When the Provost of Miami Edison Senior High School, Dr. Pablo Ortiz, interrupted seventh period over the public address system, everyone knew something big was happening:
“Teachers, apologies for interrupting your class. Beginning with the third floor, please bring your students to the auditorium immediately.”
There was collective groan from the teachers in the building, and shouts of joy from the students. Calling the entire student body to the auditorium usually amounted to a recipe for disaster; students fought, played loud music and danced in ways that would make your grandmother faint. They generally ignored anyone speaking to them over the sound system.
My seventh period class quickly dispersed into the madness once they got to the auditorium. Teachers stood meekly to the side, observing the spectacle. Ortiz—a short, well-dressed man with a Danny Zuko penchant for hair gel—grinned in the center of the basketball court, beaming at the students tromping on the bleachers.
“Sit down, sit down,” he commanded. A few students took their seats.
“I have big news,” he continued. “Today, we got the results of the 2010 FCAT, and our school grade for the 2010-2011 school year.”
Miami Edison Senior High School has a predominantly Haitian-American student body, and was named an F or a D school each year from 1998 until 2009. This was October of 2011, and administration, teachers, and students were awaiting the results of the 2010 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which was the largest indicator of our school grade.
Hearing the seriousness in Ortiz’s voice, more students took their seats, looking at him with trepid curiosity.
“We haven’t always been respected,” he said. “Miami Edison has had its fair share of doubters. Today, we show all of them that we defy gravity,” a reference to our school’s motto, taken from the musical Wicked. It was the closest any of my students had come to Broadway.
All of the students were seated now, hanging onto Ortiz’s next words. “For the first time in over ten years,” Ortiz continued, his voice shaking, “Miami Edison is a C school!”
The auditorium erupted in cheers. Students were hugging, teaching were crying, and the auditorium overflowed with the only collective feeling of accomplishment the school had seen in over a decade.
Ortiz didn’t stop there. He made it clear that this was only a mid-point in Edison’s eventual comeback as the most closely watched turn-around school in Florida. And he was right. The students, receiving positive feedback in an academic setting for one of the few times in many of their lives, were bolstered to do even better.
Angel Norris, inspired by the new school grade, created the I.M.A.G.E. program (Inspiration and Motivation Achieving Goals at Edison), which sent students from Edison to tutor local middle-school students in Edison’s feeder pattern. Cierra Howard started the Wonder Women program, an after-school support group designed to discuss women’s issues. And teachers suddenly had something to which they could boldly refer in class: “Get your head up and get it together, we don’t want to be an F again, right?”
The next year, Miami Edison was named an A school.
School grades can motivate students and teachers alike to achieve. And the grading system in New York City does just that: promote progress. The grading system, which is broken down by student progress (60%), student performance (25%), and school environment (15%), is a universally understood method to understand a school’s ability to achieve and grow.
The New York Times agrees that although it may not be perfect, the grading system has allowed low-performing schools to more accurately determine where their challenges lie. Data show that over the last two years, nearly 80 percent of the lowest-performing schools improved their ratings after receiving help in the areas in which they were weak.
Student achievement should be the most closely observed metric, and student progress should be happening at every level. Some critics may argue that well-performing schools that simply maintain their performance are penalized, as 60% of the grade is dependent on student progress. But why shouldn’t well-performing schools push their students to do even better? That’s what happened at Edison. We got to a C, and that C pushed us to an A. The next year, we were determined to stay on top by ensuring our students were receiving an even more exemplary and rigorous education—slipping wasn’t an option.
Sure, student progress and performance can be measured in more ways than one. It would certainly benefit the DeBlasio administration to consider how elementary and middle schools, especially, can measure social skills like empathy, teamwork, and curiosity. But skills in mathematics, science, and—most importantly—literacy, must not be thrown out with the grading system.
If teachers and students are so afraid of failing, maybe they should try defying gravity.