Leaving a legacy

Leaving a legacy

Andrews, Kate

The High School Principal of the Year is vocal, stubborn, adn passionate-and he led Monticello High School to greater student achievement during his five-year tenure.

Irving C. Jones Sr. no longer walks Monticello High School’s halls daily, but his presence is still strongly felt. The 2003 MetLife/NASSP National High School Principal of the Year, Jones is vocal, stubborn, and passionate.

“Everything he was about, everything he said, everything he fought hard for was about the achievement and success of children,” said Don Vale, a fellow Albemarle County, VA, principal and Jones’s nominator for the state’s high school principal of the year award. “In the space of five years he’s created a history, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Jones’s less serious side also has prompted cheers from colleagues.

“He was out there; he was in the pep rally,” said Gwendolyn Reynolds, a world history teacher at Monticello. “If we’re doing some ’70s fink, he’s out there dancing with us. I love him. I really love how he was inclusive to the community.”

Despite his inclusiveness, Jones established a hierarchy. At Monticello, the words “kids come first” have become a mantra.

“There was no question what was expected,” said Diane Clark, a biology teacher. “He always put kids first. That was the big, overriding theme.”

A theme from which Jones, now an administrator for the Richmond, VA, public school system, derived his vision for Monticello. Named for Thomas Jefferson’s nearby estate, Monticello High School was the victim of low prospects when it opened in 1998.

“Some parents didn’t have high expectations at all,” Jones said. Neither did neighbors, Clark added. Monticello serves students from the rural, comparatively poor southern end of Albemarle County, one of Virginia’s most affluent areas. In the 2002-2003 school year, 17.6% of Monticello students are receiving subsidized lunches, and 20% of its students are minorities. Test scores traditionally have been lower in the south than in the rest of the county.

“Before they built this school, all you were hearing is, ‘They won’t be able to compete,'” Clark remembered. “There were people who wanted us to fail at the beginning.”

In 1999, the first year Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests were administered at Monticello, results indeed were bleak. Only 36.1% of students passed the Algebra I exam, and results were only slightly better in other subjects: 62.4% passed the reading-literature test, and 58% passed the World History I exam. Students and teachers also suffered from a lack of school unity-a universal problem to new schools.

“You have no sense of who you are,” Reynolds said. “You really don’t have your identity yet. We were from Albemarle and Western Albemarle [high schools], trying to be [Monticello] Mustangs.”

But Jones, hired from a high school in Utica, NY, in 1997, saw an opportunity amid the challenges: a way to chart a fresh course, a goal he pursued tenaciously.

“I can be very stubborn,” Jones said. “I want children to achieve. While I might not have been the most popular person, I stuck to my guns.”

As Jones met with future Monticello parents in churches, recreation centers, and private homes, he announced a goal few thought was possible.

“I said five years ago we would meet the state standards in four years,” Jones said, referring to Virginia’s then-new Standards of Learning (SOL), mandated by the state. “It was a tremendous success on all fronts.”

This past spring, Monticello achieved full accreditation-more than 70% of its students passed SOL exams in English, history, science, and math-joining 22 of Albemarle’s 25 schools. In 2002, 84.1% of Monticello students passed the Algebra I exam, 80.5% passed reading-literature, and 91.7% succeeded in World History I. Although Albemarie’s other two high schools have received higher scores, Monticello has boosted its pass rates more over the years than the others, acting principal Steele Howen said. “I’d match our top-quartile kids against any top-quartile kids in the country.”

That achievement came after years of work and concentration. One of Jones’s most striking actions was to collapse four class levels into three. “Standard” and “advanced” classes were combined into the “academic” level, flanked by “honors” and “practical” classes.

“I have personal issues with tracking,” said Jones, who received a standard high school diploma because he failed his New York State High School Regents Exam in geometry. At the time, he was a student who was pretty familiar with the principal’s office in his Bronx high school, but Jones’s involvement in Tae Kwon Do helped him gain physical and academic discipline. A black belt and a doctorate later, Jones espouses the benefits of high expectations for all students.

