Chartering a new course

Chartering a new course

Girls Leadership Academy learning what works -- and what doesn't

October 4th, 2009 by Kelli Gauthier in News

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Keosha Cross works on her art assignment at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Keosha Cross works on...

One of the few pieces of art adorning the walls at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy is a colorful abstract work in the front office with a Victor Hugo quotation:

"Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come."

It's a statement leaders of Tennessee's first all-girls charter school say has led them from the beginning. But powerful or not, the idea behind the school -- which also is Chattanooga's first charter school of any kind -- has been a challenge to put into practice.

Nearly three months into the venture, some of the school's teachers say they are relieved to try novel instructional methods, including not assigning letter grades. But two teachers have left the school and its radically different learning approach because it just wasn't a good fit.

Some students have responded well to the science- and math-focused curriculum, while others have needed more remedial work than administrators anticipated.

"Has it gone as we expected? Of course not," co-director Maxine Bailey said with a laugh.

"Because we're a charter school, we can change midstream," she said. "We had our theories, our design, but with our living and breathing students and teachers, we were able to tailor it."

The school is in its second week of intercession: half-days of school designed to reflect on what students learned the first quarter and prepare for what's to come in the next.

grading system

Instead of the traditional letter grade system, teachers assign "not yet" (below 70 percent), "proficient" (70 to 84 percent) and "high performing" (85 percent and higher).

The first week of intercession gave students a chance to work on any missing or incomplete work to raise their grade.

While teachers sent progress reports home, they emphasize that students always can work to raise their grades.

"In most schools, you don't have the option to continue and change that grade all year long," said English teacher Sangita Shanklin. "It's a great way for the girls to take ownership of their grades. They can determine where their grades are going to be."

Sixth-grader Keosha Cross said she likes the nontraditional grading system because of its ambiguity.

"It's tight," the 11-year-old said. "(The grades) are good because my parents don't understand it."

Marshayla Pittman, 14, said she appreciates the chance to raise her grade.

"When you get a (not yet), you haven't failed, you just haven't got it made yet," she said. "I think we learn different. They don't just put stuff on the board. You have to learn it yourself."

new discipline

The academy also is experimenting with a different form of discipline. Instead of suspending or expelling students, administrators pull the offending students into mediation sessions with other students or teachers, where they must talk through what they've done and how they could have acted differently.

Administrators say students no longer think of the mediation sessions as the easy way out, but some teachers still think the method allows students to get away with too much.

"We're taking baby steps. It's working, but it will be three years probably before it's really solid," Ms. Shanklin said. "It's not very consistent right now."

But in about two months, Ms. Bailey said she will begin recruiting for next year's teachers and students. Eligibility requirements for charter schools in Tennessee have opened up to allow low-income students to attend.

new leadership for next year

The school's board currently is searching for a new director, because next year Ms. Bailey will return to leadership of the Young Women's Leadership Academy Foundation, the school's fundraising organization.

Co-director Julie Davidson also will step down as director next year to become the dean of students.

"I'm thinking that if I came in next year, I'd be excited because the other people have already dealt with some of the hard stuff," Ms. Bailey said.