When Marcus Jones became the principal of Manor Middle School in 2019, the campus was in a tough position. At that point, the Texas Education Agency had given the middle school an “F” for the last three school years based on how students perform on state standardized tests.
“Having an ‘F’ kind of puts a black eye on the community because all the community hears is Manor Middle School ‘F, F, F, F, F,’” he said. “No matter what we do, all that’s heard or seen is that Manor Middle School [has an] ‘F.””
Jones said the low grade not only affects how families see the school, but it can make hiring harder, too. Ahead of the 2019-2020 school, he had 13 vacancies.
“As I’m filling my vacancies, I’m competing against other campuses that have a higher rating than me and might have a better standing in the community,” he said. “Sometimes that makes attracting people to the campus a little bit harder. You have to be a lot more creative.”
The consequences of a failing grade go beyond local perception and staff recruitment and can lead to state intervention.
If a school district has a campus that receives an “F” for five consecutive years, the TEA can replace the superintendent and the democratically-elected school board with its appointees. This exact situation has been playing out in Houston ISD, the largest school district in the state, and it has led to turmoil and a jump in teacher resignations.
There is, however, another option to stave off a state takeover. The Texas Legislature passed bipartisan legislation in 2017 — Senate Bill 1882 — which allows a public school district to partner with a charter school to operate a failing campus. The partnership prevents the state from intervening for a couple of years.
This was the option Manor ISD was considering earlier this school year.
School board President Monique Celedon hoped they could avoid taking this step. She has a strong personal connection to Manor Middle School. Not only did all five of her children attend, but Jones’ mother was her teacher.
“I just remember praying with her when I was 12 years old, and she was pregnant with Dr. Jones,” Celedon said. “The relationship goes way back, so I was really rooting for Manor Middle School and Dr. Jones to pull this through.”
For now, it looks like the school has been able to raise its grade enough to avoid entering a charter school partnership. District and Manor Middle School staff accomplished this by focusing on improving several key areas at the Title 1 school.
More students stepped into leadership roles to improve the campus climate
The process of improving Manor Middle School’s overall grade from the state required a multifaceted approach that included both financial resources from the district and an emphasis on improving the campus climate to engage students and retain teachers.
That’s where Dione Mayes, a restorative justice coordinator for the district, came into the equation.
“Restorative, to me, starts with building relationships — you knowing who your students are, you knowing who your staff is…and trying to make sure that everyone is having a great day,” she said.
Mayes said she and other staff took different steps to help students feel valued. For one thing, she has helped grow a student leadership program from fewer than 10 students to more than 70. She has also looked for ways to infuse more fun into the school day through activities like lunch pep rallies.
In addition to initiatives that raise students’ spirits and promote conflict resolution, Mayes has also worked on ways to free up teachers to focus on teaching. She said during the last school year she saw a need to help math teachers spend as much of a class as possible on instruction. So, the school rolled out a plan where students manage different classroom duties.
“They’re in charge of bathroom passes. They’re in charge of helping with attendance, passing out technology — even peer tutoring,” Mayes said. “That alone has taken 10, 15 minutes off of a teacher where they can literally stand there and give quality instruction.”
The goal of giving teachers the chance to focus on what they’re teaching is to increase students’ math proficiency and by extension their performance on state standardized tests.
Mayes said Manor Middle School also found ways to support and celebrate students who needed more help improving their math scores. Mayes asked those students for a list of their favorite things. Takis, the spicy, salty, and sometimes addictive rolled tortilla chips, often topped the list. When students hit certain milestones, Mayes would surprise them with a small bag of Takis or another special treat.
“Kids love Takis! [Principal Jones] bought a million Takis,” she said. “For them, it was just kind of like ‘oh wow’ you remembered my favorite things.”
Jones said staff wanted to encourage students without them having to feel the burden of what another failing grade from the state could mean.
“These are adult issues for the most part, and I think it’s up to the adults — myself first and foremost — to fix these issues and do right for our campus and our culture and our families,” he said.
Recruiting and retaining teachers proved essential to student success
Another key part of improving students’ proficiency in reading and math was recruiting and retaining teachers.
“We spend a lot of time getting people here who have the same vision that I have,” Jones said. “People who care about social justice. People who are able to reflect on their own biases and reflect on how their position and station in the world impacts the way that they see other people.”
At Manor Middle School, 69% of students are Hispanic, about 20% are Black, just over 5% are white, and fewer than 2% are Asian. Similar to the district as a whole, more than three-fourths of students are considered economically disadvantaged. And, in general, it can be harder to retain teachers at Title 1 schools, which are campuses with a high percentage of students from low-income households.
One of the things Manor ISD did to try to keep teachers and staff at this campus was to provide retention stipends. In total, it cost the district $350,000.
“I think that was a key first step to say we are invested, we support the teachers that are here, and we think that they are the staff to bring this all the way through,” Manor ISD Superintendent Robert Sormani said.
Erica Hoffman, an English teacher at Manor Middle School, said retention is good for morale. She started her teaching career at the campus and said she wasn’t deterred by the “F” rating when she joined.
“We have a strong group of staff that have returned every year, and there are very core people in each subject area that I think are really important,” she said. “Because we see each other coming back every year, and we’ve had a consistent leadership team with Dr. Jones, we’ve built our relationship just as a staff.”
Hoffman and other staff also fought hard to prevent the charter school partnership because she wanted to protect what they were cultivating on campus.
“Not having that guarantee of us being here was a really hard thing to think about,” she said.
Manor Middle improves to a “D”
The resources and time that Manor Middle School and district staff put into improving the campus climate and increasing reading and math proficiency are beginning to pay off.
While the TEA can’t release grades for the 2022-2023 school year because of a lawsuit challenging changes to its accountability system, the agency did send districts raw data. Districts could use that data to calculate the grade they expect to receive. When Manor ISD did that, the district determined that Manor Middle School would earn a “D,” which meant it could avoid a charter school partnership for the time being.
“We definitely have to do a lot more because a ‘D’ is fine, it’s better than what we were, but that’s not our end goal, and that’s not where I want our community and families to be,” Jones said.
While Jones is not satisfied with a ‘D,’ he said learning that a charter school was not going to start running Manor Middle was a huge relief after so much uncertainty.
“It took me a while to process it because it’s just been rough the past few months,” he said. “I just put it in my mind that I’m going to do my best and work hard, but I’ve just got to prepare myself for the future.”
Mayes, the restorative justice coordinator, said despite facing so many doubters she believed the campus would succeed.
“We heard naysayers like ‘Oh, it’s not going to work, they’re going to have to partner,’ different things like that,” she said. “So when we got that announcement, on the inside, I was like ‘told you!’ But also it did make me super happy because now I know we have more years to fight, more years to improve with these kids.”
Celedon, the school board president, said she started crying when she got the news.
“This is a huge accomplishment not only for our scholars but for our teachers and our community,” she said.
While Manor Middle School is out of the woods for now, the campus must earn a “C” rating from the TEA within the next two school years to completely avoid a charter school partnership. Ultimately, superintendent Sormani said avoiding the partnership isn’t the main goal.
“The point is academic achievement and getting the campus to be self-sustaining in its growth and academic progress,” he said.
He thinks they are on the right track.