Englewood certainly needed help when Williams took the helm in July 1997. Tommye Brown, who had been principal only a year, had just transferred to central office, citing health reasons. Previously an elementary school principal, Brown had been given the formidable assignment of reducing gang influence at the school.
However, Williams fought for a place for them to drop into. Englewood’s night school, which begins as the regular school day ends, was slated to shut its doors at the end of the 1996-97 school year because grant money had run out. Williams persuaded central office to fund the night school last school year, and he tapped Englewood’s discretionary funds to keep it open this school year.
False fire alarms, food fights and fist fights were commonplace, students say. Younger students were assaulted in bathrooms and dumped into garbage cans, they contend. Fires were started in lockers, and flag poles were cut off at the base. Elevators and bathrooms were vandalized beyond function.
Reconstitution, in the view of manager Alfred Williams, the board’s reconstitution manager, is all about making schools into places where students and staff want to work and succeed. He figures that even at schools that are progressing nicely, the make-over will take at least two to three years.
On the spur of the moment, five teachers put one idea into practice: role playing. They conjure up a special education classroom. Four teachers portray students; one of them can’t grasp the lesson, asks that everything be repeated and then forgets what she’s just been told. The fifth teacher plays a frustrated teacher, struggling to keep his cool.
“We’ve still got to get everybody together,” says Carolyn Omar, the local school council chair, commenting on the general atmosphere of the school. “To me, it’s more a motivation issue. I’d like to see motivation in teachers, parents and students. We all need to motivate each other.”
Robeson’s enrollment is down about 15 percent from last year—to 1,150 students. That’s due mostly to a new promotion policy that holds back low-scoring 8th-graders or sends them to transitional centers. As with other high schools, the uncertainty over the size of the freshman class aggravated staffing problems usually associated with the beginning of the school year. “We really didn’t know how many students were going to show up almost until the first day of school,” notes technology coordinator Tim Colburn.
Four years ago, the school started teaching environmental science and was looking for a way to bring more technology into its classes, says biology teacher Karen Baker. To suit its own special needs, the school adapted an interactive science activities program known as CoVis, which had been developed by Northwestern University.
Helen Hoffenberg, a teacher trainer from the district’s Department of Learning Technologies, begins by polling teachers about their use of computers. Most say they use computers for word processing. A few write e-mail letters to sons and daughters away at college. But almost all qualify their statements by adding that their use of computers has been helped along by spouses and younger children in the family.
“I was sitting next to a little boy who had a whole world going on in his desk with spacemen and stick figures and action heroes,” Gardner recalls of that day in 1991. “It occurred to me the world had changed, and the students had changed with video games and Nintendo, but education just wasn’t keeping up. Nor were we preparing students with skills for real life.”