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Turning A School Around One Kid At A Time

Mann Middle School seventh graders wait to be called on while working on projects for an upcoming science fair.
Kyla Calvert
Mann Middle School seventh graders wait to be called on while working on projects for an upcoming science fair.
Turning A School Around One Kid At A Time
A middle school in San Diego’s Mid-City area has climbed into the top ranks of schools that serve kids from low-income families and whose first language isn’t English.

Walking around the Horace Mann Middle School campus with Principal Esther Omogbehin, you get the sense that none of the school’s nearly 900 students or it’s 42 classroom teachers escapes her notice.

She asks students where they are headed, addresses all of the teachers by name and often asks about a family member.

Inside the office she shares with her vice principals its no different. On one wall there are pictures of each student, grouped by grade level and their performance on that state’s standardized tests. Susie Fahey, the seventh grade vice principal, says the photos keep things in focus.


“We were talking about a child who was having some problems," she said, "and then as we were discussing this child we were saying, well, what does he look like – who is he? And once we put the face to the name it put a whole different perspective on what we needed to do for that kid.”

Having the pictures on the wall is just one of the ways the administrative team makes sure no child can become invisible adds Paul Villar, the eight grade vice principal.

Courtney Young, the sixth grade vice principal, points to the graphs and charts that hang on the room's other walls - they show student test scores. All of these things are pieces of the puzzle these four are piecing together - trying to help each student reach the goals the school sets for them and asks them to set for themselves.

That focus is part of what the staff call a culture change at the school. It started three years ago when three small schools on the campus were consolidated into one. Omogbehin and her vice principals took over the operation and made each child’s academic performance the school’s main priority.

In seventh grade science teacher Katie Myster’s room students are working in small group on projects for an upcoming science fair. It’s a strategy Mann’s teachers use on a regular basis.


“Today I’ll be working with the groups individually," Myster says. "So as a whole we’re working on -- quote, unquote -- the same goal, but the actual specific topic or their areas of need will be different, so today that’s how I’ll spend my time moving around to the groups or sometimes I’ll call them up to check progress and informally assess.”

Planning lessons like these take time, especially at a school like this one. During the previous school year, about two-thirds of Mann’s students were not native English speakers. Almost all came from low-income families. And, almost 20 percent had learning disabilities. But Myster says breaking classes up makes is easier to give each student what he or she needs.

“The students perform better and the students like it because they know their getting their needs met.”

The thing is – it isn’t just the teachers that say this, the students say it, too.

"They make learning fun," says Tomas Munoz about what sets his eighth grade teachers apart.

Eighth-grader Lucia Centono agrees that her teachers "make it exciting." She says when she needs help she will go to one of the after school tutoring sessions Mann holds for math twice a week. "We'll stay there for an hour and they help us a lot - more, I think than what they're supposed to."

"They aren't making the classes boring," says Domiciano Villa, 14.

But the teachers are with the students even outside the classroom. When Mann consolidated, two-thirds of the school's teaching positions were opened up. Omogbehin, Young, Villar and Fahey filled those positions with people who agreed to be available after school for tutoring and student clubs and who didn't blink at using small-group instruction.

Constantly assessing and spending extra time after school with kids on tutoring or other activities is paying off.

Three years ago, Mann ranked in the bottom 10 percent of California schools on state tests. Last year test scores soared. Mann was still in the lowest 30 percent of all schools and below the state’s bar for acceptable performance. But, among other schools where students face similar challenges, Mann’s test scores went from average to the top 20 percent. Another year of gains like that and they’ll blow past the state’s target score for all schools.

Staff like eighth grade science teacher Rachel Tarshes say one key to their success has been having a cohesive teaching staff.

“We’ve been able to keep the same staff for the last three years," she says. "And having that experience of having the same people to work with every year and being able to go back and look at the material and see what worked and what didn’t work really made a huge difference, even just me as a teacher, as a professional.”

The school won’t know if it met the state testing target until the fall. The problem now for Omogbehin is that there’s a chance about half her teachers won’t be there to find out. Because so many entered the San Diego Unified School District just three years ago and don't have seniority, they are among the more than 750 teachers who have gotten notices that they could be laid off at the end of the school year.

“It will be detrimental," Omogbehin says. "I try not to think about it because I know how significantly detrimental it will be. I just don’t see the school surviving with such a huge impact. I just – y’know – it might limp along on one foot. But over the long haul I just don’t think it would be what it could have been if we had kept that team together.”

Whether the school district has to layoff all or some of the notified teachers depends on the state’s budget, which has to be finalized by June 30th.