Meet five women who are making a difference in Memphis.
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Georgian Hills Middle School
Wth unwavering focus and a few "courageous conversations," this dedicated dynamo has steered a struggling school from failure to success.
A strong person. No nonsense. Someone to come in and take charge.” That’s how school system leaders saw Rosalind Martin when she was hired as principal of Georgian Hills Middle School in 2004. Since then she not only rescued the Frayser institution from the state takeover list, she’s moved it steadily from “adequate yearly progress” to being recently named a Reward School by the State of Tennessee. Of the 169 schools recognized in August, 20 were in Memphis. Georgian Hills was among those making the largest gains over three years on TCAP tests. A major improvement was in math — a whopping 18 percent gain.
Martin, whose career with Memphis City Schools began in 1989, recalls her first months at Georgian Hills. “After I looked at the data and saw that the teachers who had been here were getting the same results, I did what was called a ‘fresh start’ of the entire school, replacing every teacher in the first two weeks.” She and the faculty also conducted a “community walk,” knocking on doors and introducing themselves to parents and residents: “I told them I believed in these kids and what I was going to do differently.”
For instance, she noticed the school had no “exploratory courses” — such as choir, band, or foreign language classes — so she started a French class, a piano lab, and a second section of physical education. With help from her husband, a Memphis police officer, she launched a gang awareness and prevention program. She put college banners around the school and encouraged the children to believe they could reach that level. She talked with teachers, homing in on their strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, the school made “adequate yearly progress” and was removed from the takeover list. “We were working hard,” says Martin, “but we were not where we needed to be.”
In 2009, state standards changed, and Georgian Hills landed on a list as a “target school.” Says Martin, “The content on the test was two years more advanced than what kids were used to. It was a new curriculum and teachers had to change their way of teaching.”
To boost math comprehension, Martin put in place a program called Algebra Readiness, which meant each teacher in each classroom spent 20 minutes on algebra at the beginning of each period. But as Martin says, “Implementing a program is one thing. Implementing it with fidelity is another. I went to the classes and inspected what was expected. I kept a journal. I monitored.” She also conducted “courageous conversations” with teachers who weren’t meeting expectations. “If they weren’t making it in their class, we had to talk,” says Martin.
Her efforts paid off, not only in math, but also in language arts, with a 6 percent jump in test scores, and in the students with disabilities program, which saw a phenomenal 33 percent gain. “We have a high special-ed population,” she explains. “With many of those students, the tests are hands-on, helping them learn certain life skills.”
When the news came that Georgian Hills Middle had been named a Reward School, jubilation ran high. “I attribute every bit to the teachers and to my assistant principal, Michael Henry.”
The students, too, deserve kudos for overcoming challenges: “They live in a community with high gang activity. Many don’t have proper clothing much less computers at home. Their parents may be incarcerated. At least 20 percent are raised by grandma or an aunt. One boy’s 19-year-old brother was trying to raise him.”
Martin, who has three children, faced some hurdles herself — the death of her mother, a bout with breast cancer, and rising at 3 a.m. each morning to study for her doctorate degree, which she earned this year. Keeping her on course was her fierce commitment. Says Martin: “I’m passionate about this school.”
Previously, she adds, Georgian Hills was known as one of the worst in the city. “Some of the students took negative pride in that. Now they have positive pride. Being named a Reward School has made a difference.” — Marilyn Sadler