BY: CLAIRE PETERMAN
In the midst of the chaos and celebration that marked the end of the 2013 school year, Carrboro High School English teacher Christine Mayfield found herself anxious. Mayfield’s year-to-year contract was under review by the school’s new Principal, LaVerne Mattocks. After five years teaching at Carrboro and 19 in various schools in Louisiana and North Carolina, the renewal of her contract had seemed to her to be a formality.
This year, however, was different. Mayfield was told that her part-time position would be switched to full time, and that the administration was treating it like a new position. She was asked to apply for the job.
“I thought it was something I’d just need to go through the motions of,” Mayfield said. After being interviewed, she was one of three being considered for two positions. “The other applicants were well qualified, but they hadn’t been there for 5 years already,” she said. “That was a point I tried to make in my interview — I had 5 years to build relationships with parents, students, staff, the community.”
Mayfield was not rehired. “I asked why — I had high ratings, no complaints… He just said it was a well-qualified pool of applicants,” she said.
Mayfield was not alone. At Carrboro High School, 21 staff members from last year were not present at the beginning of this year. The other high schools reported similar numbers; 21 changes occurred at East Chapel Hill High School and 22 at Chapel Hill High School. The turnover rate this year was significantly elevated in comparison to past years.
A District in Flux
“Any time there’s significant change, there’s a period of adjustment,” said Carrboro Principal LaVerne Mattocks. In 2011, the district’s superintendent of 18 years, Dr. Neil Pedersen, retired. The year after, Carrboro’s principal Kelly Batten announced he would be leaving Carrboro High School to fulfill an administrative position in the Chatham County School District.
Pedersen’s replacement, Dr. Tom Forcella, quickly discovered the unique set of challenges that the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District presented.
The CHCCS district is consistently one of the highest ranked schools in the state based on per-pupil spending and test scores. But while more than 95 percent of white and economically advantaged students scored at or above grade level on standardized tests, only 69.7 percent of black students, 65.2 percent of Latino students, and 49 percent of economically disadvantaged students passed.
“When I came to the district, we had to establish a mission. The long term plan had run its course,” Forcella said. “What became clear was that we had an ongoing problem with the achievement gap that hadn’t been solved for years. We needed to have an honest discussion. We needed to focus on instruction,” he said. “Instruction is the number one way to close the achievement gap. If we focus on instruction, we make progress.”
Ditching Methods That Work
Forcella quickly learned that some of the high schools — Carrboro included — had taken matters into their own hands and created hybrid classes.
Instead of dividing classes into honors and standard students, the English department at Carrboro had begun teaching combined classes with differentiated work.
Chapel Hill High School Assistant Principal Alphonso Donaldson taught hybrid classes at Carrboro before they were disbanded.
“Working together, working more effectively. That’s the place where it started from,” said Donaldson. “That’s the idea. For me personally, one of the most enjoyable experiences was that we were trying something different and it was really collaborative. Kids were working together in different contexts — in and out of class. It was interesting and beneficial to students.”
While Mayfield did not teach the hybrid classes, she was an outspoken proponent of the practice. “We felt that ninth graders coming into high school aren’t all ready to make the choice between honors and standard, and we were concerned about the racial thing- honors is mostly white, standard is mostly black, latino, and Karen,” she said. “It allowed for richer discussion. For example, it’s hard to have a meaningful discussion about ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ in an all white class.”
Two months into Forcella’s first year, the hybrid classes were abruptly shut down. An existing school board policy disallowed the classes, although they had flourished with Pedersen’s tacit approval.
With this action, Carrboro’s English department found itself embroiled in conflict with the administration. According to Mayfield, the teachers arranged a meeting with Forcella, but his secretary called just before the scheduled time to tell them he could not come.
“I think the fact that we did this ‘illegally’ and continued to push for it made us stand out as independent-minded people from the start,” she said.
The purpose of the hybrid class model was to bridge the achievement gap, but according to Forcella, it seemed to hold the high achievers back.
Mayfield disagrees: “The hybrid classes got rid of these conglomerations of people who don’t expect to do well. They’re lifted by the rising tide, is what we’ve found.” And so do the numbers: According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction,The achievement gap between black and white students narrowed by more than ten percentage points in a single year — an unprecedented amount for the school.
Instead of using hybrid classes to close the achievement gap, Forcella brought in the Institute for Learning (IFL), an education consulting company from the University of Pittsburgh. According to Forcella, IFL’s tenets mesh well with the district’s new long-term plan
IFL provides trainings and pre-designed units for teachers at all levels. In addition, it states certain “Principles of Learning,” or best practices that are applicable to all teachers. According to the 2012-2013 budget, it cost the district $250,000, plus the cost of substitutes for the 10 days of school teachers must miss for mandatory trainings.
“It’s paid for through grants and repurposing of old development programs,” Forcella said. “It pays for itself already in the changes we’ve seen.”
Donaldson agreed. “I think IFL is offering us sound educational approaches,” she said. “I like what they stand for.”
“I think the way we implement it and some of the work that comes with IFL… [needs] to be deliberate,” he added.
According to Mayfield, while IFL’s goals are sound, the curriculum it imposes is not. The program encourages teachers to use techniques- like small group work- that are already commonly used.
“We felt condescended to,” Mayfield said. But she said the real rub was a unit called Arguments and Methods, which required teachers to spend nine weeks teaching rhetoric using only three political speeches. Mayfield said a diverse reading list and more freedom to delve into the historical context of the speeches would have been more engaging and rigorous.
The CHS English department decided to shrink the unit. Mayfield taught it in two weeks, following the unit to the letter and including the final assessment. The administration, she said, was unhappy.
In meetings about IFL, Mayfield reported, the teachers would be scolded for “having a bad attitude.” She felt that when concerns were voiced about the new curriculum, they were ignored.
At the end of last year, Mayfield came into conflict with the administration. On a Friday afternoon, she, along with other teachers, went to talk to Mattocks about the unfair treatment of a staff member. After the meeting, she was unsatisfied.
“We wrote letters to the Human Resources Department. We thought that was what we were supposed to do, we thought they were there to mediate. Instead, we were called into Lincoln Center [administrative offices] and berated,” said Mayfield.
Soon after, Mayfield learned that her job was in jeopardy. The chair of the English department and another teacher in the department both resigned following Mayfield’s dismissal. They declined to be interviewed.
Both Mattocks and Forcella believe that IFL and the hybrid classes were unrelated to the staff turnover this year.
While teachers and administrators alike struggle to cope with the achievement gap through hybrid classes and the IFL respectively, Mayfield is unconvinced.
“I guess I’d say that teachers and Admin have the same goals as far as what they say–I personally don’t see them doing much on the ground to achieve this. Not supporting teachers more actively in their goal to desegregate the classes, taking up planning/work time with IFL oriented in-service that isn’t grounded in where teachers and schools really are. These aren’t ways to close the achievement gap to me,” she said. “Seems like saying you’re trying to close the achievement gap is one of those righteous statements that no one can object to–whether or not that is truly the effect of your policies at the school and classroom level.”
This article originally featured in Campus BluePrint’s Fall 2013 issue. For more content check out Campus BluePrint in print, available on campus and online!