A Lesson in Change | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

April 03, 2013 News » Cover Story

A Lesson in Change 

Principal Ike Spencer and his faculty show what it takes to turn around a struggling west-side school

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The FIRST TEST
Barbie Morton was teaching at an east-side school in 2004 when she was declared as “surplus” for that school and reassigned to West Lake. “You’re kidding,” she says colleagues said sympathetically when they found out about her destination.

But, she says, the school’s demographic diversity made her come alive. Now West Lake’s Title 1 specialist, Morton says when Spencer took over West Lake, he faced the educational equivalent of a “9/11.”

Under No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) accountability system set up in 2002, West Lake had demonstrated a mixed, “but declining” academic performance, according to a February 2012 Utah Education Policy Center report. From 2002 until 2011, it had passed AYP five times out of nine, failing in 2003, 2006 and again in 2009. The 2009 results were announced in 2010, the summer Spencer started. If the school failed two years in a row, it would trigger a “school improvement plan,” which meant an injection of $200,000, but also a multitude of plans, appraisals and oversight at the district and state level.

“I kind of panicked, in a way,” Spencer says. “It was my first year, the only person like me [African-American] in a principal position at Granite, at a school that had clearly failed. How do I turn it around?”

One teacher told him that West Lake’s principals typically sat back for five years, then moved on. “All you do is ride it out and get to go someplace else,” Spencer says he was told, “as if they saw this school as a punishment.”

Issues quickly emerged that surprised Spencer, particularly the low level of students’ reading ability. “Testing people’s reading abilities, we found they were pronouncing well, but they couldn’t comprehend,” he says. “I pulled everybody out of their classes to test reading levels.” Teachers were frustrated at the disruption to their lesson plans, but for Spencer, reading was far more important. “That really was a setback,” he says. “How come we didn’t know these kids couldn’t read?”

“It’s Not A Plague”
Spencer says some teachers blamed the students or their home life for poor academic results. “Many times, they were putting it on the kid, his family, the societal makeup, that kids move in and out of the neighborhood, that parents don’t make them do homework,” he says. Such perspectives are apparent in the University of Utah Education Policy Center report, in which one teacher noted, “I think the culture overall of our school is apathetic students.”

Veteran Spanish teacher Scott Slade offers a different perspective, arguing that under NCLB, teachers are accountable “for students who come in the last week of school, who are just going to be on your paper. You’re accountable for a kid that’s had a rough life. Whether he works or not ... he’s on your test schedule. Eighty percent of the kids are awesome, but there’s a population that we have here that refuse to work.”

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Children of poverty, Spencer says, “learn different, but it’s not a plague. They bring more baggage to school with them than kids that are carefree.”

Andre Walker moved to Utah three years ago from St. Louis to live with his father, Clyde. An Iraq war veteran, Clyde is 80 percent disabled, works part time as a produce clerk at Smith’s and is a member of West Lake’s community council.

“It’s better here, you don’t hear gunshots, there’s not garbage in the street,” 13-year-old Andre says. In St. Louis, his mother had him pumping gas to help the family out, but in West Valley City, his father works hard to ensure his son had only his education to focus on. “I thought if I be part of Andre’s life, the least I can make sure is that when he turns 18, he’s somewhat prepared for this world,” Clyde says.

When Clyde saw Spencer, he watched how attentive he was to the children, the way he carried himself. Clyde points his index fingers in the air and says, “He knows that school, he knows those kids. He’s got this picture in his head, how to improve things, how to make smarter kids come out of his school.”

Children being raised by single parents or grandparents is the norm at West Lake, Spencer says. “I think it’s so key to what we’re dealing with. Everybody’s being raised by somebody else. This school is the classic example of it takes a village to raise a child.”

One example is 13-year-old “Salim,” not his real name. Spencer often catches Salim in the hallway, a listless straggler doing his best to avoid class. His mother left him with his paternal grandmother when he was two weeks old. His father lives in Tennessee.

“Raising grandchildren really slows you down,” Salim’s grandmother says, but Spencer’s “daddy-like way” and his strictness helps lighten her load. “They call me when he’s acting up,” she says. While she wishes she could sometimes bestow a “good ol’ country whupping,” Salim works on his anger toward his mother and father through a therapist the school has arranged.

