THE PRINCIPAL: A School That Works

Although most of what you read and hear these days seems to point inexorably to the contrary, Jim Ross is the kind of school principal who can make you believe that public education in urban America may not only survive but actually flourish, that children can still be motivated to learn and behave, and that all public school pupils are not doomed to grow into welfare wastrels, junkies, or sociopaths.

Jim Ross should know. For the past ten years, he has been head of Lida Hooe (pronounced like “Idaho” with an “L” in front of it), a picture-book grade school with a storybook tale to tell.

Unless you grew up in the 40- to 60-year-old neighborhoods that fringe West 12th in the venerable two-bedroom frame house heartland of Oak Cliff, you may never have heard of Lida Hooe, an elementary school whose 1980 enrollment consisted of 312 Hispanics, 308 Anglos, 5 Indians, 3 Orien-tals, and 12 Blacks. Until June of this year, there was little reason you should have, However, in June, Dallas newspapers headlined the disturbing revelation that elementary pupils in the DISD ranked dead last among students in eight of the state’s larger school systems in scores on the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS) tests in reading, writing, and mathematics. For ex-ample, Dallas students had a composite score of 37 in math, 36 in reading, and 85 in writing, compared to composite scores of 60, 62, and 96 for Austin; 52, 51, and 92 for Fort Worth; and 51, 46, and 91 for Houston. What this meant, when correlated with national student averages, was that Dallas grade schoolers scored lower in math and reading than over 60 per cent of all students in the U.S. And only 85 per cent were able to write understandably for their age.

There were few bright spots in the picture – but one of them was Lida Hooe. Jim Ross’s school led all others in the DISD with test scores that not only eclipsed state and national averages, but far outdistanced even those of Austin, the top-scoring urban school system in the state. Lida Hooe scholars posted scores of 87 in math, 66 in reading, and 100 in writin

All of a sudden, people all over the DISD started looking at Lida Hooe and Jim Ross, and wondering: “What makes these people so different? Do they know something that we don’t?”

What Jim Ross and his staff “know,” or have come to believe, is that there are two key elements to educating children: motivation and expectatio.

“Not every child can be motivated in the same way,” Ross says, “but almost all of them can be motivated. With some, it takes praise or the promise of a reward. With others, it may be fear -not of me, necessarily -but of failure.

“The second big thing is expectation. If you don’t expect anything, you’re not going to get anything, and we’ve found that the more you expect, the more you get. If a teacher goes into a classroom expecting her students to be her adversaries, they probably will be. If she expects them not to be able to learn at a satisfactory level, they probably won’t. By expecting them to do well, and letting them know it, you help motivate them. I try to help my teachers understand this.”

Ross also points out that despite an evergrowing “downtown bureaucracy,” the true power over academics, discipline, morale, and the formulation of day-to-day policy still lies largely within the hands of the individual principal.

Here then, in capsule form, are some of the policies that Ross has instituted at his school – policies that any principal has the authority to make at any time:

Discipline

Jim Ross is a strong believer in strong discipline. With the help of a Community Advisory Committee made up of parents, students, teachers, and even custodians and lunchroom employees, Ross puts together a booklet of discipline procedures each fall, covering all types of student offenses, from chewing gum in class (one “lick” for every two times you’re caught) to physical or verbal attack on a teacher (parent conference and suspension for from five to ten days).

While Ross obviously feels that input from parents, students, and others is important, he pulls no punches in claiming final authority in questions of discipline. As he noted in last year’s booklet on the subject: “The principal will at all times have the right to discipline the students as he knows best. There are no ironclad rules that will cover all situations.”

RETENTION POLICY

No student has been “socially promoted” at Lida Hooe in the entire decade that Ross has been there. If a child does not meet minimum requirements, he is held over in the same grade -or “flunked,” if you prefer the old-fashioned term -and obliged to repeat the work.

INCENTIVES AND REWARDS

Every week at Lida Hooe, students who show steady improvement in their grades and behavior receive small prizes – smile buttons and lapel pins that say things like “I Improved,” “Grade A Kid,” and “Student of the Week.”

Once each six weeks, students who have made straight “l’s” (or “A’s”) and those who have brought their grades up from the previous six weeks are allowed to take time off from class to see a popular movie in the school auditorium. And at the end of each semester, pupils who have made the term honor roll are awarded T-shirts proclaiming their accomplishmen

“Realistically,” says Ross, “a lot of kids know they’ll never win a T-shirt, but any kid who really tries can win a pin or a trip to the movies. It may not sound like much, but they really like those buttons. Some of them save them up and wear all of them at once on the last day of school.”

