not much just chillin': the hidden lives of middle schoolers
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Ain’t No Stopping Us Now

You could not tell by looking that Tina McKnight was in pain. Her hair was perfectly curled and she sat up straight in her desk chair, underneath a series of watercolors of Taxco, the Mexican town she loved to visit. That morning Tina had chosen a pantsuit of salmon pink and pinned a matching silk flower to her lapel, as if she could will good news through cheerful attire. Her back throbbed, sore from hours of bending over the toilet, possibly from food poisoning but more likely from stress. It was a week and a half before the end of the school year, and McKnight, the principal of Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Maryland, had a lot on her mind.

She was worried about her sick mother, whom she could not care for the day before because she’d been stuck baby-sitting strangers who had appropriated the playground for an illicit soccer tournament. (Corona bottles and Pampers had been scattered all over the grass until Tina appeared with trash bags; god knows what was still left.) Today drops of water plopped rhythmically into strategically placed trash cans on the fifth-grade hall — trouble with the air conditioning, one more thing that needed to be fixed.

Other problems obsessing McKnight: it didn’t look like she’d get the school uniform plan in place by fall, as she’d wanted to. The discipline data had stopped improving, even with all the prizes given to students as behavior incentives, so McKnight hoped another principal in the district would call to chip in for the five-thousand-dollar consultant whose book promised “discipline without stress, punishment and rewards.” Then there was the secretary whose father had suffered a stroke, the assistant whose dad was headed to the hospital for his heart, and the kindergarten class that at the moment had neither teacher nor assistant nor substitute.

On top all that, something far bigger was looming.

It was the first Monday in June 2005, a D-Day of sorts for the principals of Anne Arundel County: They were about to receive their students’ scores on Maryland’s annual standardized test. For McKnight, and educators across the nation, test score day had accrued such monumental importance that it provoked more jitters than the first day of school, more emotions than fifth-grade graduation. Since McKnight's arrival at 6:30 a.m., she had spent much of the time intensely drumming her hands on her prized Harvard desk blotter, a gift from her son. She had dug through the mailbag and found nothing. She kept looking out the window for deliveries but saw nothing. 

“Good morning!” McKnight called to one little boy who came into the office to sign in. She greets every child she sees coming in tardy — and at Tyler Heights there are many, particularly in the last days of school. “Running late?” she asked. “We’re glad you’re here.”

“Why is it so quiet?” the boy asked.

“Because everybody’s learning,” the principal told him.

She signed checks, one after the other, to keep up with the school’s bills. When the phone rang but no secretary picked up, she grabbed the receiver. “Hello, Tina McKnight, Tyler Heights.” Ms. McKnight — no longer Mrs., since her divorce had become final months before — dispatched the call and greeted another latecomer. “Good morning! Running late? We’re glad you’re here.” Then a man in a ball cap and khakis appeared in the outer office, holding a manila envelope.

McKnight walked over to greet him, and he handed her the envelope, marked MARYLAND SCHOOL ASSESSMENT.

“Am I going to be happy after I open these?” she said.

“I have no idea. I’m just the delivery man.”

The principal shut her office door, bracing herself for the moment she had anticipated with anxiety pretty much every day for three months, ever since her third, fourth, and fifth graders took the state reading and math exams. McKnight pulled a sheaf of papers from the envelope, columns and columns of numbers, and paged through them. What she saw just didn’t make sense — not for a school that so many middle-class parents had rejected, not for a school that mainly served the poor, not for children who had arrived in the building with so few skills and so many problems. Such was the school’s reputation that when McKnight was appointed principal five years back, colleagues had said, “Congratulations, I think.”

Baffled, McKnight flipped back and forth to assess the numbers. Her hand was at her chest.

“Oh, I have to be sure I’m digesting what I’m digesting, because I’m, like, really…” She couldn’t finish her sentence. She sniffed. Her brows scrunched behind her glasses, her dark-brown eyes practically closed. “I don’t know if I’m really looking at the right numbers.”

Overall, according to the results, 86 percent of the students passed reading. Eighty percent passed math. Black fourth graders — 91 percent passed reading! Hispanic third graders — 100 percent passed math! McKnight compared the county numbers and the school numbers, side by side. Hers were higher in many categories. “I don’t believe this. It’s, like, what…”

Maybe, she wondered, she had been sent some other school’s results. Maybe this was a mistake.

Or maybe not. Definitely not.

