White Plains Middle School meeting

White Plains Middle School Principal Courtney Wilburn explains her school's approaches to education to local and state leaders on Monday.

WHITE PLAINS — There’s a secret room at the heart of White Plains Middle School.

On corkboards in the “data room” — which is off-limits to kids — teachers have tacked up index cards with the name of each student in the school. One side of the card is green, the other red.

If tests show the student is learning new things fast enough the card flips to the green side. If the student is just coasting along it’s flipped to red. Students’ names are grouped by teacher, whose names can also be flipped to red if students don’t advance quickly enough.

Letter grades don’t matter in the red-and-green game. If you’re not learning more than you knew before, you’re in the red zone.

“If you’re going to give us a year of your time, we owe you a year of growth,” said Courtney Wilburn, principal of the school.

Wilburn, state education officials and three members of the Alabama Legislature sat around a table in the data room Monday to talk about what has allowed White Plains to score higher than many of the state’s schools on standardized tests.  State officials say they plan to use the school as a model for other schools in surrounding counties, with teachers in struggling schools coming here for walk-throughs and question-and-answer sessions, as well as to observe action in the classroom online.

At first glance, the scores at White Plains might not seem too impressive. Eighty-three percent of the school’s sixth-graders met state standards on ACT Aspire, the state’s newest standardized test. In other subjects, such as reading and science, just more than half of White Plains middle schoolers met state standards.

Still, those numbers stood out from statewide results on Aspire, a tougher test than the state used during the No Child Left Behind era. Only half of Alabama sixth-graders met state math standards in the second year of the test; middle schoolers’ results in other subjects were still worse.

State schools Superintendent Tommy Bice described middle school as an “abyss” where student progress often slows nearly to a halt. The results at White Plains, he said, show the school is doing something right.

“Your sixth-grade math proficiency is 83, and Hoover’s is 73?,” Bice said. “That kind of shows that ZIP code doesn’t matter.”

Wilburn, the principal, attributes the school’s scores to its use of test data. Teachers meet in the data room once a week to see who’s still in the red. The school carved out an extra 30-minute period for students to work on areas where the data shows they need improvement. Parents are encouraged not to focus on grades, but on whether a student has mastered a long list of state standards included with the report card.

It took some time to get teachers and parents used to that approach, Wilburn said.

“I know this sounds like the corniest thing in the world to say, but the faculty operates more like a family,” she said. Teachers have lots of freedom, she said, and collaborate without seeing each classroom as “their little kingdom.”

State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he was impressed with White Plains but wouldn’t be a true believer until the same techniques were in place in the county’s other schools, with similar results.

“I want to believe it too,” he said. “I want to see it.”

White Plains is in a rural community, with about 40 percent of its students on free or reduced-price lunch — lower than the state average and much lower than some urban schools.

Marsh asked Wilburn about the level of parent involvement in the school. Wilburn said it was “extremely high.”

Marsh, one of the chief architects of the state’s first charter school law, said he’d be interested in the creation of a charter school that includes some promise of parent participation as part of its entry requirements.

Building parent involvement at White Plains was sometimes tough, said Wilburn, who’s been  principal for five years. Some parents rejected the school’s changes, such as its decision to let students retake tests if they feel they’ve learned enough to improve their scores.

Some teachers headed for the door as well. Wilburn said the school had an “embarrassing” level of teacher turnover while changing to its current approach. Bice, the state superintendent, said that’s typical when a school is being innovative.

“Leave the exit signs brightly lit,” Bice said.

Turnover is on many educators’ minds as the school system approaches the start of the legislative session. Marsh has said he’s drafting a bill that would allow teachers to opt out of tenure in exchange for the possibility of pay raises. He said “there’s been talk” of tying pay to student improvement, though teachers have argued that there’s no good way to measure improvement.

“What you’re showing me here,” he said of the data room, “tells me there is a way to measure student improvement.”

Wilburn and Bice said performance-based raises for teachers could be detrimental, because they’d have teachers focused on competition rather than collaboration.

“You’d be getting back to ‘this is my little kingdom,’ Wilburn said.

The legislative session begins Feb. 2. Teacher visits to White Plains, as a model school, are expected to begin this semester.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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