Oct 26, 201209:17 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
Staying the Course
Morris Jeff students gather at Morning Meeting every single morning to discuss the school's core values, sing songs in different languages and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Courtesy of Sarah Hayes Bell
I don’t want to say I’m a fair-weather friend or fan – I am actually possibly too loyal. I’ve stood by and supported my friends through divorces, professional setbacks, alcoholism (recovering and not) and enough stints in mental hospitals that I can’t help but wonder if my friends are particularly prone to mental illness. I supported the Saints long before they won the Super Bowl, and I will never stop. And if and when my alma mater, Mizzou, a newcomer to the SEC, has to play LSU, I will pull for Mizzou against all odds.
That said, it is always easier to love a friend who’s happy, to support a team that’s winning, to root for a clear favorite. And so when the state released its School Performance Scores earlier this week and Morris Jeff, Ruby’s school, received a D, I had to swallow hard. After all, I really don’t have anything to lose by walking into Tiger Stadium dressed in a Mizzou sweatshirt, but the stakes for educating my beloved daughter are way higher.
So to be perfectly frank, when I say “I had to swallow hard,” what I actually mean is “I went into a blind panic.” And when the going gets tough, the neurotic make spreadsheets, so I pulled up Excel on my laptop and started going to every school website I could think of – public, Catholic, nonreligious-and-extremely-expensive, etc. And then I burst into tears. This wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to put Ruby in another school, even if I could afford it. I believe in Morris Jeff. I believe in its mission. I have seen it working, in my daughter and in her friends, and even in myself. I have made some incredible friends and connections through that school, and the sense of community I feel there is damn near palpable.
Anyone can teach kids to take tests – and that is what this score is based on, on the scores of just 25 kids, all of whom came to Morris Jeff as second graders and took the iLEAP test the following year.
I worked for many years in college and grad school for a major test prep company doing exactly that, teaching kids to take tests. I worked with some kids who really were not all that bright, and I improved their scores dramatically. I worked with some kids who were very smart but had no idea of the strategies for taking standardized tests, and I improved their scores dramatically. I worked with some kids who made straight A’s at school but had horrible (and understandable) test anxiety when faced with these supposedly life-determining tests, and I improved their scores dramatically. Not a single kid walked through our doors who didn’t leave with his or her test score way up – and believe me, this is not because I am such a brilliant, inspiring teacher. I didn’t do anything except read out of a binder.
Based on that experience, I don’t think standardized test scores mean all that much – but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. As long as those tests are the yardstick by which schools are measured and students are admitted to college, they matter quite a bit. And I absolutely 100 percent want Ruby to be able to do well on those tests.
But I fully believe that with the test scores now in hand, Morris Jeff teachers and administrators can see the problem areas and can work to better prepare the students and ultimately improve the scores. Improving test scores just isn’t all that hard – and the teachers at Morris Jeff, given what I’ve seen of them, are absolutely up to the task.
The more I thought about it, I realized – and this is odd for someone who is as much of an elitist snob as I am when it comes to education – that test scores are not the be-all, end-all for me that they used to be. The teachers at Morris Jeff are teaching kids how to think, which honestly is the exact opposite of how you teach someone to do well on a standardized test. The International Baccelaureate curriculum that the school uses integrates all subjects and is child-led, and I really think it’s valuable. Ruby can see connections between and among so many things now and frequently asks me questions that hurt my brain: “Mom, if we can represent the number 4 with the letters ‘f-o-u-r,’ how come we can’t represent letters with numbers?” She talks to me about color families – “pink is in the red color family, Mom; it’s a tint” – and inclined planes and how lungs function. She chatters happily in Spanish to the woman behind the pastry counter when we go into Norma’s Sweets, a Latin American grocery store and bakery just down the street from us. And perhaps most important of all, she is learning about the diversity of our city just by showing up: Her class is such a fantastic blend of kids of all colors and languages and skill sets. She works and learns every day alongside kids with a variety of special needs from a variety of backgrounds. In short, she is learning reading and math, yes, but she is not learning it in a vacuum. An article last month in the New York Times headlined “Segregation Prominent in Schools, Study Finds,” contained this quote: “Is it possible to learn calculus in a segregated school? Of course it is,” said Mark D. Rosenbaum, chief counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles. “Is it possible to learn how the world operates and to think creatively about the rich diversity of cultures in this country? It is impossible.”
For Morris Jeff to succeed, obviously, it still needs to be able to teach kids calculus (or any other subject), but I feel confident that it will get there. Morris Jeff is way ahead of the curve on teaching students about how the world operates and how to think creatively, and I truly believe in my heart that the rest will follow.
Taking tests can be taught, and the scores can be measured, but I am not entirely sure what all of that means in the end. These tests are undeniably important, and I can’t claim that there isn’t room for improvement; I know the teachers and administrators would agree. But Morris Jeff is enriching my daughter’s life in ways that I can’t put in a bar graph.
She is a vibrant, incessantly curious little girl who is full of questions; if she were at a school where they were just teaching the test, I am fairly sure that her teachers wouldn’t take the time to answer questions that wouldn’t be on the test: “What holds up the sky?” and “Why do our stomachs hurt when we get hungry?” and “Why do the words ‘female’ and ‘woman’ have the words ‘male’ and ‘man’ in them?” Instead, these questions are celebrated and encouraged by her teachers, who then help her find the answers. As I said, she isn’t learning how to take a test; she is learning how to think.
And so I dried my eyes, and I closed my spreadsheet without saving it, and I went into the kitchen to bake a batch of brownies for the school’s open house. And then I went to the open house and answered questions from a really incredible group of prospective parents.
This school is worth fighting for. It’s worth sticking it out. It’s worth a few growing pains. And honestly, it can’t be any harder than a lifetime spent pulling for the Saints.