Cheryl Tyler: Something Worth Fighting For
Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 06:34 AM
In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.
When word got out in the fall that Public School 277 in the Bronx had landed on a list of schools that could be closed by the Department of Education because it had received an F on its progress report, the school's students, parents and teachers went on a campaign to convince officials that their school had been working hard to raise achievement in the struggling neighborhood. They wrote letters. They crowded into meetings at the school auditorium. They described a school where students are engaged and teachers feel respected for their work.
In December, when they learned that school officials had decided to keep the school open, “you could hear the resounding cheer throughout the school,’’ said Cheryl Tyler, the principal. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said, “We saw the school has a motivated principal and energized staff with a vision for improving student achievement."
Ms. Tyler, 64, who became a teacher in 1970, said she knows there is much work ahead. Her school, located in a cheerfully decorated building, has 529 students, 40 percent of whom are considered English language learners or classified as special education students. Ms. Tyler's salary is $133,000 a year.
You came here in 2006. What was the school like then?
There was a very different vision of the school. Most of the teachers felt that their work was to ensure that kids were quiet and compliant and contained. And because of that -- kids are very smart -- many of the kids weren’t engaged.
I think that the curriculum was not a curriculum that really mattered to the kids. It was certainly a school that had done some important work and some effective work and needed a coherent curriculum, and teachers needed to find a place that they felt they were really making a difference for the kids.
And how would you describe P.S. 277 now?
What I like to think now is that we’ve become a community of ideas. When we have a problem now, or we’re in some kind of crisis mode, we come together as a community. We think about it, we learn from that crisis and we try to figure out ways together to resolve it, because separately we cannot make our school better.
Did you choose to come to this school?
I did. I came out of the Leadership Academy. One of the goals of the Leadership Academy is to put their graduates in schools that are in need.
Over my career I’ve taught in Harlem and the Upper West Side, and I’ve always felt that the important work -- it’s all important work -- but the really important work was teaching in Harlem, being in the South Bronx, being in the high poverty neighborhoods of Buffalo when I was in Teacher Corps.
You got an F on your school progress report, after earning an A in 2009 and a C in 2010. How hard was it to hear that your school might close because of poor performance?
It was devastating. It was devastating on a lot of levels. We know as a community what our kids are doing. We know how incredibly important those standardized tests are. We also know that it’s not enough for our kids to answer other people’s questions. We want them to be the ones asking the questions.
We want them to also have the skills and the strategies and the kind of thinking that they need when those answers don’t make sense, to push back.
Here, they’re always analyzing, they’re always theorizing, they’re always determining the validity of an argument. That’s really what we know our kids are doing. You see them in the morning with their noses in books.
So it was devastating because we are working very hard to figure out what's happening when our kids are taking those standardized tests because we know that they’re capable and we know that our teaching is effective and strong and powerful.
How did teachers react?
They were devastated and constantly asking themselves: "What are we going to do? How are we going to ensure that the rest of the world sees us in light of what we’re doing because our test scores do not reflect the work that we're doing.''
What are you doing about that?
We analyzed the data. We looked at our monthly assessments. We looked at our students' writing, we hold it next to a rubric, we look at reading levels monthly. We look at math assessments monthly, and our social studies and science assessments in the context of common core standards.
So we found a couple of things. One of the things, and this was a citywide pattern, but our kids in particular, need more work with nonfiction. We’ve implemented an additional half-hour a day of nonfiction, or reading in content in social studies.
We've been given a gift of 8,000 nonfiction books by the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College.
Isn’t that throwing a lot at the problem?
Every child is reading at a different level. For example, the fourth grade is studying civil rights. We don't use textbooks, so we have to make sure that every child in the fourth grade has a book on his or her level, and not just one, but several. So it does seem like a lot, but you might need 20 books for one child.
You don't use textbooks?
No, and the reason is that they're ineffective when children are not all reading at the same level.
You also said you're doing more whole book assessments. What were you doing before?
We were assessing our kids with short passages and asking them to retell the passage and to do inference work, and they were at grade level. But when it came to taking the test, they weren't.
We learned that the short text gave us a picture, but it wasn’t enough. We know a certain student, for example, can read two pages, and we know he can retell it and he can do some inferential work and theories about character development. What we didn’t know is whether in these books, can he accumulate information from chapter to chapter? Is he developing ideas as he moves through the chapters? Is he able to develop theories about characters?
Those things now are being measured because we’re reading whole books.
Have your methods changed? Is professional development more intense?
One of the things we're looking very closely at is I.E.P.-Special Education students and English Language Learners. Our children in general education were performing at about the city average on multiple choice questions. It's our children who have I.E.P.'s (Individual Educational Plans) and the E.L.L.'s who we really, really need to take a close look at. That counts for 40 percent of our population.
All our teachers are receiving really, really high-quality professional development from Teachers College and we have staff developers from there, and Lucy Calkins is deeply committed to our school; in fact she's the one who sent us the 8,000 books. (Editor's note: Lucy Calkins is the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.)
What did it take to convince D.O.E. not to shut you down?
I didn’t do anything except make it very clear to people that we had something worth fighting for, and I think they all believed that.
Teachers are here because they see something bigger. They see that what we’re doing is not just teaching, that it's more than just a job. They’re committed to something bigger. They felt that and there was an outpouring of e-mails. Some of the teachers’ parents even wrote.
What did they say?
They said how proud they were of their kids and how committed their children were to being here and to the school and to the community. The people who supervise some of our student teachers from Teachers College wrote letters too, and parents and students wrote letters, too.
You were devastated at first. Has that turned into a feeling of determination?
You said it perfectly. We're extraordinarily relieved and grateful that the work we’re doing is appreciated and that it was seen. We were under a lot of scrutiny and we felt that people really understood what we were doing, the people who were making those decisions. And now it's, "O.K., deep breath."