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Baylor-Woodson: Dispelling The Myth that Public Schools Can't Improve

For some critics there is the view that public schools can do no right, especially when it comes to under-served communities. Baylor Woodson in Inkster is evidence to the contrary. In a system hobbled by the recession, school and community leaders turned their struggling elementary school into an award-winning example of achievement, involvement, and innovation.
Spend some time at Baylor-Woodson Elementary School in Inkster, and you'll realize it  feels more like a high-end private school in a tony suburb rather than a traditional public school in an economically struggling Wayne County community. The building is relatively new and scrupulously well-maintained, and uniform-clad students file through the halls, quietly and proudly showing off their work to visitors.

It's that very work that is garnering this school serious attention. Baylor-Woodson was one of four schools nation-wide to win the "Dispelling the Myth" award from the Education Trust, a group that advocates for better schools.

What got the attention of the Education Trust was Baylor Woodson's high performance on the Michigan Educational Assessment Tests (MEAP) - which significantly outperformed their demographic peers. The school has 86 percent of its students receiving free or reduced price lunches - a federal measure of poverty - and is 98 percent African-American. And these kids - kids other schools had all but written off - are performing on par with more affluent school districts. For example, Baylor-Woodson third graders did as well on the math portion of the MEAP as kids at Amerman Elementary in Northville, where only 4 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch.

What makes this fact more remarkable is that a dozen years ago Baylor-Woodson's district was on the verge of being dissolved by the state. Instead of succumbing to failure, however, school leaders seized the opportunity to change some of the practices that were holding them back.

"They had to move from being a dysfunctional place to being a good place, then they went from good to great," says Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest. "It's a long process and it took a long time and a lot of hard work."

Several factors were key to Baylor-Woodson's success. One of the biggest was boosting the quality of teachers. In 1999, for-profit charter school company Edison Learning (then Edison Schools) took over the management of the entire district. Many teachers chose to take a buyout and leave at that point, which gave principal Beverly Gerhard some freedom to hire new teachers.

As problems continued under Edison's leadership, they eventually left the district and  the school fell back under local control. As this was happening, Baylor-Woodson also underwent a credential audit for every teacher in the building and found many who were not teaching in the subject areas for which they were certified - for example, a teacher who specialized in science might have been teaching math. Those teachers were reassigned to their subject area. "We had to reestablish our climate and build a positive culture," Gerhard said.

Also, the local American Federation of Teachers unit gave concessions on benefits in order to allow new teachers to be hired in at higher salaries. That touched off an aggressive recruiting campaign which brought in highly qualified teachers. Each teacher is evaluated by Gerhard twice a year.

Beyond the classroom, school staff also strives to ensure students are ready to learn from the minute they get on the bus to come to school until the bus brings them back in the afternoon. That means participating in the universal breakfast and lunch program so that no child is too hungry to concentrate in school; it also means having a "care closet" where uniforms and other needs are available to children whose families can't afford to provide them.

"We want to minimize the culture of poverty," says Nelson Henry, program director for elementary instruction.

Teachers have a common prep period, where they are able to meet for professional development, share best practices for their classrooms, or access online professional development tools that the district provides. Investing in teachers through professional development is a big key to their success, Henry says. Every staff member is expected to serve on two committees at the school.

Students understand that the expectations are high; every morning, they come into the classroom with a goal for the day, lesson steps, and homework clearly delineated. "Students have direction and focus - they know what to expect," Henry says. "It gives context to the content."

And the learning does not stop at the last bell. Baylor-Woodson has a list of enrichment activities as long as your arm - there are not one but two after-school programs, a Saturday program, and summer programs for struggling students. Students learn music, nutrition and language, and can participate in a drumline starting in the second grade. Families enjoy financial literacy programs, a young authors day, an African-American History quiz bowl, and more.

"Learning is all that matters, and this taps into all the different learning styles," says Henry. All of this is accomplished on a shoestring budget - teachers are tirelessly writing grants, and volunteers offer their time as well.

At the core of Baylor-Woodson's success is relationships - caring relationships between teachers and students, professional relationships between teachers, and a supportive relationship with the community. All of those things combine to make Baylor-Woodson an example of what happens when adults set high standards and do everything in their power to help students meet them.

"We have motivated people who are encouraged by each other," Gerhard says. "When the children know everybody works together, they know we share a lot of important things."

Amy Kuras is a Metro Detroit freelance writer and frequent contributor to Metromode. She writes about schools, parenting and a host of other topics. Her previous article was Yessian: Making Music You Can't Get Out Of Your Head

All Photos by David Lewinski

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