Classroom Procedures

Self-contained classes, in which one teacher is expected to cover all the basic subject areas with equal dexterity, end at the third grade level at Lida Hooe. From this point on, students move from classroom to classroom to spend their state-mandated time periods studying math, language arts, science, social studies, art, music, etc., under teachers who specialize in one given field. In many Dallas schools, however, self-contained classes continue right on up to junior high school. Ross thinks this is a big mistake.

Ross also uses an unusual team-teaching approach, in which two teachers combine their classes in the same subject, then divide the combined class into four to six groups, based on ability. Each teacher then takes responsibility for two or three of the groups. Ross explains the rationale behind the system like this:

“In every class, you have a wide range of abilities, from far below grade level to far above it. In an ordinary class of, say, 27 students, you’ll almost always have at least four, possibly six, ability groups to work with, and it’s almost impossible to give each group adequate time. When you combine two classes, you have twice as many students, but you still have the same number of ability groups. By dividing up the groups between two teachers, you can spend twice as much time with each group. When all the students are functioning at the same level, it’s no harder to deal with 12 kids than it is with six.”

In team teaching, teachers are encouraged to work with both high-ability and low-ability groups simultaneously, rather than one teacher taking the “A” and “B” groups and the other taking the “C” and “D” groups. “It can get really frustrating when you have to deal with the lowest achievement groups all the time,” says Ross.

TEACHER ASSESSMENT

Ross personally interviews and screens every applicant for a teaching position in his school, no matter how impressive their past record, or how glowing their letters of recommendation. As with all DISD principals, Ross’s word is law when it comes to who will be hired at his school and who will not, but Ross may be a bit more particular than most. “I’m persistent about approving whoever comes here to teach,” he says. “If I feel they can’t live up to our standards, they don’t get the job.” After he or she is hired, a teacher’s abilities are carefully assessed by Ross in a process that takes at least a year.



MID-SIX WEEKS REPORTS

Lida Hooe may be the only school in Dallas that sends out unofficial “report cards” at the midway point in each six-week session. The grades and/or comments on the reports do not become a part of the student’s permanent school record, but simply serve as an advance warning to parents if the student is running into problems – either in academics or citizenship. The parents and student then have three weeks to correct the situation before regular report cards are issued.

The mid-six weeks reports mean added paperwork for teachers like Joyce Carlton, who teaches third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade math to more than 100 students. But even though the burden of filling out papers has become one of the principal bugaboos of teaching, Ms. Carlton feels the extra work is justified in this case. “Some paperwork serves a purpose and some doesn’t,” she says. “I think these reports are valuable to everyone because they prevent a lot of unpleasant surprises later on. Besides, Mr. Ross goes to a lot of pains to eliminate some of the other paperwork that teachers in most other schools have to contend with

Test Preparedness

“One of our goals,” says Ms. Carlton, “has been to make our kids ’test-wise.’ Sometimes the people who design all these standardized tests go overboard, and the form of the tests is too confusing for younger children to understand.”

With this in mind, the staff at Lida Hooe has devoted special efforts to explaining testing procedures, showing pupils how to fill in the “bubbles” correctly on multiple-choice questions, and generally helping them to feel more prepared and comfortable about taking tests. “We would never coach our kids on the answers, the way some school systems have been accused of doing with the TABS tests,” says Ross. “But if a student knows the answer, he deserves a chance to record it properly.”

Nothing in this article is intended to imply that Jim Ross is the only good principal in the DISD, or that Lida Hooe is the only good elementary school in Dallas. Indeed, Jim Ross would undoubtedly be the first to deny any such implication. Despite all the innovation, dedication, and hard work that have made Lida Hooe a bright spot in a dark and dismal era for urban schools everywhere, Ross says, quite candidly: “We’ve been lucky -lucky that we haven’t been hit by busing, that we have a stable neighborhood, and that we have parents who really care about their children. In most parts of most big cities, you just don’t get the support you need from parents. We have, and we’re very lucky in that respect.”

More important than the scores on any test is the mere fact that schools like Lida Hooe do exist -even now and often unnoticed-in Dallas and other American cities. They stand as proof that quality education can blossom, even in unfertile urban soil.

Last school term, three pupils whose parents had enrolled them in private schools came back to Lida Hooe. This fall, that number swelled to seven-all Anglos, all middle-class. Not a flood tide, by any means, but at least a hopeful trickle. “Maybe it’s a trend,” says Jim Ross. “I hope so.”

“Maybe I’m too naive for my own good,” says third grade language arts teacher Billie Watts, “but I think urban public schools can make it. I just know they can.”

And that’s what they know at Lida Hooe that other people don’t.

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