident that students and families from a three-school merger in 2009 (that created the new and larger Garvey Academy in an expanded and renovated PreK-8th setting) had successfully overcome the transition and that the Garvey school culture — one of self-respect/self-esteem, community service, cultural awareness and global learning in an African-centered learning environment — had been instilled across the school’s 525 students who know, for example, that hallway movements “always follow the green line.”

What was less evident, until the wake-up call came vividly late last summer, was that while overall achievement was steady or increasing, students in self-contained special education classrooms were repeatedly failing.

Garvey Academy staff’s approach quickly became “to make this everyone’s issue,” the principal says, starting with Back-to-School staff meetings and opening month parent meetings centered around an overall plan of Inclusion–eliminating self-contained classrooms and placing all students in general education classrooms. Studies were clear that special education students learn more from being exposed to the curriculum with their peers, while continuing to receive services identified by their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

Garvey’s first letter to parents about this change made things clear: “This integration process will be implemented slowly, in stages, to make sure that our students are getting their instructional needs met,” Principal Hearn wrote. “Due to Inclusion being new to Garvey Academy, it will require changes and adjustments, and as much parental involvement as possible.

“This is a team approach and all children are valued at Marcus Garvey Academy,” it concluded.

Hearn also listed his researched benefits of inclusion for students with disabilities, including:

Friendships and increased social interactions, relationships and networks. Peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills. Increased achievement of IEP goals. Greater access to general curriculum. Enhanced skill acquisition and generalization. Increased inclusion in future environments. Greater opportunities for interactions. And, higher expectations.

Similarly, he listed the benefits of inclusion for students without disabilities:
Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences and increased understanding and acceptance of diversity. Respect for all people. Preparing all students for adult life in an inclusive society. Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others. Greater academic outcomes. Finally, greater resources for everyone.
Hearn reflected this year that key to successfully overcoming parent doubts and nervousness about this change was his accepting full responsibility from the first point onward. “I took the blame solely on my shoulders. I am the instructional leader of this school.”

For staff, a team which the Principal was proud to have professionally assembled as the school expanded and transitioned (the 2012 all-teacher interviewing and selection process resulted in only a few new teachers being selected, as a result of retirements or moves), the 2011-12 school year became the first that the bulk of time and agenda items in staff meetings became devoted to Instructional Practices and Collaborative Planning, as opposed to day-to-day building management and scheduling issues. Teachers refocused on basic practices that moved their students upward on the classic Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning pyramid, progressing from memorization to analyzing and ultimately creating. A key focus became identifying what instructional strategies teachers can use to actively engage all students in lessons.

The school had a short window to turn things around. It was generally understood that it takes two-three years to come off the state’s list. Garvey Academy made the GLCE (Grade Level Content Expectations) items that students struggled with the most the focus of individualized tutoring sessions involving all adults, including the principal.

At a mid-September staff meeting during the 2011-12 school year, targets of 10% achievement growth among this population were set. With information gathered from state review team multi-day visits and the ongoing assistance of the Wayne RESA Special Education facilitator assigned to the school after its ranking was released, it was further determined that many students were not taking the right tests given their IEPs. Many were reassigned to the MEAP-Access test, designed by MDE as an alternate assessment based on modified academic achievement standards for students receiving grade-level instruction who have a current IEP. Hearn credits both the MDE consultant teams and the RESA Facilitator for approaching the school as true partners.

Every one of the 120 students with IEPs showed individual growth

When new test results came back this year, the 10% growth targets were exceeded, The school demonstrated 30% growth and, most notably, every one of the 120 students with IEPs showed individual growth. And, no Garvey parents left the program; in fact, new ones enrolled.

Hearn said that, most importantly, everyone had to take a much more precise view of the data and action plans to improve it. “When you go to a doctor or a surgeon, they are precise. We needed to be that precise as well.”

Hearn reflected comments from a state official that the difference between his school and the next one over in Detroit Public Schools may typically be a couple of points, and said that he has made it his mission to reach out to other DPS principals, including those whose schools have been newly added to what MDE now calls the Priority Schools list. Ultimately, as it always has been in successful schools, it’s about looking at the educational needs of individual children, not blocks of children.

The Marcus Garvey Academy team plans next to rise to the overall state average on the standardized assessments and then reach for the top 20-25% percentiles.

Something you didn’t know…
Garvey Academy’s new Harambee Center addition, which serves as the gathering space for the school’s African-centered curriculum, is a completely flexible space that can be secured from the rest of the school for use after hours. The Harambee Center provides a welcoming home for student gatherings by day, the lunch room for the middle school students at noon, as well as ample accommodation for events for parents and the community on evenings and weekends.

The school also has a new Dance Studio.

Something else you didn’t know….
Marcus Garvey Academy’s DPS Business Corps adoptive partner is Compuware Corporation. The Target Corp. and the Heart of American Foundation also recently created a brand new state-of-the-art library and Target Meals for Minds food pantry today at Marcus Garvey Academy.

And something more…
Marcus Garvey Academy opened in 1991. Along with Malcolm X and Paul Robeson Academies, the school was originally envisioned by DPS as a single-gender school for young men.

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