Politics Aside, a School's Real Success
The New York Times, Sept. 29, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

GAINESVILLE, Ga. - In the late summer of 2003, a few weeks into his first year as principal of Gainesville Elementary School here, Shawn Arevalo McCollough identified 125 pupils who were lagging a grade or two behind in reading and math. He could surmise that most were poor and nonwhite, because virtually his entire student body was poor and nonwhite. More precisely, most of these children were new immigrants from Mexico whose parents had been drawn to this small city by the exhausting but ample jobs in its chicken-processing plants.

Mr. McCollough decreed that the 125 pupils should stay for an extra three hours of class each weekday and seven hours on Saturday, the additional time creating the equivalent of an eight-day school week. Then he solicited the children and their parents, one family at a time, visiting rusted house trailers and weathered cottages besieged by kudzu vines, tracking down one father in the lavanderia, the Laundromat.

When the principal was done and the first Saturday session commenced, he noticed that Fatima Rodriguez, a third grader one year out of Guadalajara and one year behind in school, was absent. So he called her home and he called around town and eventually he learned that she was at church, taking classes for her first communion. A few days later, Mr. McCollough invited Fatima's mother to his office and told her, ''Unless God Almighty is going to teach Fatima how to read, she's got to be in our school on Saturday.'' For good measure, he also
talked the local Roman Catholic priest into switching the first communion lessons to Friday nights.

So Fatima started to attend on Saturdays, a bit fitfully at first, sometimes oversleeping, sometimes nagging her parents into granting her a day off. Each time she skipped, Mr. McCullough phoned home or drove over, and ultimately she became a regular. And when she took the state basic-skills tests in April 2004, the gateway for promotion to fourth grade, Fatima met the standard. She made her parents a card that said, ''Thanks for waking me up.''

In a broader sense, it is Mr. McCollough who has sounded the wake-up alarm here, 55 miles northeast of Atlanta. Under his leadership, 89 percent of Gainesville Elementary's students passed the state English-language arts test and 94 percent passed the math test. As a so-called 90-90-90 school -- 90 percent nonwhite, 90 percent poor, 90 percent meeting standards -- Gainesville received its 45 seconds of fame when President Bush hailed it during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Which is exactly why it seemed important to spend several days seeing just what the truth of this putative miracle was. The Bush administration's education policy, much like its tax cuts and Iraq invasion, has been one more polarizing element in a bitter and divisive campaign season. Indeed, some of the vaunted success in Houston's schools turned out to be the result of administrators' obscuring the actual dropout rate.

No matter what one thinks of the president's endorsement, however, Gainesville Elementary School and its principal are for real. At the same time, their accomplishment represents something more complex than the triumph of the No Child Left Behind law.

No statute could conjure up a principal of Mr. McCollough's varied and complementary skills. Part Filipino, part Spanish, part Anglo, he grew up attending the mostly black and mostly abysmal public schools of Columbia, S.C., experiencing minimal expectations firsthand. Even now, when he dresses in shorts and T-shirts for his weekend work in the office, he is followed by security guards in department stores, attracting the same kind of suspicions that Gainesville's Mexican immigrants endure.

Leading a school that is two-thirds Hispanic, Mr. McCollough insisted that every front-office worker be bilingual, as is about half of the faculty. He created an adult-literacy program with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil-rights organization. On his desk sits a copy of Paulo Freire's ''Pedagogy of the Oppressed,'' a veritable holy book for radical educators.

''I'm a social reconstructionist by nature,'' Mr. McCollough, 33, said in an interview. ''I believe schools are here to change the landscape, to shift the power.''

Yet his means of doing so fall firmly on the conservative side of the educational spectrum. He does not pull out children for separate bilingual classes, offering only ''survival skills English'' two hours a day for a maximum of eight weeks. He has reached out to Gainesville's financial establishment, gaining a $20,000 grant for the Saturday school from Mar-Jac, one of the major poultry companies. He culled an additional $20,000 for the lengthened weekday classes by deferring purchases of textbooks and other materials.

Like the Gainesville school district as a whole, Mr. McCollough uses standardized tests to guide curriculum and hold teachers (and himself) publicly accountable. Every nine weeks, pupils in all five Gainesville elementary schools take tests that measure their knowledge of the various components of Georgia's statewide curriculum. By analyzing the results, principals and teachers select the next round of lessons to address the weak points. Phonics and math drills figure prominently in the lessons. All the test results are posted in school hallways and on the district Web site -- not just by school or by grade level but by the individual teacher's name.

To foes of standardized testing, of course, the Gainesville approach is anathema. It also created a stir here. In the six months between the time Mr. McCullough was hired as principal and the opening of the academic year, nearly 10 of his teachers resigned or requested transfers.

''He approaches everything differently, and I'm from the old school,'' said Cynthia Syfan, a third-grade teacher who initially sought to transfer. ''I'm not going to tell you his program didn't shock me. But once I saw the effectiveness, I knew I was in the right place.''

Some cautions and caveats remain in order. Gainesville Elementary School has been open for barely more than a year, so its long-term track record is necessarily nonexistent. Achievement on Georgia's internal tests is a very relative measure of accomplishment; the state ranks 46th of the 50 states in performance on national college-entrance tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to a recent report by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of state legislatures.

Still, something genuine has happened here. ''It's not as right or left as people want to believe,'' Mr. McCollough put it. ''The people who complain about standardized testing don't understand the reason you do it. It's not the beginning or the end. It's an assessment, a diagnostic tool, so you know where you're at. And on the right, teaching to the tests shouldn't be the point. But in an election year, no one wants to see it for what it is.''

Back to top



Articles by publication > By Subject > Back to Education Articles