By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Dean Elder, Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association
Five years ago, teachers decided to transform Anaheim High School with a group called, oddly enough, “Critical Friends.” Faculty from all departments and grades began meeting regularly for candid discussions about what was — and wasn’t — working at their campus. They displayed the work of their students and asked colleagues for their honest opinions. They began opening their doors and watching each another teach and giving feedback. They decided to trust each another.
Teachers had to lead the path to change because there was a vacuum in leadership at the time. The school and the district were in between principals and superintendents. The campus, in the second decile on the API with more than 70 percent English learners, was floundering.
Salvation arrived in the form of a $500,000 Comprehensive Schools Reform grant from the federal government. With no administrative leadership, teachers took control of the money.
“I ended up being in charge of it,” says Dean Elder, a chemistry teacher and member of the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association (ASTA). “So I gathered a group of teachers together to figure out what we were going to do with the money.”
ASTA members opted for using the money on professional development modeled on the Critical Friends Group program based in Bloomington, Indiana. They hired consultants from the South Basin Writing Project to help them. And slowly, things improved.
“We began creating benchmarks,” recalls Elder. “We began looking at data. We organized our departments so teachers were basically teaching the same standards in the same classes. We began emphasizing critical thinking skills instead of filling in the blanks. Quality assignments replaced worksheets.”
The full-inclusion school also opted to have mainstream and special education teachers co-teach certain classes together, to address the needs of struggling students as well as students with special needs. Intervention classes were added.
Improvement was staggering: From 2004 to 2008, the school’s API ranking went from 571 to 701. The culture shift rocked the school, says English teacher Doug Wager. “People were willing to open their doors and talk honestly in an environment where they weren’t judged for having trouble. It helped my teaching tremendously, and I stopped beating myself up.”
Student motivation increased, too, with Wager leading assemblies designed to instill students with taking personal pride in their schoolwork and test scores.
“I tell students that everything with their name attached to it is important, and that whether they like it or not it becomes a part of us,” explains Wager. “I tell them that saying ‘I don’t care’ is a defense mechanism, and nobody is really happy when they don’t do well on something.”
Thanks to funds from the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), class size reduction occurred in some areas last year. By next year, all core classes should have a ratio of 25 students per teacher. QEIA funds will allow additional counselors to be hired. Last year the school received a bronze medal from U.S. News and World Report, which evaluated 22,000 schools nationwide and awarded 1,300 medals for improvement.
Anaheim High School is a good school, but it needs to get better, says math teacher Jessica Torres. “I think we need to step it up a little bit. We need to improve, not just in terms of getting low-end kids where they need to be, but also help higher-end kids prepare more for college.”
English teacher Sharon King believes that is entirely possible. “It gets harder every year, but teachers still have the power to make changes.”