A 'Fresh Start' for Memphis schools

For the first time since President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law toughened academic standards for the nation’s public schools three years ago, one troubled school district cleared the raised bar. And a lot of the credit is going to Superintendent Carol Johnson, who’s getting results with some controversy.

Johnson is part-cheerleader, part-politician, and all-business: She’s turning around the school district in Memphis through the “Fresh Start” program, a concept she introduced successfully while superintendent of Minneapolis schools. The program targets principals at the worst-performing schools and forces teachers to re-apply for their own jobs, offering monetary incentives for results.

“I believe when there are good principals in schools, teachers will teach better and you’re more likely to recruit and retain strong teachers,” she says.

At Longview Middle School, students and teachers are celebrating. The school was taken off a No Child Left Behind high-priority watch list this year because of better test scores.

As a group, the first five “Fresh Start” schools were up an average of nearly 11 percentage points in verbal skills, and up more than six points in math.

“My test scores went up,” says eighth-grader Nikeela Harris. “I started studying more, and had a better understanding and direction now.” That, says Johnson, is an example of what can happen when a school’s culture changes.

“You wake up one day and you have a totally different child,” agrees LaTonya Dodson, Nikeela’s mother.

But not all “Fresh Start” schools are cheering. Math scores at one Memphis school for example, fell slightly after the new team came in. Meanwhile, some teachers who tried to get their jobs back but were reassigned instead say “Fresh Start” is an unfair indictment of their commitment.

“I was disappointed because I had put so much effort in the students that I was teaching,” says Bessie Campbell, a reassigned teacher. “I wanted to come back and do it another way to see if it was going to work better.”

Most teachers got similar jobs elsewhere in the district, but some administrators were not so fortunate.

“I wasn’t given an opportunity to make a difference,” says Jada Meeks, a former principal. “One year was not enough time.”

But Johnson says the fight to save urban public education is an urgent one. “Every child, Every day, college-bound,” she chants.