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With $3.8 million, VISD aims to improve Patti Welder Middle School

By KBell
June 2, 2012 at 1:02 a.m.
Updated June 3, 2012 at 1:03 a.m.

Rita Ramirez, a learning facilitator at Patti Welder  Middle School, came to Victoria in the middle of the school year after helping turn around a failing school in Austin. Besides teaching English Language Arts, Ramirez coaches teachers on how to improve their classroom curriculum.

SOCIAL CONTRACTS

Interim Principal Trey Edwards said one of the practices he most expects to improve student behavior is something called a "social contract."

The social contracts are agreements made between teachers and students as well as between staff members.

They're created by all parties, telling each other how they want to be treated. They use words like "respect" and "the golden rule," and together, they create a contract based on each side's expectations.

Everyone signs their commitment to living up to the contract. If, say, a teacher breaks one of the expectations, a student can call a foul and vice-versa. Those who break the contract must then give the other party "two up," meaning compliments.

"It's not a joke. It really is true, and it changed the way I operate," Edwards said.

In Region XIII's campus visit, the report noted marked differences in behavior in classrooms that referred to and utilized the social contract often.

It's about thinking before acting, Edwards said.

"This is how you live. These are life lessons," he said.

NEW LEADERSHIP

Former Edna High School principal Richard Wright will begin training as principal over the summer, and he'll hire two new assistant principals.

Astrid Lundgren and Sharla Williams, current assistant principals, will take new administrative positions in the district, said Eloy Chapa, VISD's director of human resources. It's not yet clear what those positions will be.

"We wanted to give (Wright) an opportunity to select his administrative team and someone that he feels comfortable with, someone he may be acquainted with," Chapa said.

New hires will fill a total of 20 positions at Patti Welder next year, Chapa said. Though that's more than an average amount of turnover, both Chapa and Edwards said no one was asked or forced to leave.

The teachers, counselors and staff who are leaving the school mostly did so to retire or to seek other opportunities, Chapa said.

Patti Welder Middle School's poor reputation is going to change.

That's the pledge school officials are making with the help of a $3.8 million grant backing a "transformation model" the school adopted as part of a three-year Texas Title I Priority Schools Grant.

The Victoria school district has taken a candid look at Patti Welder and set forth high expectations for the school in coming years.

If at any time the school is found to not be meeting its goals for student achievement, it will be in danger of losing the millions in grant money that Patti Welder staff say is already revamping the atmosphere at the troubled school.



Persistently lowest achieving

The Texas Education Agency labels Patti Welder Middle School as a school that is "persistently lowest achieving," meaning it's in the bottom 5 percent of Title 1 schools in Texas. The federal government identifies Title I schools as those with a large number of students who come from low-income families.

Documents related to Patti Welder's grant proposal reveal a blunt evaluation of the school's problems, including discipline, poor test scores, a sense of apathy among teachers and students and low expectations.

As part of the grant process, a team from Region XIII Education Service Center visited Patti Welder Middle School to observe classrooms and interview parents, teachers, staff and students.

The 67-page report documented a lack of consistency in teaching and discipline strategies throughout the campus. Whereas some classrooms were determined to foster a respectful and learning-conducive environment, others were chaotic and ineffective.

In interviews with students, parents and staff, all listed one of Patti Welder's biggest problems as students disrespecting teachers. Forty percent of students said they had been bullied.

"This report was filled with good information, but it was nothing that I didn't know after being here a week or two," said Trey Edwards, Patti Welder's interim principal.

And it's nothing Joel Rodriguez, the parent of an outgoing Patti Welder eighth-grader, didn't notice the times he's been on campus. He recounted stories of students blatantly disobeying orders from teachers, staff and even the school resource officer.

"I don't think the problems are at the school, I think it's at home," he said. "At that age, a lot of it is just a desperate need for approval and attention, and sometimes in single-parent families, that doesn't happen in the home."



Facing the problem

The grant application shows VISD began taking a hard look at problems at Patti Welder as far back as January 2011.

In June of that year, the district decided to apply for the Priority Schools Grant, which, in part, requires a school that receives money to replace its principal if he or she was in the position more than two years.

VISD noted Principal Carlos Garza, who was hired at Patti Welder in 2009, would stay to oversee the grant.

