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Teaching teachers

Federal grant aims to improve instructors' methods

Karen McNamara sits at the back of Jennifer Irving's classroom, taking it all in as an eighth-grader struggles to read aloud from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

It's lunch time at Franklin Middle School, and the banging and television and shouting in the classroom next door are occasionally louder than the lesson in Irving's orderly room. But Irving, whose youthful appearance is at odds with her nearly 10 years of classroom experience, doesn't acknowledge the occasional thump, though she sometimes pauses the class to review words like "obdurate" and discuss the term "dehumanizing."

The students ask few questions.

The boy reading aloud stops.

"I suck at reading," he says.

"You're doing fine," Irving replies.

About 45 minutes later, Irving and McNamara face each other across a table in Irving's room.

"I enjoyed your class," McNamara tells her.

Irving thanks her quietly.

Irving had no choice but to sit through this meeting. McNamara, with practical shoes and soft brown hair, could pass for any other teacher in the building. But she is one of two people hired through a $750,000 federal grant to help the teachers at the high school and middle school improve their methods. This is just one of hundreds of delicate interactions McNamara's had with teachers in Franklin's school district this year.

Just as a basketball coach would help a player shoot better free throws and work on zone defense, McNamara helps teachers better facilitate class discussion and reach students of varying academic ability in the same room.

The grant also covers a variety of other needs, including improving the district's curriculum, technology and training for administrators. But better supporting teachers is one of its most pressing goals.

During their meeting, Irving and McNamara discuss the challenges posed by the group's relatively small size, difficulty with the material and reluctance to participate.

"Would it maybe be worthwhile to play some Negro spirituals before or while they're reading?" McNamara asks.

Sure, Irving replies. She appreciates the help.

They make plans to team-teach the next day so Irving can try a new activity with McNamara there to help if the younger teacher stumbles.

McNamara ends the meeting by thanking Irving again for letting her sit in on the class.

"I'm always nervous being observed," Irving says. "I'm not going to lie."

 Teachers wary

It has been a trying year for most, if not all, of the people who work in the Franklin public schools.

At first glance, it seemed straightforward enough: An economically challenged district that has seen little significant, consistent improvement over the last decade received a large sum of money from the federal government to get a leg up.

Part but not all of that money was to give the teachers additional professional development, an investment long considered crucial to keep teachers up to date on the industry's best practices and inspired to improve their craft.

But McNamara, who works with the language arts and social studies teachers, and Mary Wilson, who works with the science and math teachers, have often met resistance, suspicion and, in some cases, outright hostility.

The two recount stories of teachers trying to pit them against one another, and of falling silent and staring when they entered the teachers' room.

"We'd walk in and all conversation would stop," McNamara, 42, recalled. "Sometimes they'd ask, 'What do you want?' "

"We really felt like we were on the front line, taking some hits," Wilson, 58, said.

Yet McNamara and Wilson said they can understand why Franklin's teachers sometimes feel like they are under attack.

The teachers often say they feel overworked and responsible for every single need a child has, including those that in generations past were met by their families.

The last eight months in Franklin have been an exercise in adults learning to trust one another to better help children - a majority of whom are not proficient in writing or math - achieve amid the challenges of generational poverty.

"We have low achievement, our scores show we have low achievement, so yes there is some issue," said Michael Belisle, 40, who has taught math at Franklin High School for 15 years and is a union representative. "There's something going on that needs to be changed."

 Held to account

Last summer, the district received a School Improvement Grant, which teachers and staff often refer to as one word, "SIG."

In its application, the district lamented a lack of parent involvement, a dearth of up-to-date materials and problematic "cultures" in the middle school and high school.

Under federal law, consistently underperforming schools can undergo radical structural changes to improve their lot. The changes could include firing half the teachers, shutting down a school and reopening it as a charter school, closing a school outright or "transforming" a school, which was the path Franklin took for the middle and high schools.

The goal is "to develop and increase teacher and school leader effectiveness," boost "learning time" and give the schools more flexibility.

Officials have repeatedly said the vast majority of teachers in Franklin work hard, want their students to excel and historically have not had the resources they need to do their jobs. But in its grant application, the district said teachers have not been held accountable enough in the past and would struggle with the changes.

