A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government's Good Intentions
By Michael Winerip
Burlington, VT -- It’s hard to find anyone here who believes that Joyce Irvine should have been removed as principal of Wheeler Elementary School.John Mudasigana, one of many recent African refugees whose children attend the high-poverty school, says he is grateful for how Ms. Irvine and her teachers have helped his five children. “Everything is so good about the school,” he said, before taking his daughter Evangeline, 11, into the school’s dental clinic. ...
Ms. Irvine wasn’t removed by anyone who had seen her work (often 80-hour weeks) at a school where 37 of 39 fifth graders were either refugees or special-ed children and where, much to Mr. Mudasigana’s delight, his daughter Evangeline learned to play the violin.
Ms. Irvine was removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.
And under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.
... Burlington faced the difficult choice because performance evaluations for teachers and principals based on test results, as much as on local officials’ judgment, are a hallmark of the two main competitive grant programs the Obama administration developed to spur its initiatives: the stimulus and Race to the Top....
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the United States Department of Education, noted that districts don’t have to apply for the grants, that the rules are clear and that federal officials do not remove principals. But Burlington officials say that not applying in such hard times would have shortchanged students.
At the heart of things is whether the testing system under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 can fairly assess schools full of middle-class children, as well as a school like Wheeler, with a 97 percent poverty rate and large numbers of refugees, many with little previous education.
... Under No Child rules, a student arriving one day before the state math test must take it. Burlington is a major resettlement area, and one recent September, 28 new students — from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan — arrived at Wheeler and took the math test in October.
Ms. Irvine said that in a room she monitored, 15 of 18 randomly filled in test bubbles. The math tests are word problems. A sample fourth-grade question: “Use Xs to draw an array for the sum of 4+4+4.” Five percent of Wheeler’s refugee students scored proficient in math.
About half the 230 students are foreign-born, collectively speaking 30 languages. Many have been traumatized; a third see one of the school’s three caseworkers. During Ms. Irvine’s tenure, suspensions were reduced to 7 last year, from 100.
Students take the reading test after one year in the country. Ms. Irvine tells a story about Mr. Mudasigana’s son Oscar and the fifth-grade test.
Oscar needed 20 minutes to read a passage on Neil Armstrong landing his Eagle spacecraft on the moon; it should have taken 5 minutes, she said, but Oscar was determined, reading out loud to himself.
The first question asked whether the passage was fact or fiction. “He said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Irvine, man don’t go on the moon, man don’t go on the back of eagles, this is not true,’ ” she recalled. “So he got the five follow-up questions wrong — penalized for a lack of experience.” Thirteen percent of foreign-born students, 4 percent of special-ed students and 23 percent of the entire school scored proficient in reading.
Before Mr. Obama became president, Burlington officials began working to transform Wheeler to an arts magnet, in hopes of improving socioeconomic integration. [I.e., getting more people from Vermont to go this school in Vermont.]......
A sign of her effectiveness: an influx of new students, so that half the early grades will consist of middle-class pupils this fall.
Ms. Irvine predicts that in two years, when these new “magnet” students are old enough to take the state tests, scores will jump, not because the school is necessarily better, but because the tests are geared to the middle class.
We've discussed the complexity and disillusionment that comes with trying to measure educational accurately, so what I'm struck by is ... Burlington is in the northern part of Vermont, on Lake Champlain. One snowstorm last January dumped 33 inches of snow.
I read through the comments looking for a single reader who was wondering why so many African refugees are being sent to Burlington, perhaps the whitest, coldest, most SWPL place in the whole country, rather than to, say, Houston, or, much more economically, to another African country. African countries have often taken in hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees from civil wars and famines in other countries. There is a lot of room in Africa. (As the population grows, however, Africans have been turning against immigration: black South Africans' anger at black Zimbawe illegal immigrants was a major inspiration for last year's Best Picture nominee District 9, as writer director Neill Blomkamp patiently explained over and over to American interviewers who kept insisting to him that his movie was all about apartheid.)
It took until the 65th comment until somebody questioned sending so many refugees to Vermont:
Why are African refugees being directed to Burlington Vt? No industry for low-skilled workers--so why there?
Indeed. So, why are African refugees so often sent to the coldest places in the country, such as Minneapolis, Lewiston, Maine, and Burlington? How come they aren't sent to, say, Washington D.C. How about Staten Island? How would that work out?