Principal demands perfection and gets it; Houston educator shows students’ poverty doesn’t preclude success

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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One in an occasional series

HOUSTON – Mister Rogers and Nancy Blackwell have something in common.

Not long after her 6:45 a.m. arrival at Hambrick Middle School, where she’s principal, Ms. Blackwell switches shoes, from modest heels to sensible flats.

“You want to see what kind of principal you have? Look at her feet,” she said. “If she’s wearing heels all day, she’s not spending enough time walking from classroom to classroom.”

Parents lucky enough to have their kids at Hambrick don’t have to ask what kind of principal they have. Ms. Blackwell, 52, would appear on just about anyone’s short list of Texas’ best school leaders.

“Nothing goes unnoticed by her in this building,” math teacher Kristal Soukup said. “She’s everywhere at once. It’s almost spooky.”

In the early 1990s, she turned Worsham Elementary from a middling school into one of the state’s top performers. Then she brought Hambrick from the doldrums to its spot as perhaps the state’s best middle school.

Last year, 99.3 percent of Hambrick’s students passed the state math test. And the success cut across all student groups: The passing rates for black, white, Hispanic and poor students were all above 98 percent. That’s despite the fact that more than three-quarters of its students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

“Nancy is highly focused on results,” said Jean Rutherford, director of educator initiatives for Just for the Kids, an education nonprofit group that has studied Hambrick. “She knows how important those results are going to be to the future of the students she serves.”

Hambrick’s accomplishments are particularly remarkable because middle schools always have been among the most difficult to improve. The burgeoning hormones of adolescents and their awkward position between elementary and high school have often meant weaker results.

This year, more than 1,100 elementary schools received an “exemplary” rating, the state’s highest. Hambrick was one of the fewer than 200 middle schools that did.

“Middle school kids are just plain weird,” Ms. Blackwell said. “Their common sense goes on vacation for a few years. Things that are funny to them aren’t funny to anyone else in America.”

‘No more excuses’

Hambrick, which is in the Aldine school district despite its Houston address just south of Bush Intercontinental Airport, was struggling when Ms. Blackwell arrived in 1996.

“We were the laughingstock of Aldine,” said Winifred Bellido, a math teacher who has been at Hambrick since 1986. “We had the lowest scores. We made excuses: ‘Our kids can’t learn because they don’t know English.’ ‘Our kids can’t learn because they’re low income.’ When she arrived, there were no more excuses.”

Although there are a few prosperous pockets a few miles from the campus, Hambrick works with a largely disadvantaged population. Ninety-three percent of its 1,100 seventh- and eighth-graders are minority, and many are recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.

“The poverty is really something,” said Ms. Blackwell, a purposeful, compact woman who rarely stays in one spot for long. “You go to some of these apartments and you don’t want to sit down. Filth everywhere, roaches everywhere, no flooring. Some of my kids don’t have electricity.”

In some ways, the changes she brought to Hambrick are similar to the changes the Texas accountability system has brought to the entire state. She demanded higher expectations. She wanted more centralized control of curriculum matters. And she wanted regular testing of kids to find weaknesses and quickly snuff them out.

“You go to some schools and ask the principal something and he’ll say, ‘Oh, my department chair handles that,'” Ms. Blackwell said. “But a lot of times they don’t know what’s going on.”

Her first task was improving discipline. There was some gang activity on campus, and the administration didn’t have a firm grip on students’ activities. “The kids were really in control of the school,” she said.

Quickly, she removed all the school’s lockers to make hallways wider and make the time between classes less chaotic. She eliminated all the bells between classes to create a calmer atmosphere. Later, she added a strict dress code and metal detectors at school entrances.

There were little details, too. Lunch periods now end with a few minutes of mandatory silence so students are calm when they head back to class.

Longer class periods

Once students’ behavior was in check, Ms. Blackwell turned to academics. She doubled the amount of time students spend in math and language arts and trained teachers how to make use of the longer class periods.

In every academic subject, students take six “checkpoint” tests a year – locally designed exams linked to state curriculum standards. If the eighth-grade social studies Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test includes a section on the development of the American economic system, so does the checkpoint.

“People say, ‘You’re teaching to the test,'” Ms. Blackwell said. “But that test covers the state curriculum, and if you’re not teaching it, you’re not doing your job. Every skill on that test is something a child needs to know. It’s purposeful.”

If a child shows weakness in math or language arts, the amount of time she spends in that class will be doubled again, to more than three hours a day. She can also be put in mandatory tutoring before or after school.

“We never waste a minute – it’s always time for learning,” said Ms. Soukup, who spends an hour each morning and 90 minutes every afternoon tutoring.

The attention is highly individualized. Kids who struggle are given forms to carry around all day for their teachers to fill out, verifying that a student showed up to class on time, paid attention in class and completed his assignments. Those forms end up on Ms. Blackwell’s desk, like so many things at Hambrick. When she wanders the halls, it’s clear she already knows the names of many of her 500-plus seventh-graders, even though school’s only a few weeks old.

