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Franklin Middle School is located in the heart of an economically challenged neighborhood in the small urban city of Champaign in central Illinois. Though staffed by dedicated adults and attended by hardworking students, Franklin is recovering from a difficult past.

As a result of years of racial discord, segregation, and lawsuits, in January 2002, the Champaign Unit 4 School District adopted a judicial consent decree outlining an educational equity agreement. Key points included establishing processes for parental choice of schools and increased community involvement.

At the beginning of the consent decree, Franklin was a school in transition from a primarily homogeneous magnet school to a school that served a very diverse population, including many low-income African American students. Franklin had four principals in five years; unprecedented staff turnover; and serious student discipline problems, including recurring physical confrontations and suspensions. Despite the decree, outcomes were not changing for Franklin students, and the achievement gap and discrepancies in attendance, discipline, and other areas were pervasive.

Franklin Middle School
Champaign, IL
Principal: Angela L. Smith

: 6–8

: 558

: Urban

Black/African American 46%, White 38%, Asian/Pacific Islander 10%, Hispanic 5%, American Indian <1%, Other <1%, Free or reduced-price meals eligible 53%, Special education 18%, English language learners 1%

The turnaround process began with the one-year appointment of a new principal who understood how to bring disparate communities together under the same roof, followed by a successful, experienced middle school principal who was brought in from the central office to put much-needed systems, structures, and processes in place to address some of the major issues. A period of stability had finally begun. Three years later, after assuming many new responsibilities and with guidance and mentoring from the retiring principal, Assistant Principal (and former Dean) Angela Smith was promoted to the top spot.

Four years into her tenure as principal, Smith and the other two administrators are seen as true instructional leaders, having perfected their collaborative relationship. Each day, the leadership team can be found walking the hallways, observing classrooms, and interacting with the students they know so well. The walls are lined with student work; motivational slogans; and innumerable signs, banners, flags, and posters with school goals, such as, “Our vision: E2—To Exceed Expectations!”

The original team walk-through process was initiated by Smith and includes administrators walking the hallways, stepping into classrooms, collecting data in a constructive manner, and sharing it at the biweekly staff meetings. Teachers meet as members of professional learning communities (PLCs) and are grouped into leadership teams by grade levels, content areas, and skill sets and talents. The PLCs meet every day to plan and at least once a week to examine achievement data.

A cornerstone of the school’s academic success is the manner in which the districtwide AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program provides a solid academic foundation for historically underrepresented populations who are seeking a university experience. Teachers of non-AVID classes, seeing the success of the instructional approaches offered through the AVID curriculum, have adopted many of the strategies in their classrooms.

Stories of Us

Franklin supports a thriving honors-level program, which is open to all students. Through aggressive identification, recruitment, and support, the numbers of honors students has been increasing substantially each year. During the 2009–10 school year, 62% of the student body was enrolled in one or more honors class. Of those students, 34% were Black and 37% were low income.

Intense monitoring of student progress is a hallmark of Franklin. At the beginning of each school year, teachers use the results from the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT) to identify the achievement levels of each student. A card is prepared with the student’s name and color coded on the basis of the student’s information. Teachers review individual performance and discuss interventions in daily gradelevel team meetings and twice-monthly meetings. Lessons and activities are adjusted, support is provided, and programs and schedules are changed as necessary. All of this is captured on the student’s card. This “snapshot” is located in the principal’s office, and teachers check on their students and update the cards throughout the day. This data-driven planning and responsive approach encourages teachers to be proactive and success oriented.

As evidenced by a number of other student support programs—including Career Cruising, an Internet-based career-planning tool that is facilitated by the counselors, and the Knights of Knowledge reading group for struggling readers—Franklin has emerged from a challenging past as a stronger school. As one district administrator summed it up, “Students and staff are full of hope and determination.... It is a school filled with a wealth of talent and promise.”

Excellence for All

Principal Angela Smith’s understanding of the bridges and barriers that exist among stakeholders has allowed her to find ways to bring the forces together to support a common goal: excellence for all students.

One of the most important things I had to do as a building administrator was to listen! I listened to teachers’ needs, desires, frustrations, and reservations. I also listened to parents; students; community members; and more importantly, the data. Fortunately, being an effective communicator is one of my strengths. It became a lifeline for my career at Franklin because everyone had a story to tell, and each story was important to the history and the future of Franklin.

I began my career at Franklin as the dean of students. As I listened and looked at the student experience in a changing building, it was apparent that securing the appropriate staff was essential. It soon became evident that several staff members were ill equipped or simply not suited to working in a school that was focused on excellence—at least not in a school that was about to experience major demographic changes. This was no doubt one of the toughest parts of my job when I first arrived at Franklin. But as I listened to all of the parents; students; community members; and more importantly, teachers who were invested in this school, it was evident that everyone wanted a creditable teaching staff.

A shared vision was something that was also lacking at Franklin. My immediate goal was to maintain discipline and salvage the school’s image. Franklin had been a magnet school in a low-income area where neighborhood students were often overlooked. I came during a period of transition when the federal courts mandated access to neighborhood students; the “magnet” status of the school was soon removed to attempt to make all schools equitable. As the school changed, so did the staff. This resulted in a shift in climate. It became hard to see what was most important to accomplish, and my first few years, the school year rarely started with a common vision for academic excellence.

As a new principal, my first order of business was to understand the overall mission of the district and where the school needed to be to help attain that goal. Second, I knew that I needed to break this major task down into smaller, attainable goals. I knew that we needed to start each school year with a staff-supported and data-driven goal. The principal before me began compiling data as a response to the consent decree, and I fostered conversations about what those data meant and how we would use them to change our students’ experiences and hopefully their lives after they leave Franklin.