After school, Salim hangs out with children who have parents. “He feels like I’m too old, I’m quiet, do nothing,” the grandmother says. He doesn’t tell her where he goes after school. “Utah can be very big when you’re looking for a child,” she says.

Spencer cites Salim as one of many West Lake students crying out for love. “When you’re talking to them and looking in their eyes, you can see they’re going a thousand miles an hour trying to find themselves.”

Katie Humphreys teaches AVID, a course that helps students set their sights on college. Spencer “wants kids to have someone like his mother in their lives,” she says. “He really wants it to be a teacher. His whole mission is that they feel safe with somebody, that they are cared for by somebody.”

A WILD YEAR
Spencer sought to change the learning environment at West Lake by initially providing extensive professional development for the teachers. “We had to get out of our comfort zone and understand the mission was to go from teachers teaching to teachers learning,” he says.

He brought in Edwin Javius of San Jose, Calif.-based EDEquity. Javius was critical, Spencer says, in introducing teachers, through workshops, to “culturally responsive teaching.”

Spencer also wanted teachers to move around the classroom and engage their students and post language and content objectives for every class on the board, so students knew what they were expected to learn in each lesson. “It not only helped the teacher stay on track, but helped the students help the teacher stay on track,” he says.

That first year, “Ike hit the ground pretty hard,” says Rachel Bartholomew, who teaches reading. “He had a lot of things he had to fix.”

According to Title 1 specialist Morton, Spencer was akin to a force of nature rushing through the school.

“Ike made everybody pull out all the stops, throw it all out the window,” she says. “Teachers were calling the unions, people were in tears. It was a wild year.”

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Assistant superintendent Fraser declined to discuss specifics relating to Spencer or the faculty, but says, “It’s not uncommon at all, particularly with provisional administrators, to have some struggles.”

One bone of contention was Spencer’s communication style, a contrast to the more supportive approach offered by past principals, according to several teachers. Teachers “didn’t have the luxury of letting our emotions develop to the change,” Bartholomew says. “We had to change whether we liked it or not.”

Some teachers found Spencer’s tone harsh. He says, “I probably should have worked to get more buy-in from the faculty.”

History teacher Todd Scott expresses deep frustration. “After the first year with Ike, I was so overwhelmed with what was on my plate, I felt my teaching ability was down to 65 percent, I felt I was robbing the kids.” The lessons were the same, but his focus “half the time ... was on the district, on administration.”

Teachers complained to one another of losing class-preparation time, having to grade papers at home instead of in class, attend meetings and generally work longer hours to accommodate Spencer’s dictates.

Spencer argues he was trying to get teachers to work in a different way, but teachers perceived it as more work being added to their schedule.

He also had parents, faculty, kitchen and custodial staff vote on whether or not to replace their current daily seven classes of 45 minutes each with a schedule of four 75-minutes classes on alternating days, a change that had been recommended by a committee of teachers whom he had visit other schools.

That change fit with Spencer’s desire to get teachers to “teach, assess [if students understood], re-teach,” something that a 40-minute class did not allow. A block schedule would also help tackle a chronic truancy problem—“Fewer intermissions, fewer opportunities to sluff,” Spencer says. He says 94 percent of the school voted in favor of the change in spring 2011. That same spring, his students took the all-important CRT tests that would determine whether the school was to be put under tighter district and federal control.

In the run up to Cinco de Mayo, Spencer heard rumors that students were planning a walkout to protest immigration raids. The school needed a new digital marquee—the one it had was missing its Ls and Es. So he hijacked the walkout, turning it into a walk-a-thon in which teachers and others sponsored students to raise money for the school. He organized a surprise in the form of bouncy castles and a mariachi band. Wearing a sombrero, Spencer joined the kids as they walked around the school. The students dissolved into joyful chaos when they caught sight of the games.

But come summer, the results of the CRTs were as Spencer had feared. The school had failed to advance in key core subjects, triggering state and district oversight. “I looked at it that I would have loved to have won, but at least it was done now.” The School Improvement Grant, he says, “is a two-year program.” He decided, “I’m getting out of it in one.”

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