Tuscaloosa middle school focuses on academic growth despite failing status

A single Tuscaloosa school landed on the Alabama State Department of Education’s annual list of failing schools. Even with the designation, Westlawn Middle School continues to concentrate on improving its school culture.

By Sara Wilson
News Reporter

Westlawn Middle School students collected recycling for a school-wide competition. Grade levels competed in gathering the most materials. Photo courtesy of Westlawn Middle School.

Dr. Tiffany Davis loves showing off her school. The principal of Westlawn Middle School, only in her second year of leadership, steers through the hallways with the pride of a winning football coach and the love of a mother, stopping to greet students by name and check on their academic progress.

Westlawn’s walls are covered in student artwork: golden pharaoh masks hang in one wing and portraits line another. University pennants dangle from the ceilings, the crimson and white flag of The University of Alabama notably front and center. Neatly painted murals offer subtle and steady encouragement, reminding students that “You are stronger than you seem,” and that “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

A sixth grade student wears a similar maxim on a bright red, Westlawn-branded t-shirt. It reads “Failure is not in our DNA” with a fingerprint in the middle, its ridges and lines made up of words like courage, responsibility and compassion.

It is an uplifting sentiment, though a tad ironic.

Westlawn was the one institution out of the 54 schools that comprise both the Tuscaloosa City School and Tuscaloosa County School systems to make this year’s “failing school” list, which the Alabama State Department of Education released on its website on Jan. 18. The 2015 Alabama Accountability Act classifies “failing schools” as those that score in the bottom 6 percent on the state’s annual standardized assessment of reading and math.

Dr. Tiffany Davis said that her priorities are transforming the school culture at Westlawn Middle School, where she has been principal for two years.

There are 76 public schools on the list for the 2017-2018 school year. According to a report from AL.com, 72 of those 76 failing schools have a student population in which nine out of 10 students live below the poverty line, and the other four schools still have significantly high rates of poor students. At Westlawn, the student poverty rate is 100 percent. The connection between high poverty and low test scores has been researched extensively and survives in the public imagination, though there is still recognition of the existence of high performing, high poverty schools.

Third through eighth graders in Alabama take the Scantron Performance Series assessment, which tests against Common Core standards and places students on a level ranging from one to four according to their performance. At Westlawn, 69 percent of seventh graders tested at a Level 1 for math and 59 percent tested at a Level 1 for reading.

In addition to the Alabama Accountability Act reviews, the state also releases individual school report cards that measure factors such as academic growth, chronic absenteeism and college readiness. Westlawn’s scores were 62 for achievement, 82.5 for growth, and 14.62 for absenteeism.

Despite the failing status, Davis remains optimistic about the growth potential at Westlawn, which sits in Tuscaloosa’s West End on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“The failing schools list doesn’t define us,” Davis said. “We take that data to drive our instruction, but it doesn’t define us.”

Since coming to Westlawn two years ago, Davis has enacted plans to transform the culture at the historically underperforming, high poverty school. She said that attendance is up and disciplinary issues are down, two key factors in the school’s growth. Part of her focus has been on the physical metamorphosis of the school, resulting in the murals, pendants and artwork that promote college and career readiness.

“I believe that students should feel a sense of belonging when they walk through the doors of their school, and they should have a sense of school pride,” Davis said. “They should feel that this is a place where [they] feel safe and it appears that there are adults here who love [them].” Her goal is for students to encounter an encouraging message on every walk between classes.

The more crucial part of the cultural transformation at Westlawn, Davis said, is about the relationships between faculty and students. She incorporates best practices from her time as the principal at Skyland Elementary School, such as project-based learning and small group instruction. She also led her staff through the educational training program Capturing Kids’ Hearts, which focuses on communication and relationship building.

Davis’ changes have had a visible impact throughout the school. Westlawn now has a blossoming journalism program that writes a publication called the Falcon’s Nest with the help of student mentors from The University of Alabama. The school’s string orchestra is regularly asked to perform at church services and community events. Students run a shop called the Falcon Bank, where peers can exchange points earned through good behavior for school supplies and snacks.

The hallways at Westlawn Middle School are decorated according to a college and career readiness theme. Student work is regularly displayed.

Davis’s core belief, however, is that a school should aim to fulfill the needs of the “whole child,” whether those needs are academic, emotional, social or physical.

LaSonya Brown, a sixth grade English teacher, practices that commitment daily. If one of her students seems hungry or unclean, she will address that need in any way she can, she said. She has witnessed attitude changes in some of her worst behaved students simply by pulling them aside to assess an underlying cause.

“The students—you just have to love them,” Brown said. “I enjoy coming to work, making sure they learn, and making sure they receive a quality education. I feel it is my duty.”

Statewide standardized tests, however, have no way to measure that love. It is a conundrum that the State Department of Education and individual educators acknowledge with frustration. In a press release from Dec. 28, the department admitted that an accountability report reveals “something valuable about a school or school system, but it does not tell us everything about that school or system…it is a snapshot in time.”

Davis echoed that inability to measure abstract concepts like student happiness and enrichment. The academic growth measurement on the school report card aims to be more holistic, but it is still imperfect.

“There is no tool to measure the love for a student or how much your community really addresses the needs for every student,” Davis said. “Before a student can focus on learning how to read and learning how to do math, their brains have to be free from the trauma that they are exposed to. When they come here, we try to make our school a safe place for them to be able to communicate any of those needs.”

Still, the Alabama Accountability Act is an influential piece of state educational legislation. Westlawn administers its own standardized testing three times per year in preparation for the state’s assessment, and uses that internal data to influence instructional choices. For example, school leadership reshuffled the master schedule to allow double time for reading instruction in the sixth grade, an area of demonstrated need. Teachers already see improvements.

“Our students are struggling with finding main ideas in reading passages,” Brown said. “So we used that data to drive our instruction to go over that skill—reinforcing and reteaching it until the student has mastered it.”

District administration was untroubled by the failing school list. In a press release from Tuscaloosa City Schools titled “Of Lists and Labels,” superintendent Dr. Mike Daria said that Westlawn will “begin to see academic gains in a short time as a result of [its] plan, passion, and commitment.” The support for Westlawn extends into the Tuscaloosa community.

Engage Tuscaloosa, a program within the Honors College at The University of Alabama, has led Developing Real Expectations and Motivations (DREAM) in the school for six years. According to executive director Claire Stebbins, the program’s purpose is to instill scholastic competencies in middle school students, empowering them to develop pathways to success. It operates as an after-school program with specific curriculum for each grade. Sixth graders build study skills, seventh graders hone in on academic interests, and eighth graders plan for successful high school careers. The program currently operates at an intimate, 1-to-2 mentor to student ratio.

“Reception at the school has been great, both from students, teachers, and Honors College mentors,” Stebbins said. “Students are very engaged, and it is amazing to see the different plans they develop for themselves while working through the program curriculum.”

Davis ultimately aims to challenge the negative stigma and stereotypes associated with Westlawn in the past. She wants to combat old reports of uninvolved parents and out of control behavior with new stories of student excellence. Students get invited to the State Superintendent’s Visual Arts Exhibit in Montgomery. They write compelling essays on school-issued Chromebooks, which were made possible by a recent $1.7 million grant. They chat about current women’s issues at Girl Talk Wednesday. They are global citizens in the making, according to Davis.

“I know that when I’m here, I’m making a difference,” Davis said. “Every school has challenges of their own, but when I’m here, I know that the work my team and I are doing is making a difference. We are changing lives.”