• IDRA Newsletter • January 2011 •
Editor’s Note: Here, we present a new feature in the IDRA Newsletter, “Courageous Connections.” IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework emphasizes connections among schools and communities to secure success for all students. In this interview, Dr. Lucious Brown, principal of John F. Kennedy Middle School in Atlanta, talks about how partnering in the community, engaging students and building teacher effectiveness has lead to dramatic school transformation.
When Dr. Brown first arrived at the school, changes were just beginning to occur. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes the school’s history: “For nearly a decade, Atlanta’s Kennedy Middle School exhibited all the signs of a failing school. Test scores were subpar, teacher morale was low and the principal’s office seemingly had a revolving door. Students roamed chaotic hallways. Broken furniture littered the building.” (Badertscher & Staples, 2010)
The following interview was conducted recently by Sulema Carreón-Sánchez, M.A., an IDRA senior education associate. This interview is also available through the IDRA Classnotes Podcast (via iTunes or http://www.idra.org/resource-center/principal-on-dramatic-school-transformation/).
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: J.F. Kennedy Middle School has received a lot of attention and awards lately for its transformation. What are those awards?
Dr. Brown: A few of them are Georgia’s Superintendent Distinguished Achievement Award, the Trailblazers Award, the Atlanta Families Award for our partnership with Coca-Cola and IDRA, the Atlanta Families Award for Excellence in Education, the Panasonic National Change Award and we made AYP for three consecutive years.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: And you also were named the Principal of the Year from the Parent Teacher Association last year. Now, let’s look back a bit. What was the school like when you got here four years ago?
Dr. Brown: Image a dimly lit building, a main office with a couple of broken pictures and dilapidated furniture. Overall, it wasn’t inviting to either the parents or our students. It was extremely chaotic without any systems in place.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: What did you see were the key areas to focus on?
Dr. Brown: First, we had to build the capacity of the community because we didn’t have its support. Secondly, we had to build the school’s capacity among the teachers.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: I know you have set-up an innovative partnership with some nearby colleges that involve college tutors to your middle school students. How is that working? And how did it get started?
Dr. Brown: Initially, when I arrived, the school had one partnership. It was so sad that they didn’t have a contact name listed, they just had a phone number. So I called and found out it was a funeral home. Then, I sought some help from local agencies. For example, we now have Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University and an outstanding partnership with Georgia Tech. Our stakeholders continue to provide outstanding service with our students. We have a partnership with Coca-Cola and we are very proud of our relationship with Coca-Cola and IDRA for the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, where our students travel to Bethune Elementary School to provide services for their students as well.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: Now, Dr. Brown there is a lot of talk across the country implying that poor students can’t learn or that schools can’t teach students who are poor. What do you say to that?
Dr. Brown: First of all, I will simply say, they are wrong. As you know, when I first arrived here, our children were not learning at the rate that they should. I know it wasn’t the children, it was the result of low expectations by faculty and staff.
When we sat down initially with Dr. Bradley Scott [from IDRA], I didn’t know much about the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program at that time. However, I continued to read about it. And once I read about its true intention of actually making sure children remained in school and focusing on those students who are “high risk” – and all our children are high risk in this particular area – we sat down and talked about all the main structures, we decided this can work here. Ultimately, we have increased our levels academically, and we increased our participation in the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: Dr. Brown can you talk a little about the school system indicators in the Quality Schools Action Framework, because I have seen where you are now involving more of the community members and parents. And I have seen how students are beginning to become more engaged in school, how your teachers are changing their instruction and how you are aligning the curriculum.
Dr. Brown: One of the indicators that we wanted to work on was parent involvement and community engagement. I don’t think the school can be successful without the involvement of parents, which is a vital part of the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. Before, there was very little community support. Now, we continuously invite community members into our building. For example, one doesn’t need to make an appointment; our doors are always open because the school is merely a microcosm of its community.
Another issue was student engagement, where we continuously develop incentives to ensure students are always striving for academic success.
Teacher effectiveness is measured by the amount of knowledge instilled in the students. I tell teachers all the time, I know you have gone to college; however I need to know what the students don’t know. When we enter the classroom, we are looking for student-centered classrooms versus teacher-centered classrooms. So we focus on that part of the framework.
The curriculum quality and access indicator means making sure high quality curriculum is available to all students. It can’t be available to them if we are not giving it to them and providing a quality education for all students.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: IDRA has been working with Kennedy Middle School to implement the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. Regarding the program here at Kennedy, what has struck you about this program and what it has done for your students?
Dr. Brown: Of course, one of the outcomes is to keep children in school. And we’ve seen what the program does as it relates to focusing on students coming to school, coming to school consistently, maintaining good attendance, and maintaining good grade point averages throughout –not just because they want to be a part of the program, but because it’s the right thing to do. The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program continues to focus on this issue, and it provides student success in preparing them for college. It’s one of my dreams to have the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program in all of our high schools to actually follow-up with those children. Most of all we want to focus on student success. One way to measure that success is to have them graduate on time and to enter college.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: Dr. Brown I know you had a visitor from the Department of Georgia came to visit your campus. Can you tell us a little bit about what she said and observed as she walked the halls at Kennedy Middle School?
Dr. Brown: We were very proud to have the Georgia State School Superintendent, Ms. Kathy Cox, come to our building. When she walked around, she saw how it was very conducive to learning. She reiterated how enlightening it was to see the framework being implemented with fidelity. She also got an understanding of how children are learning at such a higher rate. She was very pleased with that.
Ms. Carreón-Sánchez: Dr. Brown is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding Kennedy Middle School and the transformation that has happened during your four-year tenure here at Kennedy Middle School?
Dr. Brown: I would just say that it was truly a mammoth task, but it wasn’t just me. It is about surrounding yourself with outstanding people and making sure you have the right people on the bus and getting the wrong people off the bus. And I want to say thank you to IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program for saying we will stay here with you and stick with you, rather than giving up on the program here when the process wasn’t working initially. Because I think if we had given up on the program, we would be giving up on the children. So thank you.
For more information, contact IDRA or visit http://www.idra.org/coca-cola-valued-youth-program/. Also see the story “Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program National Insitute Held in Atlanta.”
Badertscher, N., & G.B. Staples. “Some schools rise from mess to model – Stability in principal’s office a factor in Atlanta, Gainesville,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (February 6, 2010).
Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2011 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]