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Twenty years ago, John Marshall High School was improving until we were clobbered by the “Year from Hell,” as our long-suffering principal called it. The deaths of five current and recent students were the worst tragedies. Three times that year, I had intense, seemingly constructive, conversations with teens who were dead a few hours later.

When the 1998-99 year began, my focus was the National Board Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), a rigorous and thoughtful program for improving instruction. This enabled me to conduct a detailed, data-driven account of our classwork and a record of the wonderful learning experiences, which were ultimately overwhelmed by tragedies and the resulting anarchy. But we were soon defeated by two policy errors, as well as the unanticipated result of the expansion of choice schools. The 20th anniversary of the year thus holds important lessons for today’s school improvement efforts.

The unforced error of packed classrooms

The rise of OKCPS magnet schools was inevitable and mostly beneficial. When I first arrived at Marshall in 1993, however, I was stunned by the number of awesome teachers and students. When Classen SAS and Northeast Academy became application schools, however, they quickly “creamed” most of the best teacher and student leaders. More importantly, Northeast students came from different gang turfs, and we were incapable of meeting the needs of 100 new freshmen.

The district also made an unforced error by ignoring the advice of educators, introducing “A/B block scheduling,” where we had different 90-minute classes on “A” and “B” days. On my “B” days, at first it was hard to believe the bad news from other parts of the school. While my students were learning at an ambitious level, we repeatedly heard chairs being thrown upstairs and shouts from chaotic classrooms.

We started “A” days with a wonderful class of 20 freshmen. Until January’s second semester when large numbers of students from alternative schools arrived unannounced at Marshall, every class was absolutely joyful and inspiring. With my next classes, the kids left the anarchy of several 100-minute first-hour classes to come to my freshman class of 37. By the time my 43 freshmen arrived for third hour, many had gone through three hours of chaos, and everyone had been through at least 90 minutes without a teacher or without any semblance of order. My national certification application reported that most of my freshmen came from, and left to, classes of around 40.

Virtually every day, I walked the halls, wondering how the things I was seeing could be real. Then I’d join with fellow teachers breaking up fights, such as the time when we pushed through a crowd in the cafeteria to a student who was stomped unconscious by the time we reached him.

Conversations with “Andrew,” as I will call him, foreshadowed the upcoming tragedies. Andrew was a great leader in my class, but we were conversing after he had been kicked out of another one. He recalled his best friend’s murder in Bedford Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.

There, Andrew would smoke marijuana, watch PBS nature shows and then look out his window at life in the projects. He often drew the comparison between life and death in the jungle as revealed in those documentaries and the human struggle in the streets. Then Andrew laughed at the absurdity of leaving Brooklyn to get away from the projects only to land in a chaotic Oklahoma City school.

What a lack of alternative education slots meant

Our principal was at her best during the hellacious year. She had always been decisive in a life-and-death crisis. By February, she recognized that something major had to be done to restore order. We studied the files of the 96 students with the worst records of disruptions and the 36 students (about 3 percent of the student body) who would be subject to Long Term Suspension if the official policy were enforced.

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I am convinced that our principal ably represented the school when asking the central office for authority to enforce our code of conduct. But we later learned a crucial reason why John Marshall was placed in an impossible situation. The official “needs assessment” filed with the state, using a research-based formula, indicated that the school system needed an additional 1,205 alternative education slots. During 1998, slots were cut by more than 10 percent to only 485.

My planning periods were after lunch. During the spring of that year, I was able to help the girls softball team and see what was happening outside the building. By then, hundreds of students would cut class every day and hang out near the ball fields.

I would take advantage of those daily opportunities to engage individuals, but there was no chance of addressing the overall situation. Several times I gave into morbid curiosity, went inside the school and searched for functional classes. Almost nobody was able to conduct class after lunch. Several times I witnessed a surge of students pouring out of their classrooms, resulting in hundreds of kids meandering through the halls.

Then the tragic killings at Columbine created an impetus for change. Suddenly, chronically disruptive students were suspended to study at home, and the school achieved a soft landing of sorts.

Result of reforms can be a coin flip

Looking back, I’ve witnessed successful reforms that produced incremental improvements and unsuccessful reforms that caused some damage. The real disasters, however, have always come from unintended effects of big policy goofs. That’s why, 20 years later, I remain agnostic about whether the OKCPS can learn from its history. But emotional conversations with students kept me in the classroom.

For instance, my 1998-1999 NBPTS application recorded a great freshman class discussion. A student I’ll call LQ interrupted and asked, “You aren’t going to leave us, are you?” She and her classmates then said they knew all of the best teachers had left for the magnet schools. They were even upset that teachers who could not control their classes had begun to quit and/or search for jobs in the suburbs. “Annie,” however, reassured the class that I could not leave because I loved them.

Twenty years later, I still love them.

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