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Underdog high school quietly turns a corner with its community

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Madison High School art teacher Joe Rozewski uses a cutting torch to tear through a sheet of metal in his bottom floor art class. Two years ago, Madison High School was tapped as a federal “turnaround” school — a sort of wake-up call for schools that were considered failing and in need of a major transformation.

Enter Madison Principal Petra Callin and a three-year school improvement grant of $3 million, a lifeline of sorts intended to pump some life into the sagging student performance.

Last week, the Madison community got one of its first major affirmations that something it has been doing in the past two years has been working. The school posted a 71 percent on-time graduation rate for the class of 2012, up from 55 percent last year.

That’s well above the district’s average of 63 percent (a one-point gain from last year, and third year of growth).

“I’ve had quite a few people ask me, ‘What’s the thing?’ “ says Callin, who’d served as interim and vice principal at Franklin High School before coming to Madison. She’s been with PPS since 1998, as an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher and specialist in the ESL/Bilingual department.

“There is no one thing,” Callin adds. “It’s complex. There’s a lot of different things.”

The success at Madison comes as the school absorbed 320 students and a dozen teachers from the shuttered Marshall Campus this past fall, which boosted Madison’s enrollment to 1,100.

That’s not far from the district’s goal for comprehensive high schools of 1,350.

The higher enrollment put Madison in line with the district’s other comprehensive high schools, in terms of staffing and program offerings. That was the intention of the new high school framework put in place last year, after much controversy.

Madison, however, has been quietly plugging along with its new community and underdog status, and the cash infusion didn’t hurt.

The federal grant funded several new positions at Madison, including a family and social services coordinator to help connect students to the support they need, such as mental health services or food boxes for their family.

There’s a student support coordinator who helps students retrieve the credits they need. An instructional specialist helps the staff align with the statewide Common Core standards and the district’s Smarter Balanced Assessments — the new teacher evaluation system. There’s also a new math coach, literacy coach, family engagement coordinator and a special education specialist.

And there’s money available to pay teachers in the summer and after school to work on curriculum and interventions.

All of the positions enable a new approach to help students avoid falling through the cracks, which inevitably leads to higher graduation rates.

“We’re getting better at designing and implementing interventions,” Callin says. “Instead of just waiting til the back end, we’re getting better at figuring out what they need in terms of support,” whether it’s classes in literacy, math, after-school tutoring, social services or credit recovery.

Labor of love

According to a PPS report on the progress of the high school framework, released in December, Madison has shown small but steady gains, including a 12 percentage point increase in Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) reading scores in 2011-12; and the same increase in students passing Algebra I/II.

One of the big questions with any grant is what happens after it expires. Some of the new positions at Madison won’t be needed after the three years, Callin says, but others, like the social services coordinator — will be critical to retain.

“A common problem is when schools show improvement, then get the rug pulled out from under them,” she says. “We see that it does not work — there needs to be some kind of vision for sustainability.”

Callin says she’s already looking for ways to replace that funding stream, such as through community partnerships.

As far as what’s next, Callin knows there’s infinite more work to do. She just wants the community to see the school for its merits, not assumptions based on its former image.

About 400 freshmen are in Madison’s neighborhood boundaries, and it’s important that those students come to Madison rather than transferring out, Callin says.

“We work really hard to connect with those families and kids,” she says; Madison leaders go to PTA meetings, host open houses for eighth-graders and visit eighth-grade classrooms.

They talk up some of the school’s hidden gems, including its one-of-a-kind fine-arts foundry, which art teacher Joe Rozewski runs as a labor of love.

“When I came down here, it was waste-deep in trash,” having long been decommissioned due to budget cuts, says

Rozewski, a sculptor who came to Madison six years ago. “I spent years clearing it out, fixing equipment, organizing and cleaning it.”

With the help of volunteers and six apprentices, he teaches students everything from welding and bronze casting to ceramics, raku, jewelry casting and a highly technical process called glass slumping, which involves shaping glass over molds at high temperatures.

“We have the only fine-arts foundry in the state of Oregon for public high school kids,” Rozewski says.

He’s been able to work by outfitting the shop with much of his own equipment and materials.

“It’s just sheer will and grit,” he says. “They give me like a dollar per student for supplies.”

Rozewski is also constantly raising money and connecting with local art galleries to ask for spots in a group show. Madison art students have shown their work at several galleries around town, where they receive the gallery’s commission for items sold.

“They get to see what it’s like to be part of an art community,” Rozewski says. “It’s a very cohesive, well-rounded experience for them. I treat them like young professional artists.”

The arts are big at Madison: 500 students are enrolled in visual arts classes, with another 189 in music and 42 in theater and stagecraft.

Callin wants people to know the full story on Madison before they start to judge it.

“I’m not blind to the fact that there’s perceptions out there that Madison is not a good place to be,” she says. “It’s important for us to dispel those myths.”

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