“She makes it her business to know the strengths and weaknesses of every student,” said Matt Roark, a social studies teacher. “She knows what they need to learn.”

That attention has turned into results. Ms. Soukup, for instance, hasn’t had a kid fail the math TAAS test in six years. “And there are plenty of us with that sort of record,” she said.

When Ms. Blackwell arrived, not everyone was willing to go along with her higher expectations. About a quarter of the school’s teachers left in each of her first two years, she said.

“That’s what hurts me: when you don’t get 100 percent buy-in for helping these kids,” she said.

Some left voluntarily, others less so. Looking at test scores quickly identified which math and language arts teachers were effective and which needed help – or needed to be shown the door.

“She’s a little bit ruthless, and that’s important,” Ms. Bellido said. “Other principals are afraid to weed out teachers who aren’t doing their job. If you’re not performing, she’ll do all she can to help you. But if you’re still not doing your job, you won’t be here next year.”

Parents involved

Initially, even some parents didn’t like the changes. Across the street from Hambrick is a long line of rundown apartment buildings, with peeling paint and rotting wooden walls. Not long after her arrival, Ms. Blackwell noticed people moving out to go to other schools because of her changes.

What a difference a few years makes. Teacher turnover has now dropped to about 5 percent a year, Ms. Blackwell said. Now the biggest enrollment problems are the parents who fake addresses in the school’s attendance zone so their kids can attend Hambrick. The open house at the start of this school year attracted more than 1,200 parents. Ten years ago, it might have drawn 300.

“This school didn’t have a very good reputation before. I almost didn’t want to send her here when she was younger,” said Reba Cutten, mother of eighth-grader Brittani. “When Ms. Blackwell came in, it was a total turnaround.”

The reputation has also reached the students.

“Our teachers last year told us they were very, very strict at Hambrick,” said Ronald Lynch, a seventh-grader. “Strict with grades, dress code, conduct. I was nervous. But I like it a lot.”

“The teachers tell you: ‘We expect you to pass this test. We believe in you,'” said Loren Guillory, an eighth-grader.

The Hambrick method takes an enormous amount of work, from the principal down to the teaching corps. Ms. Blackwell routinely works 12-hour days or longer, and teachers arrive early and leave late.

Staff development

In turn, Ms. Blackwell said the school typically spends twice as much time on staff development as most schools. Much of the training is actually designed for teachers of the gifted and talented.

Teachers also help distribute the pressure by working across subject areas. Math teachers include writing in their classes. History teachers include science.

One language arts teacher dissects a pig every year in class when the class reads A Day No Pigs Would Die. In turn, the class’ science teacher turns up the reading content of her lessons.

It extends all the way to P.E. class, where one day a week is set aside for writing. Posted on the gym wall are the results of one recent assignment to make a muscle-themed simile: “His abdominals are like six tennis balls,” and “His gluteus muscles are as small as two lemons.”

“I talk to the math teachers, the science teachers, the reading teachers and say, ‘What do you need help on?'” said gym teacher Janie Rodriguez.

Leadership turnover

The lesson Ms. Blackwell tries to impart is that there shouldn’t be any excuses for failure. She has a CEO’s impatience for poor results, in her own school and in others around the state.

“Schools that are still just rated ‘acceptable’ – that’s terrible!” she said. “That’s a very low standard. There shouldn’t be any excuses for not getting beyond acceptable.”

Ask anyone in the school why Hambrick has been successful and they point first to Ms. Blackwell. But any time a school’s success is so closely identified with one individual, it raises red flags for some. After all, principals switch jobs or retire all the time.

“I’m a strong believer that education can’t rest on a single individual,” said Dr. Rutherford, herself the former principal of Highland Park High School. “We already know we’re not going to find a superhuman principal for every school building. We’ve got to build an entire system that supports education.”

Already, three of Ms. Blackwell’s assistant principals have been drawn away for principal jobs elsewhere in the district. She said she’d be surprised if her current assistants weren’t lured away soon.

District officials are considering asking Ms. Blackwell to move over to Aldine MacArthur High School, where Hambrick’s students go after eighth grade. MacArthur’s current principal is headed to retirement.

Ms. Blackwell says she wants to stay at Hambrick. But district officials know they need to be able to build beyond her.

“By far, the question I do the most soul searching over is leadership turnover,” said Margarita Byrum, Aldine’s area superintendent over Hambrick. “We know the school principal is the person who makes or breaks the program. The gains we have here are never solid. They’re always fragile.”

But some teachers believe the improvements at Hambrick have become rooted enough that it would be difficult to undo them.

“We wouldn’t put up with less,” Ms. Bellido said. “If some slouch principal came in here, there would be a riot.

“There’s no excuse for other schools. It’s hard work, sure, but you love it. Because it works.”