Lessons Learned from Ruby Bridges Elementary

As principals change, opinion on city’s newest school 

Jan Goodman recently retired after eight years as principal of Ruby Bridges Elementary School. Her retirement came with some well-deserved praise; this at the same time we are evaluating the eye-opening decision by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu. In the Vergara v. California case, Treu said current teacher tenure policies in California are unconstitutional.  

The rationale for Treu’s decision was essentially that tenure allows a large number of poorly performing teachers to remain in their jobs with many of them assigned to high-poverty schools resulting in unequal education opportunities.

Ruby Bridges Elementary (RBE) has, from its beginning in 2006, ranked in the high-poverty category with 50 percent of its students at or near the poverty level. Such schools are also often Title 1 schools that receive additional federal funding.  

Over the past few years RBE has trailed behind the top three performing elementary schools in Alameda, (Earhart, Bay Farm and Edison), by more than 100 points on both the language and math API tests.  

We could then say this is a “failed school” as measured by federal and state standards and subject to performance enhancement programs, including staff changes. That term does not seem to apply to RBE since when measured against schools with similar demographics it has outperformed them on state tests since its second year. 

This achievement should be applauded as principal Goodman did when praising her remarkable staff. 

Can we then conclude that staff and administrators are not the issue at RBE, and possibly other similar schools, since demographics are what is being measured, and not the quality, experience, skills or even the tenure status of its staff? 

Would RBE be able to close their 100-point gap if they had a different faculty, or would they achieve this if their students came from a different demographic, one more like that which the top-scoring Alameda elementary schools enjoy? 

Changing demographics is a long and difficult process, and one that the education community can be a part of, but not one for which it should bear the major responsibility. 

Public school teachers have always needed to deal with the student body that arrives at the schoolhouse door. 

For the most part they continue to do quite well for the almost 90 percent of all U.S. students who attend public schools. Recent polls have shown that nearly two-thirds of parents are satisfied with their public schools including their teachers and principals. 

We need to be careful that we don’t destroy what has been working, such as what we have seen at RBE, as we lurch towards radical solutions to problems that are not ones that can be solved by the education community alone.

Hugh Cavanaugh lives in Alameda.