Teachers began to have meaningful discussions about data as we recognized our need to be timely, professional, and accurate in our delivery of instruction. Today, our teachers not only track their data but also track how they respond to those data. Schoolwide, data-driven conversations have led to common authentic assessments, self-reflections, shared goals, professional growth, and engaging classrooms. My work focuses on adding systems to enhance a clear design for the school and classrooms, implementing methods to enhance academic rigor, reviewing data regularly, sharing the data and the story they tell, reinforcing the idea of teamwork, and keeping kids at the heart of it all.

As a team, we understand that there are things you can and cannot overcome. You cannot overcome location, but you can overcome perception. Through hands-on leadership, staff development, parents who serve as partners, and individualized experiences for students, we will continue to overcome the negative perceptions that have previously plagued Franklin. We are excited and eager to break through the barriers that have been roadblocks to receiving acknowledgement for our staff members’ undying commitment to youth and to our students receiving the best education possible!

Building Stability

Teachers at Franklin Middle School are grouped into professional learning communities by grade level, content area, and skill sets and talents. In response to our inquiry about the obstacles and issues the school overcame on the road to improvement, they developed the following list.

Administration. There have been four principals in the past nine years. This caused inconsistent buildingwide expectations and lack of direction. Smith—who held the position of dean for two years, assistant principal for three years, and principal for the last four years—has been a constant face at Franklin for nine years, and parents now feel a sense of stability. The administrative team also has systems in place that remain consistent year after year. The expectations from school leaders have become predictable.

Staff turnover. The change in demographics, administrators, and programs, coupled with the consent decree, prompted a number of staff members to leave. Only seven of the original staff members have remained at Franklin since the adoption of the consent decree. By hiring staff members strategically to match the needs of the students and adopting a mentoring program to aid new teachers in their first two years of service in the district, the turnover has drastically dropped. Today we lose teachers only for traditional reasons—relocation, return to school, or other circumstances unrelated to school climate. A symbiotic support system between new and veteran staff members has created a family-like culture among the staff. Staff members share a vision for the school and have mutual respect for one another, which aids the decision-making processes.

Data-sharing systems. At one time there was a lack of systems to manage, use, and share data. We were not aware of grade or discipline trends or overall trends in student data. Teachers now use Mastery Manager—an assessment management system—to use data to drive their instruction. Teachers can access attendance, grades across the content areas, state test scores, and data from the past three years of testing. We have also implemented “content collaboration forms” that teachers use weekly to ensure that their instruction is data driven.

Student demographics and parental involvement. Franklin was once a magnet school. During the transitional time period from magnet to regular middle school, the percentage of students with low socioeconomic status increased, creating a change in the building’s climate and reducing the percentage of parents who were involved at Franklin. The district’s new “feeder school” system helps to balance the student population at each elementary school as it feeds into Franklin.

In addition, staff members now understand the importance of building relationships with students. Extracurricular activities are a means for students to take ownership of their school. We consistently talk about the best ways to reach the population we teach. Parents are now involved in many areas: the PTA is spearheaded by numerous devoted parents; the fine arts, the band and string ensembles, and the athletic programs have boosters led by parents; and parents attend AVID open houses. Most importantly, attendance at parent-teacher conferences and other contacts are above 90%. Parents often express their happiness that they have a voice at Franklin.

Public perception. Franklin received very poor press in the media because of discipline issues, outside threats and pranks, and teacher turnover. Administrators and staff members found ways to spotlight our success in the media. Volunteer programs, competitive clubs, and organizations that perform well, along with awards for effective teachers, have helped the public image. School pride increased and students, staff members, parents, and the community became cheerleaders for Franklin as we began to heal and restore our image.

Climate and culture. The number of discipline infractions was very high, which created an unstable building climate. It made learning difficult and it created an unsafe feeling for students and parents. The student population changed when the district implemented a “school of choice” program. The school implemented positive behavioral interventions and supports and began to receive training in the Nurtured Heart Approach; Positive Behavior Facilitation; and extensive, ongoing training for de-escalation and the removal of “deficit thinking.” Schoolwide support systems focus on the social, emotional, and academic needs of students. High expectations were set for all stakeholders within the school community.

Curriculum models. The curriculum throughout the district was not organized and was disseminated to teachers with insufficient training on how to utilize it to best serve the students. District curriculum coordinators now provide organization and teachers have input into the curriculum. On staff development days, teachers from the entire district collaborate to generate timelines and common assessment tools to be carried out in the classroom. PL


Stories of Us
A class of 28 Franklin eighth-grade students wrote, directed, and starred in a 23-minute film about youth bullying called Stories of Us. Researchers from the University of Illinois–Champaign approached Franklin with this special one-semester project, which also includes curricular materials and resources to allow teens to explore bullying in their lives and in their schools. Working with a project director over a period of several months, the students produced the film script, depicting realistic stories in and around the school. They prepared the scenes, rehearsed, and performed all the young roles in the dramatized film. The majority of the filming took place within the general student population in the Franklin environment. Four of the students and the director were invited to CBS’s The Early Show in New York City to speak about and promote the film.

According to Shameem Rakha, a former Franklin teacher whose class created the film, “My students—racially, economically, and experientially diverse—came together in a way that I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing in my 16 years of teaching. Students who never sat together started eating lunch together—in essence, desegregating our cafeteria.”