CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

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Case Study

Cooper Middle School

The principal of Cooper Middle School, Mr. Thomas, listed the five top challenges faced by his school: overcrowding, special education classes, staff turnover, a lack of parental involvement, and an aging building. It is a school in a racially mixed, poor and working class neighborhood. It is one of a handful of schools in the city that has maintained a relatively equal mixture of African American, Latino, and White students over several decades. Its faculty is predominantly White and female and many teachers described close professional and personal relationships with their colleagues. In recent years, Cooper had made considerable strides in the areas of student attendance and student performance. Finally, it should be noted that the District teachers’ contract expired in August 2000. This proved important to Cooper teachers as they voted whether or not to extend the day by six minutes to allow more time for teachers to meet. (In the end, Cooper’ teachers defeated the school-wide referendum, waiting to see what the new contract would bring.)

Laid over these more factual realities about Cooper is a contextual tapestry of stubborn independence. Cooper is a school that, at times, seems indifferent to external resources, especially its cluster and the School District, and, as a result, may be viewed by cluster people and also insiders as somewhat aloof or isolated. Perhaps a more accurate description of Cooper would be “self-reliant.” Although the school has often marched to its own drummer, it has successfully adopted many of the Children Achieving reforms. For example, the school has created five functioning small learning communities, and participated in many successful professional development programs provided by the cluster’s Teaching and Learning network staff to Cooper’ faculty.

Certainly, Cooper faces many of the same challenges as other urban middle schools, including recruiting and retaining teachers, creating an intellectually rigorous curriculum, and providing meaningful professional development. Yet in meeting these challenges, Cooper has tended to look inward for solutions and answers, making decisions that reinforce a degree of insularity and entrenchment. Cooper’ attitude is perhaps best summed up by an administrator who said, “Cooper’ teachers are the best experts on Cooper.” Several teachers voiced a similar sentiment.

There is another, more recent, story to tell about Cooper. In the last several years, the school has made expanded efforts to acknowledge student performance and attendance. When the current viceprincipal, Mr. Jamieson, came to Cooper several years ago, the school publicly honored student athletes in school-wide ceremonies. By contrast, Cooper did not hold similar assemblies recognizing academic achievements; nor did the school have an honor roll. Now, three years later, there is an honor role at Cooper and the names of honor role students are posted at the school. Students who make the honor roll pay half-price admission to school dances. Student attendance has also been made public. Every morning, over the public address system, Mr. Jamieson announces the percentage of students in school that day. The school has instituted an incentive program aimed at getting students to school on time and staying at school. In the three years since these changes have been implemented, the school has experienced improved test scores and attendance. Mr. Jamieson offered an explanation of why students’ test scores and attendance increased: “Grades now matter.”

Publication Date

January 2011