"We should see more teachers on performance improvement plans and even a few opting for early retirement," district officials wrote.

McNamara, Wilson and several others were hired over the summer and started working on ways to help the teachers right away. But they only met a few teachers before school started in the fall.

"We were excited. We thought, 'This is going to be so great,' " McNamara remembered. "Once the teachers came in, we realized that they may not be as excited as we were."

"It was all over their faces. It wasn't hard to discern they weren't happy," Wilson said.

Many teachers at Franklin High School and Middle School declined interview requests from the Monitor for this story.

But the few who did agree to speak recalled so much change at the beginning of the year that they weren't sure who was responsible for what. It made it difficult to create structure in their own rooms when the structure around them was changing so rapidly.

"I felt like it was pretty stressful in the fall, a lot of changes all at once," said Kerry Cook, who has been teaching math at Franklin High School for about 15 years and was recently spotted in a "Math teacher by day, superhero by night!" T-shirt.

"It was very difficult for all of us."

And really, the major changes didn't start with the grant.

Four months earlier, facing a $1.3 million budget gap, the school board closed the Bessie Rowell School, laid off teachers and reassigned others. Rowell's principal, Kevin Barbour, took the helm at the middle school. The high school kept its principal, Richard Towne, but he'd only been there one year.

As soon as teachers returned from the summer vacation, administrators told them to work on "Nothing but NECAP," the standardized tests students take in October.

Teachers across disciplines who previously had been on the sidelines of those efforts because they didn't teach the tested subjects were expected to participate.

Roughly half a dozen new staffers were brought in, encouraging teachers to make their lessons more relevant to students' lives and better align their lessons to state standards. They also started overhauling the district's curriculum and attending more professional development workshops.

In the midst of it all, women with iPads were asking to sit in on classes.

Although McNamara and Wilson have no authority to discipline teachers, Belisle said that wasn't initially clear to the teachers, who were worried they were being evaluated. "Because the iPad's capable of taking video and audio, there was that concern, 'Could they be recording what's going on and playing it to other people?' "

But Nicole Martin, 32, who has been teaching sixth-grade science at the middle school for four years, said she welcomed the changes.

The teachers, she said, "think what they're doing is great and that's their belief. But they're not changing and they're not updating."

Martin is impatient with colleagues who resist change.

"Mary and Karen come in here with the intention of helping out, and have they stepped on some toes? I'm sure they have. Are there things they could have done differently? I'm positive that there are some things they could have said differently or done differently.

"But they're human and their main goal is to help us, and I feel like if you really believe that, then you would kind of let go of the little things, and I feel like what could be happening here is the little things are not being let go of and it's overshadowing anything else," she said.

"For the love of God, just accept some help."

 Evolving relationship

Neither McNamara nor Wilson had been coaches before and were learning as they went.

They stopped bringing iPads to class.

McNamara, a Midwesterner, worked on having an "open face."

She and Wilson were willing to do menial tasks if it meant the teachers would try something new in the classroom.

"In the beginning, I made copies," Wilson said. "If teachers needed copies, I made copies."

Wilson made a phone call to the Loon Preservation Committee for Debra Norwood, who's been teaching science for 10 years in Franklin Middle School and is the teachers' union president.

For years, Norwood said, she's wanted her students to build rafts used to help loons nest, but she's never had a chance. Wilson got the ball rolling.

"It doesn't seem like a big deal," Norwood said. But with all the things she has to balance both in and out of the class, "it was a big help."

Now her students are working in the wood shop class, reinforcing lessons about measurements, angles and local wildlife habitat.

The coaches gradually became more assertive. By March, they had stopped asking for permission to visit and started telling teachers when they'd come by.

Wilson and McNamara said most of the teachers have begun to thaw, and Cook, the math teacher, said she appreciates the coaches' efforts.

"They just seemed competent in what they're talking about," she said. "And they're very down to earth. I mean, they all along the way have said, 'Our goal is to come in and help you improve the way that you teach so that we can reach the kids and get to them more.' "

Cook, who's lived in Franklin since she was 15 and said she feels a call to teach, said she simply chose to make the best of the changes.

