Northwood Middle School students often learn school news from closed-circuit broadcasts in their classrooms. That's how Principal Matt Schiebel chose to share the bad news last month.
Schiebel went to the school TV production classroom one afternoon and on camera told his 760 students that he has been reassigned to Shawnee Middle School beginning next fall. When he left the studio, he found the hallways lined with students and teachers, applauding and cheering the principal as he made his way past, trying not to cry.
What kind of administrator draws such a heartfelt tribute after just four years on the job? The answer is a clue to how Northwood excels in spite of odds stacked firmly against it.
Anyone who has ever attended school is an expert on how a school should be run. Trouble is, most schools today bear little resemblance to the schools they attended.
Northwood is a prime example. Opened in 1959, it was designed to serve the first wave of suburbia - an overwhelmingly white student population from families enjoying the benefits of a booming postwar economy, GI benefits and comfortable new split-level and ranch homes at the far north reaches of Fort Wayne, on Washington Center Road just west of Clinton Street.
Northwood today is a different place. There are still some white, middle-class students from the neighborhood but also immigrants and refugees from 26 countries - some of whom arrive speaking little or no English. More than two-thirds of its students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch - coming from homes where parents have low-paying jobs, have lost a job or worry that their jobs might end. About 130 students fall into the special education category - a classification that didn't exist in 1959, when students with learning disabilities were routinely excluded from classrooms. In short, Northwood has evolved from suburban to urban school, with all the attendant challenges.
But there's no sense of despair at Northwood. Instead, it's a thriving school that seems to embrace the colorful clamor of its economically, culturally and ethnically diverse student population, thanks largely to a principal who understands school isn't what it used to be. Schiebel has overhauled attitudes and expectations so that staff members and students embrace the school's oft-repeated goals of respect, effort and determination.
Spend some time with the 43-year-old principal and you quickly see how he made the transformation, beginning at the school's front door, where students pouring off buses congregate under a rainbow of banners representing their home countries.
“I always know when I'm missing one because a kid will let me know,” Schiebel says, glancing up at the flags. “I've got to get one for Puerto Rico.”
He greets students by name as he works the noisy crowd, pausing to stop a boy carrying a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi.
“James, my man! What's this for?” he asks, reaching for the bottle.
“Me, it's for me,” the student replies insistently.
“Whoa, no - we'll keep it in here. You can get it after school,” Schiebel says, stepping into the student services office.
The principal doesn't stop students with cell phones or iPods.
“I know some schools have a problem with it, but before school begins - what does it matter? We make them put them away once the bell rings, and I will take them if I see them after that, but what does it hurt if they listen to music before school? I read something once: A battle avoided is a battle won. That's how I feel about that.”
The same applies to chewing gum. Schiebel said one of his first staff meetings four years ago was sidetracked by an hour-long discussion. “We would argue passionately about gum-chewing or discipline, and I thought, ‘Why aren't we talking about the fact that 40 percent of our kids are reading below grade level?' ”
Schiebel's contribution has been to subtly and effectively move the conversation from chewing gum and “why aren't the kids learning what we teach them?” to “what are we doing wrong?” With careful coaching and encouragement, he has prompted teachers to abandon long-held teaching practices and rethink their instruction from a student perspective. (Monday's segment of this series is about a veteran teacher who after more than a dozen years made the adjustment. Tuesday's is about a student who came to Fort Wayne speaking no English.)
None of the strategies Northwood is using is unique. De-emphasizing homework comes from school consultant Richard Dufour's book, “Whatever It Takes.” Many of the classroom-management ideas are from teacher-training guru Fred Jones, and effective teachers have long employed differentiated instruction - lesson plans tailored to students at different learning levels. In practice, it keeps the low-level students from getting discouraged and the higher-ability students from getting bored.
While the concepts aren't original, what Schiebel has done is to ensure they've been carried out schoolwide.
“We've taken the best practices and made sure that everyone's on board,” he explains. “If you've only got 50 percent of your teachers using best practices - you've got a lot of inconsistencies. Everyone's got to have ownership.”
And it's showing success. For the third grading period this year - when grades traditionally slump - almost 50 percent of Northwood students earned honors or showed improvement. Only 17 students had more than one grade of F - the next closest middle school in the district had 71.
The school's performance on state and federal accountability measures gives a different - and wrong - view of Northwood, because those measures require students who don't speak English to take a test in English. But the public beating the school takes in being labeled a failing school doesn't seem to discourage the staff. Northwood teachers enthusiastically jump into conversations about effective teaching methods and classroom management. They are eager to share techniques that work for them and are critical of teachers who don't acknowledge that effective instruction puts students first.
That wasn't the case before Schiebel arrived in 2004. Earlier principals had the administrative skills but not the people skills necessary to transform the school. Schiebel is genuinely likable, with an enthusiasm and self-deprecating humor that puts everyone at ease. Talking with a teacher, he comes across more as a co-conspirator than a supervisor.
“I got her air conditioning for her classroom because the computers were shutting down,” he says of business technology teacher Georgianna Watkins - mock exasperation apparent in his voice and his smile. “Now she wants more!”
When he and assistant principal Daniel Senu-Oke go over student behavior problems, there are frequent references to the “Kum Ba Yah,” the African-American spiritual that serves as shorthand for everyone coming together - as in, “yeah, we talked and everybody kum-ba-yahed it.”
Schiebel's personable approach comes partly from his nature, partly from training. He was a member of Fort Wayne Community Schools' first administrative intern class, a program funded by a $5 million Wallace Foundation grant to improve educational leadership. Schiebel left his science classroom at Blackhawk Middle School in 2001 to work as an intern under Barbara Ahlersmeyer, then principal of the former Geyer Middle School.
Schiebel said it was his first experience in a school where he was in the minority, by race and economic class - and one that taught him that safety nets and interventions are needed in urban schools. The Wallace experience was invaluable, he said, for the relationships he built with fellow interns like Carlton Mable, now principal of Lakeside Middle School. It also immersed Schiebel in the latest educational practices through books, workshops and conferences.
When Northwood opened in 1959, principals were gruff disciplinarians who spent their days behind an office desk. Like schools overall, that role has changed. Schiebel is an effective school leader because he works tirelessly at supporting teachers, mentoring students, partnering with parents and community groups, advocating for the school and for the school district overall.
In making Schiebel's assignment at Shawnee, FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson is looking for him to turn around an underperforming school. Northwood teachers and students are disappointed at the loss, but their principal laid a strong foundation that will endure provided Northwood's next principal shares most of his traits and instructional talents. It's the reason why all schools - and especially those that serve children from poverty or the children of immigrants or refugees - need first-rate leaders.