Garza has since resigned, and Edwards has been at the helm of the transformation efforts since January.

VISD found out at the beginning of the school year it would receive the grant, but the money didn't arrive until late February. In the meantime, the district allowed Edwards to begin reforms, namely hiring for positions the grant would fund.

"I don't pull applications from the pool. I only interview people who want to teach at Patti Welder and contact Patti Welder," he said. "If they're contacting you at a school, they know about you already, and they want to be a part of it."

So far, that strategy has yielded him three new learning facilitators, a counselor, an assistant principal/grant coordinator and a secretary to help with the grant paperwork, Edwards said.

Among them is Rita Ramirez, a 28-year-old learning facilitator who is fresh from helping transform a school in Austin on the verge of being shut down by the TEA.



Taking ownership

When Ramirez was hired at John H. Reagan High School four-and-a-half years ago, the stakes were as real as they get. The school was in its fourth year of being rated academically unacceptable. Teachers had to put their names on a transfer list in case that year's scores didn't show improvement and the TEA made good on its threat to shut the school's doors.

Turning the school around "entailed going early and staying until janitors kicked me out, working on Saturdays and not giving up on kids," Ramirez said. "Stuff like that doesn't come in a can. You can't teach somebody that in a college setting. But when you're in the field, you love the kids, and you do what's best for the kids."

Rodriguez said the extra manpower on campus should make a difference.

"All these kids need some attention and another adult to talk to," he said.

Rodriguez sticks to the "it takes a village" adage and said he hopes Patti Welder can find a way to put grant money toward helping struggling families. He'd also like to see more parent involvement in academics and extracurricular activities.

"Why can't we create something everybody wants to be a part of?" he said.

Despite less than 50 percent of students passing all sections of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, Patti Welder has been rated academically acceptable the past several years and isn't in danger of being shut down.

But nobody's waiting for it to get to that point. In fact, those at the school say any of the apathy that once swept through the hallways has been converted into a determined hope. There's not an attitude of can-do, but one of must-do.

"Being an outsider ... I see enthusiasm even though this is the end of school. I see hope," said Doreen Martinez, the new assistant principal and grant coordinator who came to the school in February. "You can't bottle that. You can't make it. It just comes out within a person."

Like Ramirez's account of teachers banding together at Reagan, the first signs of change at Patti Welder are coming from the attitudes of the staff.

"The greatest impact (of the grant) is the staff buy-in in the process of improvement, because there's a difference between change and improvement," Edwards said. "They believe in the process, and they feel good about the future."



Measuring results

The reforms at Patti Welder haven't necessarily trickled down to the students yet, Edwards said, but after a summer of staff training, he expects next school year "to be a whole new ball game."

The grant will fund, among other things, staff development, extra pay for tutoring, a drug prevention counselor, behavioral intervention programs and consulting services.

Last year, Destiny Consulting hosted a four-day Cub Camp that helped fifth- graders transition into middle school. Thanks to the grant, this year's summer camp will be two weeks.

The grant also calls for $100,000 to $260,000 in incentive pay, which will be given to teachers who help so-called at-risk students - for example, those who have repeated a grade or are labeled homeless - achieve high scores on state assessments. Teachers will receive $300 for each at-risk student passing a State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test and $500 for each student receiving a commended level on the test.

With the money comes expectations. In its grant proposal, VISD spelled out more than 30 areas of improvement and set specific progress goals during the three years of the grant. For example, Patti Welder wants to decrease the number of discipline incidents from 1,800 in 2010 to 800 by the 2013 school year. It wants to decrease the number of parent complaints while increasing the number of parents who attend school events.

It's all driven by data, which the TEA tracks every 90 days. In the latest report, sent to the TEA in April, Edwards noted the school had implemented consistent teacher evaluations, a Watch D.O.G.S. program that brings father figures into the school and focus teams that allow all staff members to get involved in improving the school.

Those teams came up with a new mission statement to guide the school through its transformation.

It reads: "The purpose of Patti Welder is to inspire our students to value education and character by guaranteeing a consistent, rigorous and positive learning environment."

And that is more than just a mantra - it's what's guiding Patti Welder Middle School into the future.

"There's no place to go but up," Edwards said. "This place is going somewhere."

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