Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 14 2011

Turnarounds and divine education

Overheard during WaterFire, upon observing CMs with unlit torches
Random person: “Well, if they can’t handle fire, they definitely can’t handle the students.”

The past week has been fairly uneventful compared to Induction, Institute, and the first week of F8W, which affords the perfect opportunity to finally provide some context for my school and teaching position this year. I’ll be teaching Algebra 2 and “Math Lab” at a high school in Lower South Providence, a neighborhood that is notorious for its deterioration, large population of poor minorities, and physical isolation from the rest of the city. As of 1990, the most recent data I could find, more than half the population of 5,065 was African-American and about one-third was Hispanic. (Based on anecdotal evidence, these statistics have probably switched in the past twenty years.) More than one in four residents did not speak English well or at all, and less than half of the residents age 25 or older had completed high school. Perhaps most strikingly, Lower South Providence had a 20% unemployment rate, more than twice the citywide rate of 9%. (Source: Providence Neighborhood Profiles.)

The statistics at my school are no less discouraging, though obviously, I don’t believe that geography is necessarily destiny. In 2010, on the math portion of the state-wide assessment, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), fewer than 3% of the students at the school scored “Proficient” or higher, and most students scored “Substantially Below Proficient,” the lowest possible category. Of the students, 82% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 19% have Limited English Proficiency (LEP), and 13% have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). (Source: School Reform Plan.) My school is one of six “turnaround” schools across the state, and the only high school indicated as such in Providence. These are schools that were designated by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) in 2010 as “persistently low-achieving” and mandated to undertake one of four possible school reform plans: turnaround, restart, closure, or transformation, the last of which applies to my particular school.

However, though the statistics are daunting, I am encouraged and excited to begin teaching this year because of the positive culture, sense of possibility, and student-centeredness that I’ve found to be almost ubiquitous among the faculty and staff at my school. Furthermore, the 32-page transformation plan, far from being vague and unhelpfully critical as I (unfairly) expected, contains very explicit goals that reference the data, a clear roadmap for meeting those goals, and a number of quantitative and qualitative metrics to indicate progress toward those goals. Specific elements of the transformation plan, which was drafted last year and is being implemented this year, include the following:

  • Replacement of the principal. The new principal is possibly the most open-minded, devoted, and hard-working principal I have ever encountered—she was at school and picked up my housemate’s call on a Saturday afternoon—and her emphasis on data-driven decision makes me feel warm and tingly.
  • Rigorous evaluations that include rewards for increasing student achievement and removal of those who do not improve their professional practice. I’m not sure exactly what this will look like yet, but I do know that it will involve accountability to data and a fair distribution of leadership responsibilities.
  • Increased learning time. Compared to the district, we have three additional days in the school year and one additional hour of instruction per day, not to mention block scheduling and extra professional development.
  • Ongoing community engagement. Again, I’m not sure what this will look like yet, but based on what I’ve heard from the principal and faculty so far, the school is moving in the right direction with regard to reaching out to parents with surveys and information about school offerings.

One last note: it has been pointed out to me that my blog and opinions sometimes make me sound like a naive ignoramus who drinks TFA kool-aid as if it were the elixir of life. To be clear, I do know that any system, framework, organization, or plan is bound to be flawed, just as I, as an individual, am flawed. Nevertheless, being mindful and confident that I am not here (as a teacher, as a corps member, etc.)  by accident, but rather by the ineffable grace and sovereignty of God, one of the principles that I resolve to live by is Romans 13:1-5—to be subject to the “governing authorities” and do what is right, as a matter of submission but especially as a matter of conscience. Often, this amounts to giving TFA, my school, and the people I work under the “benefit of the doubt,” but it’s really about much more than that—it’s about being confident that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I’ve been called to be a teacher, when I could probably be doing equally meaningful work like fighting homelessness, serving in the mission fields, encouraging and relocating refugees, etc. I referenced Isaiah 58:6-10 in my first post, but the exhortations in that passage could just as easily be applied to any of the above enterprises. This past week, God was gracious to edify me through the words of John Piper (one of my favorite pastors) in his article, Back to School: A Biblical Perspective. I’ll spare you any extensive paraphrasing, but the main idea is that the business of education is God’s business; for who could want us to understand and appreciate knowledge more than the God of the universe, the Creator of quantum mechanics and active galactic nuclei, the Maker of the rules of logic, the One who declares that every tongue will confess that He is Lord? The education of children is a weighty and glorious responsibility, and I pray that I will never take it for granted.

In related news, having more free time to spend in prayer, praise, meditation, and especially the word has been such a blessing this past week. Acknowledging that there is no room to grow complacent, I can nevertheless say that I think I’m beginning to understand the sentiments of the psalmist in his description of the word of God as “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey” (Psalm 19:10), or the hymnist in his proclamation that “every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” As I get settled into life here in Providence, as plans are created, executed, and reflected upon, and as the semester begins, bringing with it moments of joy, discouragement, and turbulence, I pray the prayer of Jim Elliot, the late and well-known missionary: “Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.”

2 Responses

  1. jon edwards

    Nice piece man

  2. carol

    stats are depressing but i know they will be smashing after mr. k is through with them =)

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New city, same vision

Rhode Island
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