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Michigan Radio's Grading Michigan Schools is a multi-part series that takes an in-depth look at education in Michigan. We hear why one college student feels let down by the public school system in the state. We find out about "unschooling," an education philosophy that abandons textbooks and a curriculum. We also look at how the public school system is serving at-risk students through education for the very young and early intervention for kids with special education needs.Support for Grading Michigan Schools comes from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, a founder of the Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative, and The Skillman Foundation, a voice for Detroit children since 1960.

Turning Around a Troubled School

Nov. 6, 2007
In Part Two of our Grading Michigan Schools series, we look at one of the 20 schools entering their sixth or seventh year of failing to meet federal progress benchmarks.

Last year, 20 schools in Michigan failed to meet minimum federal standards for academic progress for the sixth or seventh consecutive year.

Hull Middle School in Benton Harbor is one of them.

But first-year principal Freddie McGee is hoping to turn things around.

McGee is a tough guy to keep up with.

He walks the halls of Hull Middle School with a red megaphone in his hand - on the lookout for students who step out of line.

He doesn't have to look too hard.

"Hey! no no no no no no!" he screams at a group of students. "You have less than 30 seconds to get to class, or to the lunchroom."

McGee doesn't tolerate students loitering in the hallways when they're supposed to be in class. He's also constantly pulling boys aside for what seems to be the most common infraction.

"Sam," he calls through his megaphone to one student, who turns to face McGee. "Pull your pants up, man."

Sagging pants is a violation of the dress code at Hull. But enforcing the belted-waist look requires constant vigilance.

"Where your belt?" he asks Sam. "Got a belt at home? I want to see that belt Monday."

Teachers say McGee's attention to order and discipline has made Hull a much more pleasant place to work.

Dustin Slivensky teaches the 8th grade. She says before McGee's arrival, substitute teachers wouldn't show up if they were assigned to Hull.

"I mean, if I were a sub in the district I wouldn't sub here," Slivensky says.

"One time when I was gone and another teacher was gone in our 8th grade wing we had a long-term sub in our social studies class. They would pile desks up and run across them. They were tearing books up, throwing them out the window.... I mean, it was survival mode for all of us teachers."

Today, Slivensky is taking a group of 8th graders to Kalamazoo to visit the campus of Western Michigan University. It's one of the many activities McGee has put together to boost his students' interest in school.

"What y'all about to go see, that's one thing you've got to instill in yourself," McGee tells the students gathered to leave. " Cause y'all going to college. Like I tell you all the time, that's what we promote. Everybody in here is going to college. I do not believe in that cliche that college is not for everybody. Everybody in this gym right now is going to college."

Before he send them off, he pulls up a pair of students to lead the school's pledge.

"Right now today," the students begin - followed by a chorus of voices repeating their words, "at this very moment I'm capable of giving myself the gift of absolute self-determination, self-belief, and powerful non-stop confidence in myself."

The teachers, counselors, and even the custodians at Hull all say there's a completely different atmosphere in the school since McGee took over at the beginning of the year.

But what has to change in the eyes of the federal government are the school's abysmal test scores.

Students are well below state targets to meet full proficiency by the 2013 school year. And last year was the school's sixth year of failing to meet what's called adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Because it's in "phase six" under the federal law, there's a litany of corrective measures the district had to put in place at Hull.

It hired a coach for Principal McGee. The school has to audit its teaching practices, and set improvement goals. And the district has hired consultants to help raise test scores.

Mark Ravlin is one of those consultants. He's been visiting Hull since last spring, and he agrees that McGee has transformed Hull Middle School.

"Kids will say the building feels safer. Kids will say there's more fun here now. Kids are much more ready to tell you who their favorite teacher is," Ravlin says.

"A year ago, just - this was a different building. It was a different building."

Still, Ravlin says it's difficult to say how those changes will translate to standardized test results.

All around the building, signs announce the number of students who the state says should be proficient in math and language on this year's state standardized test. To reach those goals, students would have to make huge gains over last year's scores.

McGee admits that's probably not realistic. But he says he does expect to make gains. He held workshops on Saturdays and after school so students could hone their test-taking skills.

"I tell the students, look. If you look at a test, more than likely there are going to be two answers that automatically you know does not belong. So eliminate em right away," he says.

McGee says de-mystifying the test-taking process is one step. But he says he has a bigger battle to overcome - especially with the boys at Hull.

"Today's beast to me is, today's kids who are smart, they don't show it," says McGee.

"It's not cool being smart anymore. It's not. One young man told me I'm not about to be a Poindexter around here. I can't get A's and B's. Cause I won't be accepted anymore. I'm like, what do you mean? My friend ain't gonna like me no more. So what I'm doing here. So what I'm doing here, with things like that - I'm making it cool to be smart again."

Part of the reason McGee says he connects with the kids at Hull is that he's a product of the Benton Harbor school system.

"I mean, you can see the interaction he has with these kids - because he's been there," says Benton Harbor Area Schools Superintendent Carole Schmidt.

Schmidt hired McGee. And she says she's very happy with what she's seen so far at Hull. But she says transforming a troubled school takes patience.

"I think it's unreasonable to expect that there's a turnaround in one school year," says Schmidt.

"I think what you look for is continuous improvement. Because anyone who works with change knows that it's sometimes as long as five to seven to ten years when you're going to see any kind of significant, sustainable change."

But the No Child Left Behind Act doesn't give schools a decade to turn around. The state schools superintendent is asking the Michigan Legislature to give him the authority to shut down schools that reach phase six. That means schools like Hull that are starting to edge toward improvement might not get the chance to see it through.

Also, the kind of sustainable change Superintendent Schmidt is talking about requires consistency and stability.

Teachers at Hull say one of the setbacks for the school has been the constant turnover in school leadership and in the teaching staff. And right now, it's not clear whether that trend will be reversed.

Like Freddie McGee, this is also Carole Schmidt's first year on the job. So one test of Hull's turnaround will be whether they stay on to see reforms through.

McGee says his plan is to stay.

"As long as the Lord keeps me here," says McGee. "This is my hometown, so I don't have plans of leaving."

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.