"I figured out there maybe are some pretty positive things out of this," Cook said. "You have to make a personal choice every day, no matter what you do."

 Raising expectations

While McNamara and Wilson report friendlier relations with the vast majority of the teachers, there is still a point of disagreement between teachers and administrators over one of the most fundamental questions that Franklin faces: Why aren't Franklin's students performing at their potential?

There is absolutely no simple answer to this question.

But an external report done last fall by the Consulting Partners Inc., a Boston-based consulting firm, said the teachers do not hold their students to a high enough standard and blame the community's poverty for the children's lack of accomplishment.

Some teachers have said the approximately 200-page report, which was based in part on dozens of interviews with teachers and administrators, upset them so much that they could not read it in its entirety. Some felt the quotes were taken out of context. Regardless, the consultants advised the district to "encourage staff to move beyond using the economic make-up of the town as the excuse for poor scores."

"Even liberally-minded staff members never failed to invoke the socio-economic image of the town as a place where education is not important. . . . They need to change their own perceptions of student ability and separate it from the economics of the town."

Some, including Belisle and Norwood, said they were surprised to see such things written.

"It's not what I hear in the day-to-day function of the school," Norwood said.

Belisle said the teachers do their best to empower the students, but part of the challenge is persuading them they can lead the lives they want to.

"Just because they're from Franklin doesn't mean they're stupid," Belisle said.

The students blame their academic struggles on their personal backgrounds a lot, he said, and it frustrates him deeply.

"They use that excuse, 'I'm from Franklin,' or, 'This is Franklin,' " he said. "That mentality, 'We're not supposed to be good.' "

There is no dispute that the teachers care deeply for, and even love, their students. Many likened the schools to that of a family.

Cook told stories of teachers quietly buying new clothes for students and being willing to take a teenager into their own home.

Cook said the staff's sensitivity to their students' personal problems might evoke a more nurturing approach that inadvertently lowers standards. She was wary of being interviewed for this story in part because many teachers feel the district only gets attention when the news is bad.

"I don't want us to look bad. I like working here, I feel like I make a difference here. And I think most of the staff that has stayed . . . stay because they feel they can make a difference here."

Cook said her work with Wilson has helped her raise her expectations for her students.

"I'm finding the more I ask of them, the more they will do. I'm asking them to think more deeply, giving questions to them that make them think of, 'How does this apply in the rest of the world,' not just 'Here's another worksheet.' "

 Positive steps, ongoing worry

The district's scores have begun to improve.

In their standardized test scores this year, for example, 46 percent of seventh-graders scored above proficient in math on the October NECAP, compared with 34 percent the year before.

But it's not enough, said Martin, the sixth-grade science teacher.

"We've come up, yeah, that's great, but it's like saying you're 400 pounds and you've lost 100," she said. "You're still really overweight."

The district has improved in fits and starts in the past, and some teachers point out that inconsistent leadership at the top has made it difficult for steady educational improvements.

Belisle said he's had six superintendents in 15 years.

"Someone starts something, and then a new superintendent comes in and decides we're going to drop that, so there's never been any continuity," he said. That's meant the students are not prepared well enough when they transition from one school to another, and sometimes when they go from one classroom to another.

The district is in the midst of planning its next budget, which is likely to require more cuts. Teachers fear they will lose their jobs or have bigger classes, though Superintendent Maureen Ward said in an email that no pink slips have been issued and that no "teacher was terminated due to a reduction in force."

But Ward also said she expects a $100,000 reduction in SIG money next year, and perhaps even less in its third and final year.

McNamara and Wilson are likely to stay on, she said.

Ward said the teachers' reactions to the coaches were to be expected.

"Teachers are not comfortable with someone in their classes on a regular basis, as historically teachers have been left to their resources and not been accountable," Ward said in an email. "Many teachers have come to see both Mary and Karen as a huge benefit and those that have engaged have improved their focus and their instruction. Others will eventually realize that coaching is not a punishment but a benefit."

In the meantime, Wilson and McNamara will continue to visit the teachers and thank them for their time. Both teachers and coaches said, as time passes and they understand their roles better and trust continues to build, more good will come from their presence.

"You have to be happy for the small increments towards change," McNamara said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or

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