McKnight screamed. The reading teacher came in, saw the numbers, and she screamed too. McKnight grabbed a compact disc from her desk and went to the PA system in the outer office. She was forbidden to officially reveal the results to teachers yet, but she couldn’t resist giving them a clue. She put the disc into the boom box and pointed the intercom mike at it. The whole building heard the song — fuzzy, but clear enough. “Ain’t no stopping us now, we’re on the move!”

In the classrooms, the students danced, not because they knew the song’s hidden meaning but because music, even a cheesy disco tune, meant dancing. The teachers had no problem understanding what the song signified: For them, it was a deliverance of sorts. Most came out of their rooms as McKnight raced down the hallway to high-five them, like she was finishing a marathon.

At the end of the hall, she let out a shocking, triumphant scream.

"Miracle" was exactly the word Alia Johnson thought of when she heard how her third graders had scored on the Maryland School Assessment. "An example for others," though? She wasn't so sure.

As McKnight had waited for the results in her office that Monday, Johnson had been sitting on the rocking chair in her classroom, teaching a math lesson. While she looked put-together as always, her curly dark hair pulled back tight, she, too, had been sick to her stomach waiting for the results. MSA, MSA — sometimes it felt like that was all she was supposed to think about. McKnight had been in and out of her room almost weekly until the test. McKnight’s supervisor had also been a regular presence. Johnson had drilled her students in the proper written response to any reading question they might encounter, taught them the process of elimination, given practice test after practice test, talked about stamina (demonstrating the lack of it by falling out of her chair). She felt like she’d done all she could to prepare her class.

But in March, when Johnson had looked over her students’ shoulders as they took the MSA, she grew scared – it didn’t seem like they knew much. Their answers betrayed their nerves. A lot rode on these scores, Johnson knew. Vindication for the school. A bonus to teachers of $1,500 apiece, to add to a forty-thousand-dollar paycheck in a county with the lowest salaries around. A degree of autonomy. The way things worked now, the higher the test scores, the more freedom a teacher was given to choose how she taught. Johnson already had to adjust to the superintendent’s new reading and math curricula, and she knew that if Tyler Heights didn’t make what the law called “adequate yearly progress” she could expect a whole new slate of programs and meddlers, a burden that might push her out of her job, if the state didn’t first.

So when Johnson heard “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” she was bathed in relief. (Her students carried on with math instead of dancing; she was strict that way.)

The next day, at a staff meeting in the library, McKnight put on the music again. “Was our reading score sixty-five? No way! Seventy-five? We left it in the dust. Eighty-five? Higher! Off your feet!” The principal sang along, working herself up to a pant. 

The scores were put on the overhead projector, grade by grade, and Johnson was stunned to see that 90 percent of the third-graders passed the test — compared to 35 percent just two years before. As much as the results pleased her, though, they frightened her, as they raised the stakes. Rumor had it lots of teachers were going to quit over the summer, and she wondered if her new teammates would be up to the challenge. The children that Johnson would have for third grade in the fall, whom she had taught as first graders, were very low in skills, and No Child Left Behind wouldn’t count their improvement so much as how they compared to this year’s group. Johnson, who was twenty-seven, had been at the school four years and had hoped to quit by the time they caught up to her in third grade. But those plans fell through. She knew that come August she’d be back in Room 18 at Tyler Heights.

Alia Johnson had wanted to make a difference for poor children. But she wasn’t sure how much she was, 90 percent proficiency notwithstanding. The “no excuses” thing bothered her: No matter how little help students got from parents, no matter if they came to school hungry or abused, lead-poisoned or learning disabled, they had to pass that test. But did the test really tell anyone all they needed to know about the children? Throughout the year, so much was sacrificed to achieve that score. Was it worth it? This revolution had begun with students like Alia Johnson’s in mind. But teachers like her wondered: Were they doing the best by their children?

“I don’t know what to say, except it’s been a really, really long journey to get Tyler Heights to where it is,” McKnight told her teachers at the staff meeting. Alia listened as the principal went on to talk about the $1,500 bonuses, and about next year: where she stood in hiring new teachers, where to submit school-supply lists, and, of course, next year’s test.

“We can see the kids who almost made it,” McKnight said. “We have names and faces, and they’re not going to get away.”

No amount of relief could erase the fact that the clock had restarted that day. The staff of Tyler Heights felt the pressure. They had exactly one year to prove that this was not a fluke.

Copyright © 2007 Linda Perlstein

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Copyright © 2007 Linda Perlstein