“People tend to think standard kids weren’t in the smartest academic level,” Jones said. But one of the driving reasons for the collapsing of English, social studies, and science classes was that test scores in the standard and advanced courses often criss-crossed, Howen said.

“In this county, the leveling of classes had been pretty ingrained over the years,” she said. But compressing the academic levels has raised the academic bar in many cases, she added.

“Sometimes it’s successful, and sometimes it’s not,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think the mixed classes have held anybody back.” The academic concepts themselves are not different in the separate levels, only the teaching methods.

Jones’s ideas are built on a foundation of good communication among teachers, parents, students and administrators. Even the school’s open, airy layout and the scheduling of common planning periods for cohorts of teachers are paths to teamwork. Compartmentalization is a feature of many schools that Jones wanted to avoid at Monticello.

“In my opinion, it creates little subcultures, where English and social studies keep to themselves,” Jones said. Introducing teachers from different disciplines has helped students make academic gains, he added.

Teachers say Jones’s plan has met with mixed results so far. “There are definitely pockets [of cooperation] going on,” said Matt Blundin, a math teacher. “It probably has not been done as much as we’d like because of time. It’s just the nature of the job.”

At first the idea of an interdisciplinary model was met with resistance by some educators, who saw little commonality in the disciplines. But history teacher Reynolds has reaped benefits from working with English educators, covering the ancient Greeks in her class at the same time as students are learning about mythology in English. Curriculum mapping, she said, has gained popularity.

Denny Barberio, an English teacher who runs the students’ television studio, has gained a lot from cooperation between departments. Other than his broadcast students, students from English as a Second or Other Language classes have made videos in the studio, as has an Earth science teacher, who produced an educational tape about Albemarie’s long-term drought.

“It enables us to do stuff that we wouldn’t be able to do,” Barberio said. “There’s much more than just my classes.”

Greater communication is also the force behind Monticello’s mentorship program. Each student is assigned to a teacher at the beginning of ninth grade, and once a month, each mentor group gathers for a 50-minute period in the middle of the day. At first, the mentoring periods, which have addressed such serious issues as smoking, terrorist attacks, and student deaths, were run by teachers, Blundin said.

“The first year, kids felt like they were having something done to them,” he said, but “it’s grown to a different role. We are involved in the role of guidance counselor.”

Also, the mentor periods are increasingly run by students, Blundin said, and although his seniors occasionally are reluctant to come to mentoring, the periods often result in “more informative discussions.”

“The bottom line of that program is in order to teach them, you have to reach them,” Jones said. Many schools have mentoring plans that focus only on at-risk students, he said, adding, “If you’re only paying attention to one group, you stand to put other kids at risk”

Students also have formed conflict-resolution teams, which mediate disputes. “It could be fighting, could just be disagreements over the course of the day,” Jones said. Early on, Monticello developed a reputation for racial difficulties, mainly sprouting from one fight between a group of 10 White students and 10 Black students in the school’s first year. But Jones said of the lingering rumors, “I think that’s more myth than reality. We have not had racial problems, with the exception of the first year.” As for the incident between the white and black students, “In the final analysis, that didn’t have anything to do with racism.”

A more likely source of the ugly talk, Jones said, is community resentment fueled by the high number of black teachers and a black principal at Monticello. “There are still people that have problems with that,” he said.

But Reynolds sees Jones’s race as a plus. “Having an African-American principal makes a difference,” she said. “I’m glad he brought his ethnicity to the job.”

Indeed, Jones made special efforts to hire-and retainminority teachers at Monticello. Higher salaries in other fields and fewer student teachers have made hiring difficult, he said. “I intentionally was looking for minority teachers,” Jones said. “It’s a deliberate activity on the part of the central office and the principals.”

