WMS Principal: After the protests, where will lasting change be found?

Submitted by Gordon Beinstein, Principal of Western Middle School

In a time when everyone’s comments on the subject of race are dissected, critiqued, analyzed, and then judged as laudable, worthy, tone-deaf, insincere, or something else, I am expecting this piece will elicit responses across the political spectrum.  

Julian Michaca Lujan and Victor Avelar with Gordon Beinstein at Western Middle School, Dec 6, 2017 Photo: Leslie Yager

Admittedly, I am in no position to speak to the merits of renaming monuments, removing statues, redesigning flags, and amusement park rides.  I have little doubt that, to many, these are real and constant reminders of an abhorrent past and troubling present.  It is way past time to correct these wrongs.  However, if all that results from this recent awakening is that we have changed the name of a sports team, a military base, or a street, then this movement will have fallen woefully short of its promise.   How do these changes impact the day to day lives of those for whom we, as a nation, have neglected for too long?  As a middle school principal, one who works in a school whose diversity mirrors that of our great nation, I can tell you what I have personally witnessed that does impact lives:  expectations and opportunities.  

Western Middle School is not the school most people imagine when they think of the town of Greenwich, Connecticut.  We pull from a wide range of feeder schools, some of which are over 70% non-white, and also from those whose idea of a minority is a brunette.  Demographically, Western is about half Caucasian.  The majority of our minority population is Latino, with a solid percentage of African Americans, Asians, and many other races and ethnicities.  Economically, almost half of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, we have a large middle-class population, and others are among the ‘one-percenters’.  These kids learn, play, and eat side by side.  Is it Nirvana?  No. When pre-adolescent students from such diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds come together, there is bound to be some discord.  After all, we are talking about middle school kids who, if you have any hanging around your home, you know can be occasionally thoughtless.  However, the beauty for those of us who work in middle school is the chance to turn these misplaced comments and actions into teachable moments.  It is from these conversations that ignorance and indifference can turn to understanding and empathy.   Western is an incredible place to work!

When I took the helm seven years ago, with few exceptions, you could identify the level of our classes by the skin color of the students sitting in them.  Our standardized test scores reflected that discrepancy.  In a state with the greatest achievement gap in the nation, Western’s gap exceeded the state average.   Were we part of the problem or the solution?  Most of us who choose to enter this profession do so because we want to make a difference.  If we truly believed that education is the answer, then we had to ask ourselves if we were providing an equal opportunity for ALL of our students.   Even though kids were in the same building, they were not attending the same school.  The educational expectations and opportunities were unequal.  It was our moral responsibility to correct this.  

Addressing this discrepancy became one of our top priorities, and when I say “our”’ I mean the entire staff, by taking a number of real and practical steps.  First, we examined and then raised the level of rigor in ALL of our classes regardless of class track. High expectations for ALL became the norm.  Our students were going to the same high school as those on the other side of town.  They had to be prepared.  We would not allow a child’s home life to shape our expectations.  Instead, we would work to understand what the home could and could not provide and fill the void as best we could.  No longer would we accept a child’s first, worst effort as his/her final product.  The consequence for doing poorly on a test or assignment wouldn’t simply be a low grade; it would be the opportunity to redo the work. Opting out of learning was not an option.  Next, we revisited the gates that were keeping kids out of the advanced classes.   Many children who were previously seen as unable or not ready, we pushed up anyway while providing the support during and after the school day they needed to meet with success.  We also adopted the motto “in loco parentis,” Latin for “in place of the parent.”  When parents didn’t feel comfortable advocating for their kids due to language or cultural barriers, our staff took this on, advancing children when appropriate.  This “parental” role continued on through the high school placement process.  

Programmatically, we adopted the AVID program.  AVID stands for Advancement via Individual Determination.  The idea originated in California as a program to help kids ‘in the academic middle’ who were in a group generally underrepresented on college campuses (African American, Latino, English Language Learners, low income, foster children, etc.) to become the first in their family to attend college by systematically teaching them how to “do school,” building the skills necessary to be successful in school and beyond.  At Western, we run the AVID elective program which is specifically designed to meet the needs of those students at Western who meet some of the above-mentioned criteria.  We also are now an AVID magnet school, taking those same college-ready and executive functioning skills and teaching them to ALL Western students regardless of background.  Finally, we engaged the parents … in their own language and at times that work for them.  I remember the first time we ran a bilingual tech workshop for our Latino families to help them learn to access the tech platforms their children would be using.  We had 70 parents show up at 7:00 in the morning.  I totally underestimated the donuts!  

What has been the result of this effort?  Western’s achievement gap is now less than half the state average.  This is even more significant as the entire WMS population has enjoyed a steady increase in our standardized scores each of the last several years.   While I would like to say that our demographic makeup is equally represented across all advanced classes, I cannot, but we are getting closer.   Currently, depending on the content area, minority students make up between 38-44% of the population in our advanced classes.   It is important to note that we didn’t deny certain groups of children access to achieve this balance.   Over the last several years we simply increased the number of advanced sections offered, providing a greater opportunity for ALL students to be exposed to an accelerated curriculum.   It shouldn’t surprise you that, when given the opportunity, support, and a staff that refuses to give up on them, kids achieve and do so at high levels.   These students who met with success enter high school ready for a more rigorous course load.  We have placed a greater percentage of Western kids into advanced classes at the high school each of the last several years.  In addition, approximately 90% of our AVID elective kids continue in AVID at GHS every year, and the success rate of those kids getting into college, with significant scholarship money, is close to 100%.  

Equally as important, we have built a community where people feel valued and respected as evidenced from our annual staff, student, and parent satisfaction surveys.  Answers to student questions such as “I feel that people from different cultural backgrounds races and ethnicities get along well at this school”, “I feel like I am a part of this school”, “I feel like a valued member of classes”, and “I feel that teachers expect me to do my best at all times” ranged from 83%-91% positive responses.  While we can always do better, when considering we are talking about egocentric, highly sensitive 13-year-olds who often have a distorted relationship with reality,  I’ll take it!  The parents too have bought in, with 95% or better having responded positively to the questions “My child enjoys coming to school”, My child is appropriately challenged in class”, and “The Western staff knows and cares about my child”.  

Helping children to believe in themselves, giving them the tools they need for success, providing opportunities previously denied, and investing in parents as partners is the work that changes lives.  Please don’t misread this as a knock on the marches and protests that dominate the news cycle recently.  I am also not so naive to think that a college degree or a good job eliminates bias, but they do open doors.   If we rename streets and tear down statues but leave little Johnny languishing in the back of the classroom, unaware of all he can be and unable to access the education that can break the cycle of poverty and violence, for Johnny, what has really changed?  

Gordon Beinstein
Western Middle School