Blundin said Jones’s arrival from out of state likely helped the principal achieve his goals. “He wasn’t in a position to be swayed in any way by politics,” Blundin said, unlike other educators who have worked in the same system for many years.

Jones’s willingness to stick to his guns has earned him many friends in Albemarle County, but also some enemies. After the school’s first year, 25 of Monticello’s 70 teachers left. Some went to other schools, others were “evaluated out,” and a few moved from the area. “There were teachers who didn’t get it,” Jones said.

Many educators came from Albemarle’s other two traditional high schools, some carrying preconceived notions with them. “His whole thing from the beginning was, ‘We’re not going to do this like Albemarle; we’re not going to do this like Western Albemarle,'” Reynolds said.

“It was brand new. Nobody knew what to expect,” said Clark, who was lured from a central office job to teach at Monticello. After working for years at Albemarle High, Clark spends more time at school than ever before, tutoring in the after-school remediation program and attending leadership meetings. Then it’s home to grade papers. “Teaching is always a time-consuming career,” she said.

Although some teachers receive stipends for their efforts, much of the work at Monticello is done on a volunteer basis, Clark said. Parents have pitched in as well, notably in the band boosters’ program and the parent-teacher-student association.

As for teachers who chafed under Jones leadership, Clark said, “Irving didn’t try to hold them. You don’t want to be here, we’ll find somebody who does.”

In the fall of 1999, 26 new teachers started work at Monticello, Blundin among them. Although several more educators left after that school year, attrition rates appear to be leveling out, and in the last two years, teachers have left primarily because of life changes rather than unhappiness with the principal.

“[Jones will] be the first to tell you this: Monticello is a great place to be because of the people around here,” Blundin said.

Although people are at the center of Jones plans, technology also plays an important role at Monticello. Students have ready access to computers, and the television studio, where students record a morning newscast and produce outside projects, is “the top student-run studio in the state of Virginia,” according to Barberio. Besides non-commercial videos, an SOL quiz show to be shown across the state began production there in November.

It was Jones’s idea to create a number one studio, Barberio said.

Monticello aims to produde “technologically advanced citizens,” and Jones kept that in mind, Howen said. Teachers attended workshops in computer skills before the high school opened. But reading and writing are still the two primary focuses at Monticello, especially in light of SOL requirements.

Teaching people to read and write is very important, Barberio agreed. “You can teach people all the computers you want, but illegible writing can become typing that doesn’t make sense. I don’t think technology helps there.”

“The difficulty is that technology has given us shortterm memory,” Reynolds added. “You have a lot of students that need assistance.”

In response, Jones began an intensive remediation program in 2000 for students who failed SOL tests, even those who fell short by just a few questions. Students met with teachers six times during study hall before retaking an exam. Those students who failed two tests received more help after school. This year, 275 students out of 1,094 at Monticello are taking remediation.

“It has to do with good teaching,” Jones said. “The delivery of instruction-it’s a function of practice.”

Jones consistency has brought teachers and administrators plenty of practice in continuing his vision. Now that he’s overseeing Richmond’s 22 middle level and high schools, parents there can expect changes, although Jones said he must marshal all of his knowledge from Albemarle County, Utica, and even his early days as an English teacher.

He also relies on his religion to succeed. “I think you need to believe in something more powerful than you to do the job,” said Jones, a member of his church choir.

Working primarily with adults “isn’t as much fun,” Jones said, but he is energized by the challenge of his new job, as are the Monticello employees he left behind.

A month after taking over the reins at Monticello, Howen said her involvement in policy making since the school’s start has helped her stay on Jones path: “It’s not hard for me, because I was here in the beginning. We did all that together.”

Others attest to the strong sense of ownership at Monticello High School.

“[Jones] led so everybody thought they were doing it themselves,” Clark said. “He had a vision, and he knew how to collect on it.”

Kate Andrews is a freelance writer who resides in Charlottsville, VA.

Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Jan 2003

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